Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Discourse Theory and Parenting - Deconstructing the Social Construct

For this post, I will don my amateur anthropologist hat (it's a pink sombrero if you're interested) and attempt to examine how the social phenomenon of "Parenting" (the capital P is important) has been shaped by the language we use to discuss it and how this influences the decisions we make about raising our children.

Before we get our teeth into the subject matter, I'd like to define a few of the terms which will crop up here and there. This is purely because today's post is written from an Anthropological perspective, which is great if you're an Anthropologist and understand the social theory behind my ideas. If you've never even glanced over them, however, they just don't make sense! It took me a while to get my head around some of the themes and perspectives I studied during my degree. 

  • Discourse theory - specifically "discursive formation" as outlined by Michél Foucault. The essence of this is that the language surrounding an idea is itself an integral element of its construction. Everything abstract exists as a product of the exchange of thought processes which created it.
That still sounds like complete nonsense, doesn't it? Yeah, I thought so too. Let's look at it in practice. Teenagers didn't exist pre-World War Two. Obviously they did exist, in that there were living people aged between 13 and 19 but they weren't "teenagers" as we know them today. The modern teenager - in his scruffy clothes, obnoxious attitude, untidy bedroom and general misanthropic outlook has been entirely constructed by post-war social ideas. Prior to this, adolescents were miniature adults, often out working, rarely in school past the age of 14 (in the case of working class families) but the idea of hormone-ridden, juveniles skulking round the streets in hooded tops and trainers just wasn't there in any form (further reading: Language, Class & Identity - Teenagers Fashioning Themselves Through Language)

It is the exchange of concepts through dialogue that shapes such a social phenomenon as The Teenager. The word 'teen age' (adj) itself first appeared in writing in a Canadian publication dated 1921, but was enclosed in quotation marks, signifying that it wasn't a fully integrated entry into the dictionary or normal language. From the late 1940s and early 1950s, "teen-age" began to appear in newspaper articles and was eventually included in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1950-something (I will find an actual date for that at some stage, promise!). Don't even get me started on "emo"!

George Orwell exploited this idea of the power of language and how it shapes concepts in his novel 'Nineteen Eighty-Four'. In the text, he creates "Newspeak" and "Doublethink" (combined in later linguistic theory to form "doublespeak"), which are effectively the two ways in which 'Big Brother' and  'the Party' have reduced the English language right down to a skeleton form; words have simply been removed from the lexicon in order to extinguish the concepts which they represent. In practice, this would mean that by removing the word "revolution" from the language, it ceases to exist as an idea and thus there can be no social uprising against the government. Doublethink is the mental process accompanying the implementation of Newspeak, in which the user is simultaneously aware that the truth has been altered and that the 'new' truth is now the only truth. If you haven't read 'Nineteen Eighty-Four', you really should. It's an excellent insight into how we use language. 

Anyway, I digress. The point is that there are lots of ways in which you can explore the role of language and discourse in forming, sustaining and eliminating social phenomena. 

Are you still with me? Well done! Now for another one...

  • Cultural/social construct -  this isn't dissimilar to how I've defined discourse theory. It's another expression of how events and phenomena only exist as a product of the exchanges which have defined them and characteristics that have been attributed to them. This extends beyond the language (discourse) though and looks at social norms and values, shared understandings across social groups.
Again, to put it into practice - gender roles are a cultural construct, as opposed to being innately defined by our biology. "Gender" is obviously a biological fact - a person's DNA will either express them as being Male or Female, but how that is expressed throughout their social lives is constructed BY the society in which they live. There is nothing in my biology which says that I, as the woman, must take charge of the housework in our home while my husband goes out to work - but this is the expected norm because my role as a woman has been decided by shared understandings, passed on from one generation to another. A 'stay at home dad' is regarded as quite the exception, because it goes against the cultural construct of the man's gender role.

Got me? That one is a bit easier to get your teeth into. Just beware of trying to apply it to more abstract scenarios... I recall having an argument with one of my lecturers because he said that Science is a social construct. He did persuade me eventually, but the depth of the theory to explain it was so elaborate that I've never been able to recall it since. Safe to say, pretty much everything is a cultural construct. 

