Monday, April 23, 2007

Victim obsession leading to MORE oppression, not less in modern Britain

On 30 March 2007, Aishah Azmi, the Muslim teaching assistant sacked over her refusal to stop wearing the veil in the classroom, lost her controversial appeal at an employment tribunal in Leeds, England. The 24-year-old from Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, courted media attention for almost a year since coming into dispute with Headfield Church of England Junior School, which said that it decided to sack her over concerns that the veil prevented children from being able to understand what she was saying.

Over the last few months, the veiled face of Aishah Azmi has served as a totemic reminder of the tensions emanating from new religious discrimination and religious hatred laws in Britain. While some media commentators have seen Azmi's case as a pressing reminder of the need for a law to protect vulnerable religious minorities, others have seen it as a sop to grievance culture, encouraging individuals to make unreasonable demands in court.

In his new book, Religious Discrimination and Hatred Law, Neil Addison provides the first comprehensive survey of legislation concerning religion in diverse areas such as criminal law, discrimination, employment and harassment, and charts the growing role of courts in regulating this messy dimension of society. A practising barrister for over 20 years, Addison is concerned about the expansion of the law into a complicated moral aspect of human life, and fears that a new generation of laws will remove people's powers to criticise, challenge or defend their religious (or non-religious) views. He campaigned vociferously against the law outlawing incitement to religious hatred (see Divided before the law, by Neil Addison ) and has also set up his own website offering free information and advice to the public.

Addison considers the first generation of anti-discrimination laws established in the 1970s (for example, the Race Relations Act 1976 and the Sex Discrimination Act 1975) to be largely benevolent, reasonable and narrow in their focus. However, he reserves serious criticism for the second generation of anti-discrimination laws, which have proliferated in the past 10 years culminating with the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 and the Equality Act 2006. These developments, Addison argues, significantly expand the reach of the law beyond areas of fixed identity, to areas such as religious belief and sexual orientation, which presume a level of choice and changeability. `Suddenly', he says, `religion is becoming a very political area'.

Addison sees the expansion of law into the terrain of religion as part of `a new type of philosophy': `We used to have laws because we considered them necessary, but now it seems we have laws because they are desirable.. If something is regarded as good or bad, we use the law to direct it. In effect, we're trying to legislate morality.' For Addison, the law has now become a tool for some groups to impose their moral positions on others, whether it is the ban on smoking or the ban on foxhunting or restrictions on what we can say about minority groups. `I have met a number of campaigners, for instance in the gay rights movement, who talk about using the law to "send a message". But the law is not the right way to send a message. Politics is.'

This heavy-handed use of the law to enforce a new morality is something Addison objects strongly to. In 2005, he represented Joe and Helen Roberts, an elderly Christian couple from Fleetwood, Lancashire, who were visited by two local police officers after they had telephoned their local council's diversity officer to complain about the council's pro-gay policies. The couple, who had never been in trouble with the law before, were subjected to an 80-minute lecture by the police officers about homophobia. Last year the couple sued the police and council using the Human Rights Act 1998 and eventually won an apology and damages.

Addison says that the most depressing part of the whole incident is that at no point during the initial telephone conversation with the couple did the council's diversity officer try to persuade them of his viewpoint. `Instead of taking the opportunity to argue with them, as should happen in a democracy, the diversity officer called the police in order to suppress views he disagreed with.'

The problem with using the iron standard of the law to enforce moral positions is that it does not always deliver morally satisfactory or consistent results. How can one determine through the law what is `hateful' speech, what causes great offence, and what is `reasonable'? If a woman wearing a hijab is attacked by someone who shouts `I hate you f*cking Muslims', then the defendant would be charged with religiously aggravated assault. But what would happen if a Muslim shopkeeper regarded Muslim women who did not wear the hijab to be bad Muslims and refused to serve them in his shop? Is that discrimination against a religion or an argument within a religion?

In terms of constituting the boundaries of acceptable religious belief, it seems inappropriate for judges to be left to decide. Addison spends the first chapter of his book teasing out the apparently simple question `What is religion?' - only to show that there is surprisingly little consistency on this question across different legislation. Addison demonstrates that courts rely inevitably on subjective instinct. In the words of the US Supreme Court Justice who was asked to define pornography: `I can't define it; but I know it when I see it.'

