Thursday, 27 December 2012

A Bigot is for life, not just for Christmas

This Christmas, instead of the traditional platitudes about peace on earth and loving each other, the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster used his festive address to attack same sex marriage - again. And a High Court judge joined in.

One thing these two have in common is an interesting use of statistics. I've already written about how equalities are not a numbers game. Either a group of people is equal to others or they are not, regardless of how many of them there are. This is perhaps the most important point to be made when numbers are being brandished as the killer blow in an argument - although it is important to point out where statistics are being abused.

High Court judge Sir Paul Coleridge thinks the government shouldn't be wasting its time: "So much energy and time has been put into this debate for 0.1% of the population, when we have a crisis of family breakdown".

Statistics on the percentage of the population identifying as lesbian, gay or bisexual vary but nowhere is a figure this low cited. Not everyone feels comfortable reporting their sexuality, but as a rough indicator of how wrong the judge is, in 2006, the first full year of civil partnerships, there were 231,454 marriages and 16,100 civil partnership between LGB people. That works out as 6.96% as a comparative proportion.

Archbishop Vince Nichols claims that during a "period of listening" held by the government, those who responded were "7-1 against same-sex marriage".

However, the government consultation run earlier this year found that 53% were in favour. This took account of the petitions received as well as 228,000 direct consultation responses, including the huge petition opposing any change from the Coalition for Marriage.

Within the consultation itself, 63% said religious marriage ceremonies should be available to everyone.

I've written before about the consultation and the religious opposition, despite the fact that the government has made it clear that no churches or other places of worship will have to perform gay marriages.

Vince Nichols also tries another tack, claiming that a change in law would not be democratic. He claims that "There was no announcement in any party manifesto, no Green Paper, no statement in the Queen's Speech. And yet here we are on the verge of primary legislation. From a democratic point-of-view, it's a shambles. George Orwell would be proud of that manoeuvre, I think the process is shambolic."

He is basically accusing the government of sneaking legislation through against the wishes of the electorate.

However, on May 3 2010, three days before the general election, the (shadow) equalities minister Theresa May launched the Tory's contract for equalities which included the plan to introduce same sex marriage. The section on civil partnerships states “We will also consider the case for changing the law to allow civil partnerships to be called and classified as marriage.”

If people wanted to vote differently based on this sole issue, they had time to make that decision. Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone has tackled the nonsense of this claim in her blog.

Democratically-elected MPs will be allowed a free vote and the Bill is expected to be introduced in the New Year. As this letter to the Telegraph shows, the MPs and Lords against gay marriage are very much in the minority.

It's not clear what the Archbishop thinks would constitute a democratic process. Legislation by petition? His version of democracy is more akin to a theocracy where a tiny minority made of religious leaders and fundamentalist believers rules the rest of the population. If the government were being truly Orwellian, the law would have been changed without any consultation or vote and history would have been rewritten to remove any trace of the previous status quo. When Nichols says Orwellian, what he means is 'legislation I don't like'. That's the trouble with democracy, you don't always get your own way. On the up side, you do get the freedom of speech to express your Yuletide bigotry.

The Pope used a Christmas address to say that gay marriage will 'destroy the very essence of the human creature'. He doesn't need to use dodgy statistics because he has a direct line to God and is never wrong.

31 December update: Vince Nichols is at it again. He has latched on to this like a ferret and will not let go until his teeth meet.

Monday, 17 December 2012

The mind of a killer

It's traditional to tell horror stories at Christmas. This year, the media have got a real live one.

The media are falling over themselves trying to 'understand' why 20 children were killed at Newtown. Hacks, amateurs and psychologists who should know better are speculating about the motives and mental state of the killer.

We need a reason and we need to know that Adam Lanza was a monster, not 'normal'. Not like us or anyone we know so we can keep the horror at arms' length. All of this speculation is like the stories small children tell themselves when they're scared of the dark. They're comforting.

The monstering of this child-killer who was little more than a child himself is the same as the monstering of child abusers. We need to know they have the mark of Cain on them but now that 'evil' alone is not a reason that many of us accept (or that sells papers), we have to resort to psychology, or what passes for it. (I wrote about the problem with blaming evil here).

The best the media have come up with so far is the fact that he was shy and didn't have a Facebook page. Unless Adam Lanza left a detailed written explanation for his actions, we may never know why he did it, which is something that discomfits the media and a lot of us.

The worst the media have come up with includes details of how he shot his mother in the face, that the school principal should have had a high-power rifle in her office, self-proclaimed 'heart-wrenching' photos, blaming Lanza's 'paranoid gun-crazed mother', confusing his alleged Asperger's with mental illness. And on. And on.

President Obama has said that the dead children were 'called to God', another comforting fiction. America's current principal God was bound to be dragged into it at some point and Obama's narrative is one way of forestalling 'why did God let this happen?', of making sure everyone knows his god is one of the good guys in this story. Except, what kind of bastard god kills children for reasons we mere humans are not privy to as he moves in mysterious ways? Obama didn't mention whether this god of his had also called the six adults who were killed.

The focus on why Lanza did it is also a convenient distraction from how he did it. With guns. Legal guns. For us in the UK, gun laws are not a key issue, so the media focus on the deaths. The fact that one of the dead children was British gives them an excuse they don't need to wallow in their foetid mire.

The list of American school shootings is a very long one. And every killer did it for a different reason or complex set of reasons and circumstances. Even if Lanza's motivation is understood, it won't stop the next one. Does it matter why he did it? Should someone have spotted the signs? There's going to be a lot of 20/20 hindsight, a mixture of accusations against society and individuals or the shrugging off of accusations (by the NRA, for example).

There's also a kind of 'it wouldn't happen here' self-reassurance being promoted by certain parts of the media so we can tuck our children into bed feeling superior to the gun-toting frontier mentality of the colonials.

It's a very human response to feel for the bereaved and to need to know, to understand, but this need can infantilize us, make us content with bedtime stories to ward off the monsters, real or imagined. Meanwhile, the media have given themselves a big fat Christmas present.