So those are the two biggest themes that will come up in today's post. As I said, you can break just about anything down as being a cultural construct - including Parenting.

You don't have to look far to see parenting in practice as a social event. Comedians will base whole routines around their experiences as a mother or father, there are websites set up with the express purpose of attracting mothers (and fathers, but more so the former) to discuss elements of their child-rearing, adverts for various household products and brands will often refer to "Mums prefer this" as a point in their superiority over competitors (my Asda loo roll promises me that 3 out of 4 Mums prefer it to the leading brand). Parents are a Big Deal in modern British society. The industry behind pregnancy, birth, baby care, childhood is enormous - at present I don't have even a ballpark figure for how much the UK baby industry is worth, but it is A Lot. Parenting is also a contentious issue in the media. Barely a day goes by when some news story or other doesn't come up about the impact of children's upbringing on their functionality as adults, whether it's behavioural, nutritional, medical - there is almost always something in the news about all the new stuff researchers are learning about how we develop from infants.

There is a huge number of phrases most parents will be familiar with, and each one is an idea entirely constructed by society:

Hands up if you've heard these before? (you don't really have to raise your hand, I won't see it anyway)

They are all ideas about modern parenting that crop up time and time again in the literature and general conversation between mums & dad, health care providers and self-styled "baby experts". Some of them relate to behaviours we anticipate our offspring to exhibit at certain stages (like sleeping for a particular number of hours overnight), some refer to the DREADFUL consequences of making certain choices about how to raise our children (I have an impressive collection of 'rods for my back' according to some people). And then there's this one: 'a happy mum means a happy baby' - this one induces the sort of head-meets-desk response from me; it's overly simplistic, thoughtless and frankly just not true! (read more HERE)

One thing that all these buzz words have in common is that they are entirely derived from Western social concepts about how babies ought to behave and how parents ought to achieve this arbitrary standard.  

Babies, as we know them in the modern context, are a social construct. I promise that is not complete nonsense! Biologically, we produce offspring. Humans are a mammalian species who give birth to live young (rather than laying eggs, etc) and provide their first nutrition in the form of milk from the mother's breasts. That is how science has differentiated mammals from reptiles, birds, insects etc. However, a chimpanzee baby and a human baby have very different roles within society. I can't recall any zoological studies investigating the sleep patterns of 12 week old baby chimpanzees, or groups of chimpanzee mothers coming together to discuss when they plan to start introducing solid food to their young one's diet. That sort of preoccupation is very much a human practice, and even more so in the last 50 years than earlier in history. 


Why, if we're just another mammal, do we get so caught up in how we raise our children and all the possible combinations of consequences that decisions about this, that and the other might have?

I have some ideas about why, and it is all down to how human society has constructed The Baby. In the West, a newborn baby is a helpless, feeble, dependent being, reliant entirely on its parents for sustenance, warmth, protection and love. It is the job of the parents to enable this little creature to survive and to endow it with the ability to function as a biological entity, independent of its parents. The word "independent" is highlight in red there, because that is the fundamental point of Western parenting. Our focus is very much on assisting our babies to stop needing us as soon as is safe for them. Discourse about feeding babies often focuses on the baby's dependence on the mother as a negative of breastfeeding, or the ability of any other person to feed the baby as a positive of bottle feeding; we have the most bizarre obsession with how long our babies sleep at night and WHERE, with the self-proclaimed experts extolling the virtues of an infant learning to sleep alone as early as possible; behavioural observations will comment on making a baby 'clingy' if he or she is picked up and soothed every time a cry is uttered, and there are an increasing number of methods populating the book shelves claiming to teach your baby how to "self-soothe". 