Consequently, the goalposts keep shifting on the issue of what constitutes a political or philosophical belief worthy of protection. In 2005, an individual lost his case at an employment tribunal for being refused a job interview because he was a member of the far-right British National Party (BNP). The tribunal decided that his membership of the BNP did not qualify for protection. However, the slightly different wording of the Equality Act 2006 means that such views, which are political, might now be protected as `philosophical beliefs'.

What has been the impact of these different laws in court? Although for any campaigner it is always tempting to sensationalise and extrapolate worst-case scenarios about new laws and policies, Addison, to his credit, examines the way in which judges and lawyers actually operate (mostly exercising a reasonable sense of proportion) and suggests the subtle ways in which the law will work on a day-to-day basis. He is cautious about offering a prediction about the effect of newer legislation. `It is quite early to may be that all these laws will be a damp squib.'

But, he says, the weight given to subjective factors such as how the victim feels may be a greater encouragement for people to bring claims. In discrimination cases, there is a reverse burden of proof, which means employers need to offer evidence to show they have not broken the law. In reality, judges still require significant persuasion before they will award a claimant damages, but this shift in the law means it is increasingly hard for the accused to be treated as innocent until proven guilty. `Once the accusation is made, it tends to stick', says Addison. Also, there is now a greater risk that the law will be used as a political tool. `Now this legislation is in place, it is possible that ideologically driven groups may go looking for cases to fight.'

The new Commission for Equality and Human Rights (CEHR) will start to operate in October, under the helm of Trevor Phillips. It will have significant new powers to investigate virtually any organisation, place orders on them and take legal action. Because this is under discrimination rather than criminal law, these organisations (which may include churches, charities and community centres) will not be entitled to legal aid. Whereas the original equalities bodies (such as the Commission for Racial Equality that preceded the CEHR) were expected to enforce the existing law, the CEHR has an added duty (Section 3, Equality Act 2006) to `encourage and support the development of a society' in which there is equality, respect for diversity and human rights. In other words, it is not merely a law enforcer, but a body with legal powers to enforce its view of the kind of society we ought to be. A practicing Catholic, Addison believes that by adopting a `Zero Tolerance' approach to any manifestation or expression of discrimination, the CEHR will repeat the mistakes of the Spanish Inquisition which famously said that `Heresy has no Rights'.

It may be hard to tell how the CEHR will operate, and how many cases will eventually be brought to court. But the chilling effect on how groups engage with wider society can already be guessed at. One of the negative consequences of the law, Addison suggests, will spring from its insistence on all religions treating other religions equally; a well-meaning idea which paradoxically could actually discourage mainstream religious cooperation. For instance, if a church lets a local Hindu community group use its premises for services then it may be in difficulties about refusing to let a Pagan group use the premises also. Perversely, the law builds in a disincentive for churches and other institutions to open themselves up to some groups, in case they are then forced to open their doors to other groups that they dislike. Although such examples may appear far-fetched, the law has an all too familiar effect of making people `watch their backs' and think twice before making decisions.

Also, because subjective factors are taken into account, different groups are given no incentive to `live and let live'; rather, the more hurt and offended they feel, the more onus there will be on the law to protect them. If a religious group shows tolerance and forbearance of its critics, it will receive far less protection from the courts than another group that protests loudly.

The driver behind the new legislation, Addison tells me, is a new culture of victimhood, in which lobby groups representing particular identities compete to receive the most protection. `Every time you legislate to prevent one type of discrimination, another group demands protection', he says. It is widely known that Muslim lobby groups (particularly the Muslim Council of Britain) were the most vociferous in pushing for the law against the incitement to religious hatred. Their argument rested on a claim for parity with Christianity, which was formally protected by the ancient law of blasphemy - though, as Addison points out, the blasphemy law is all but defunct. The last public prosecution was in 1922 and the last private prosecution was brought by Mary Whitehouse in 1977.

Though a practising Catholic himself, Addison believes that the blasphemy law should simply have been repealed rather than remaining as a perceived, but in reality meaningless, special protection to Christianity. In reality, people today can say pretty much anything they like about Christianity and the police will not lift a finger. However, the law against the incitement to religious hatred is more likely to be enforced, simply because it is new, and the Crown Prosecution Service must take this into account when making judgements on whether a prosecution is `in the public interest'. A law that many people thought was outdated and unnecessary has been used to justify the creation of a law that will be enforced more rigorously by prosecutors.

Addison says that in the competitive culture of victimhood, even mild-mannered Christians are beginning to play the discrimination card, following the example of Muslim lobby groups. More generally, the emphasis in the law on discrimination, Addison believes, is part of a broader emphasis on difference. People are encouraged to emphasise their differences and `insist on their rights', rather than being encouraged to find accommodation with others by negotiation and persuasion. `The danger is that instead of seeing ourselves as citizens in the same society, we are trying to create a hierarchy of victimhood with more and more groups defining themselves as victims and demanding special protection.'

Although many campaigners regard the new laws relating to religious discrimination as a sign of modernity, in some ways they mark a return to medieval thinking about freedom. Instead of deciding amongst ourselves through political argument and the give-and-take of debate, the law has become a way of closing down discussion and taking that decision out of our hands. Ironically, Aishah Azmi's `personal' decision to wear the veil was said to have been made as a result of a fatwa issued by a cleric at her mosque. The notion that the law should legitimise this kind of authority over the private sphere of belief is creeping into the fabric of our own legal system.


Why are blacks madder?

The article below shows a realization that it is not all "racism" and realizes that social class is a major missing factor but overlooks the role of IQ. Low IQ people are much more likely to resort to aggression to get what they want and aggression is the major factor in whether someone gets locked up or not. So blacks tend to be both working class and of low IQ -- so they are characterized by two factors which lead to detention in any population

For all its claims to be a multicultural society, a form of apartheid is said to be looming in Britain. According to Lord Patel, chairman of the Mental Health Act Commission, within the British mental health system there is one form of care and treatment for whites and another, more coercive and less therapeutic, for blacks (1). But the truth may be far more complex.

Lord Patel was responding to a census report that found that black people were over-represented within psychiatric care. The Healthcare Commission survey, titled `Count Me In', looked at the ethnic background of the 32,023 psychiatric in-patients in England and Wales as of 31 March 2006. The census found that black people were three to four times more likely to be hospitalised than their white counterparts, accounting for 21 per cent of in-patients, even though only making up seven per cent of the general population. (If the ethnic category of `black other', is isolated, the differential rises to 18-to-one (2).)

Given such statistics, it is not surprising that the psychiatric services once again stand accused of institutional racism. The term `institutional racism' with regard to the mental health system came to prominence with the report of the inquiry into the death of David `Rocky' Bennett (pictured above). Bennett, a black patient, died while being physically restrained by nurses at a Norfolk psychiatric clinic. The subsequent inquiry report concluded that racist assumptions and practices had contributed to his death, and stated that institutional racism was `a festering abscess, a blot on the good name of the NHS' (3).

In response to the above, the government has pledged to `eradicate discrimination' in NHS mental health provision. Louis Appleby, the national director for mental health, stated that work was under way to win the trust and confidence of black minority ethnic communities. For him, this was necessary to `better understand the wider social factors that result in some communities experiencing a higher rate of mental illness' (4).

Kwame McKenzie, professor of mental health and society at the University of Central Lancashire, argues that being black in Britain is detrimental to your mental health, and that once your mental state has deteriorated to an acute level you will receive more coercive and discriminatory treatment than your white counterparts (5). Accusations of institutional racism would appear to be well founded. However, a closer look at the issue shows the reality to be more complex than is often reported, and also highlights the danger of pathologising whole communities under the guise of therapeutic aid.

It would be foolish to ignore the role of psychiatry in upholding dominant social mores. Like many professions it has a chequered history when it comes to issues of race, perhaps the most infamous example being the creation of a `disease' called `drapetomania' - a condition said to affect black people who tried to escape slavery. And the recent census merely confirms many similar findings into the over-representation of black people in the mental health system (6).

Nevertheless, it is naive, simplistic and problematic to blame institutional racism for such a situation. For example, the 21 per cent `non-white' group includes a variety of ethnic groups, including Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, White Irish and `Other White'. And whilst it is the case that Afro-Caribbeans are over-represented, other groups such as the Indian and Chinese communities are under-represented. Such discrepancies indicate that there is more to this than `race'.

Whilst the reasons for the differentials are complex, it is possible to highlight some relevant factors, including the marginalisation of social class; the fragmentation inherent within multiculturalism; and the rise of the therapeutic professional as the cure for society's problems.

For example, the fact that most sufferers are unemployed would indicate that social class is a factor in the onset of severe mental distress. Yet while the `Count Me In' census recorded such factors as ethnicity, age and even sexual orientation, social class was conspicuous by its absence. This is revealing in that it illustrates the way our understanding of social problems today tends to be viewed in ethnic or pathological terms rather than the class conflict of yesteryear.

In the process, there is a real danger that whole communities, especially black ones, are being portrayed as victims without agency, awaiting the arrival of mental health professionals to cure them of their ills. Kwame McKenzie notes that `psychotic illnesses are associated with poverty, poor education, racism, living in a city. family break up, and cannabis use'. If this is the case, and the associations are extremely complex, then the answer would appear to lie in the realm of the social, rather than the preventative therapy for children and adolescents advocated by McKenzie (7). Improving communities' access to jobs, education and welfare might be a better bet than treating them as ill and in need of special attention and care.

The other main strategy, and one recommended by the inquiry report into the death of Rocky Bennett, is to improve the `cultural awareness' of mental health staff. But this is to confuse the more minor failings in his care with the more tragic. As Errol Francis of the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health, who gave evidence to the Bennett Inquiry, points out: `How much cultural awareness training does a nurse require before they realise that too much force will kill?' (8)

The experience of racism, poor housing and employment opportunities, and the pathologising of that experience, are nothing new for black people living in Britain. What is new is how such problems are articulated. In the 1980s, riots in Bristol, Manchester, Liverpool and London saw physical expression given to black marginalisation. Partly in response to this, the government accelerated the idea of multiculturalism, with funds and projects being set up on the basis of ethnic identity.

Could there be a link here? As identity became ever more fragmented around ethnicity, the way to secure funding was not by emphasising collective strength but particular vulnerability and hardship. In addition, the emphasis on difference implied that we had little in common with each other, our neighbours becoming threatening strangers rather than supportive allies. It is unlikely that such processes are conducive to a robust mental state.

Of course, when someone's mental state deteriorates to the point that professional help is necessary, they should receive appropriate and sensitive care. Awareness by staff of their needs is essential, but these will not always fit as neatly within the ethnic identity template that the authorities want to put us in. The categorisation of people as ethnic identities with certain cultural requirements implies a homogenous, timeless culture that can be as inaccurate as it can be patronising. The answer to most of these problems lies within and between communities. Improved social conditions and relationships of trust will improve the mental health of everyone - not just black people - far better than any `preventative' psychiatric intervention.


Britain: Using environmentalism to make a buck (or a pound!)

Not many revolutions start with cheese and onion crisps, but this week they led the charge into carbon footprint labelling as Walkers tried out the Next Big Thing in the battle to drive the green agenda. Retailers are clamouring to demonstrate their green credentials and answer demands for more information about the energy involved in producing the weekly shop. Research by the Carbon Trust has found that two thirds of consumers say that they want to know the carbon footprint of the products they buy.

However, carbon labelling could be in danger of descending into the same farcical situation as nutritional labelling, with competing schemes run by rival retailers making it difficult for consumers to know which one to trust. Ian Cheshire, chief executive of B&Q, told a forum on ethical business at the World Retail Congress in Barcelona: "This is an issue on which retailers need to agree an industry standard but at the moment companies are working on a variety of separate schemes."

Tesco, the UK's largest retailer, announced plans with great fanfare in January to develop a "commonly understood measure" of the amount of carbon emissions related to every product sold. The supermarket said that it wanted to develop a Sustainable Consumption Institute to lead the project and commissioned the Environmental Change Institute (ECI) at Oxford University to help to devise a measurement scheme. Tesco insisted that it wanted to "collaborate with others around the world" on the project and convened a meeting with rival retailers J Sainsbury and Marks & Spencer, as well as its suppliers Unilever and PepsiCo to help to discuss how things might progress. A further meeting of about 20 stakeholders including rival retailers and suppliers is set for early next month at the ECI. Sir Terry Leahy, Tesco's chief executive, said this week that he expected to have some products labelled by January. "We are getting a favourable reaction from other retailers and from around the world. It is probably the most remarkable communication we have ever made," he said.

However, Sainsbury's, M&S, Boots and a number of other companies have already been working with the Carbon Trust, a government-backed body dedicated to helping businesses to cut their carbon emissions, on a labelling scheme. Boots, Walkers and Innocent drinks have committed themselves to testing the Carbon Trust-backed scheme and its logo will become increasingly apparent in stores over the next few months. Marks & Spencer also has just completed a project with the Carbon Trust to map the emissions generated by its food products, although the retailer believes that it is some years away from being able confidently to label goods.

The Carbon Trust's scheme attempts to calculate and represent the amount of carbon emissions generated in the production of an item and examines the supply chain behind a product. It includes a commitment to reduce the carbon footprint of the product over time. If the producer cannot demonstrate it has reduced carbon emissions over a two-year period, it will no longer be allowed to use the label. Euan Murray, strategy manager for the Carbon Trust, said that the organisation was working with other groups of companies and aimed to announce further trials in the next few months. He said that, although Tesco was carrying out its own research, "they see the world very much as we do and we are trying to create a single way of measuring carbon footprints of products which we think is critical to the success of the venture".

Sir Terry said that Tesco was "keen to work with everybody" and insisted that retailers were not headed for a re-enactment of the traffic light nutrional labelling debacle. However, he pointed out that the scheme he envisaged was slightly different from the Carbon Trust's proposed concept because it aimed to take into account the carbon used during consumption. "We are not trying to gain competitive advantage on the thing," Sir Terry said. "You have got to start the process. There is a danger if you went for a single standard that it would never get off the ground. "The danger of trying to be too prescriptive is that you lock flaws in. It is better to be a little more flexible until things are on track and people have more experience of them."


Incompetent British ambulance service

Patients are less likely to be treated by a paramedic in London than in Wales, government figures show. Nationally, only half of front-line ambulance staff are fully trained paramedics, according to figures released under the Freedom of Information Act. London has the lowest percentage of paramedics, at 34 per cent, and Wales the best, at 61 per cent. There are also concerns that a preoccupation with meeting the Government's target of answering life-threatening calls within eight minutes is putting lives at danger.

The ambulance service will today tell Tonight with Trevor McDonald on ITV1 that meeting the target is a higher priority than sending the appropriate staff member. Most ambulances are staffed by emergency medical technicians, who carry less specialist equipment than a paramedic.


Britain does NOT support its troops: "The defence secretary, Des Browne, is facing accusations that the government has put cost-cutting before the welfare of the services by failing to remedy safety faults that led to a Nimrod spy plane blowing up over Afghanistan. The Sunday Times has established that a fleet of refurbished Nimrods will contain the same ageing and leaking fuel systems that caused last year's disaster in which 14 crew died. The decision to keep the system, which will reduce the cost of the revamped jets, comes despite repetitions of the leaks that caused the explosion. A Nimrod returned to base recently with seven tons of fuel "sloshing around" after it leaked into its bomb bay. Andy Knight, whose brother Sergeant Ben Knight, 25, was one of the men killed, said: "The Ministry of Defence was prepared to risk the loss of a 70 million pound-plus jet and its crew, rather than spending the money needed to make the fleet safe. "I have seen nothing since the accident that suggests it has changed its stance."

Huge British voting fraud: "More than 1m "ghost" voters have been uncovered who threaten to undermine the result of next month's local council elections. An analysis by Britain's electoral watchdog has estimated that there are at least 1m and possibly up to 3.5m people whose names appear on the electoral roll even though they are ineligible to vote. The disclosure will fuel concerns over the extent of electoral fraud, which critics claim the government has down-played in order to extend postal voting, which benefits Labour candidates. The names include illegal immigrants, bogus voters, foreign residents and those who are registered at more than one address. Officials fear that in marginal areas, election results could be affected by abuse of "ghost" votes. The Electoral Commission is using pollster GfK NOP to interview thousands of voters to accurately quantify the level of fraudulent voting"

1 comment:

surfer said...

In the Middle East, there are deserts and when the wind blows, the sand gets into the eys. Not only do the women veil themselves but also the men. That is actually the real purpose.