The outcome of all this is that parents begin their life with a new baby thinking almost from the word go about how and when their child will be less reliant on them to meet their every need. It has spawned a counter-revolution of parenting philosophies which rebels against this yearning for independence and calls itself "attachment parenting", with the emphasis on continual physical contact with a baby through breastfeeding, carrying the baby in a sling rather than a pram, bedsharing where safe to do so and so on.  Ironically, these are the sorts of practices which invite the "rod for your own back"  and "clingy baby" remarks and prompted me to write this blog in defence of my own choices.

For a moment, let's compare this to Japan. I read a fascinating article examining maternal and infant interactions in Japan and from it gleamed that The Baby as a social construct is a very different creature there than it is in the West. For them, The Baby is from birth an autonomous being and must be taught how to form relationships with other humans through ongoing contact from the parents. The social norm is much more in favour of maximised contact between the mother and baby, habitual bedsharing rates are infinitely higher as are breastfeeding statistics. Two groups of human beings, viewing and behaving towards their offspring in remarkably different ways, and all can be traced back to socially constructed ideas and how they are represented through the discourse surrounding parents and parenting.

I follow quite a few parenting blogs and their pages on Facebook, and there is a definite reoccurring  theme among the posts from other readers. They are almost all related to how they feel they are negatively viewed and treated by other people for the choices they have made - this may manifest as being criticised for breastfeeding in public, well-meant but ultimately unwelcome 'advice' from relatives, observations about a baby's weight/sleep/general demeanour as a negative consequence of some choice made by the parents. I challenge you to find a single parent who does not feel that at some stage they have been criticised, however subtly, for a decision they have made about caring for their child. 

So this is what we as a society have achieved: we have elevated the status of parenthood and parenting by creating a lucrative industry behind it, supported that status by revering the Mother and Father figure as paradigms of virtue in advertising of the most benign products and yet also constructed such an unnatural and inaccessible ideal of The Baby that your average man and woman waiting to welcome their first child will find themselves overwhelmed with conflicting advice as to what is "the best" thing to do. 

Monday, 19 March 2012

A rambly one from a sleepy parent

This is a really personal post... Not much in the way of impartial arguments here, but my brain feels very busy and I wanted to get it all out!

Having spent parts of today debating on a certain sleep specialist's Facebook page, I feel a little bit despondent. Is parenting supposed to be easy? I don't mean that it's supposed to be free from hard work (there's a reason they call it 'labour', right??) but is it supposed to be such a battle?

I keep reading statements about making parents "happier" and helping them find it all "easier", which seems to be a smokescreen for making a child less dependent on parents from as young an age as possible. I can see the appeal to be honest!
Society seems to have decided that life should be hedonistic where possible, that indulging your own desires on a daily or more long term basis is an achievable and aspirational goal, and surrendering yourself to parenting doesn't really go hand in hand with that. It's no wonder there's such demand for books that seem to enable this and that practices like attachment parenting are more marginalised. It makes me sad that I feel like the way I've parented has been so much more labour-intensive for me than it could have been if I'd followed various experts' regimes instead although I feel happier and more relaxed than I suspect I would have done had I gone against what felt instinctual to me.

Occasionally, I get into discussions with people about things I've done on my parenting journey like breastfeeding, baby led weaning, bed-sharing etc and there's a handful of key phrases that seem to crop up again and again.. "rod for your own back", "clingy baby", "just doing it for your own benefit" and so on, so forth. It's quite hurtful actually...

Why did I breastfeed? Initially because my best friend's mum (midwife and strong breastfeeding advocate) promised to be a flea in my ear until I understood why it was important, and then later because I'd gone on to do breastfeeding support training myself and learned an incredible amount of stuff about the physiology of breastmilk and breastfeeding and thought the whole thing was just too amazing to miss out on. If you've never had children or breastfeeding wasn't on your radar, you would be astonished to know how complex the science behind it is. There's SO much to know - you can do an entire diploma in Breastfeeding Counselling and still have stuff to learn!

Why did I go with baby led weaning? I didn't with my first child. I went with what the jars in the supermarket said (suitable from 4 months), what I read on parenting forums and what I thought I knew from anecdotes handed down from peers. I spoonfed him mush from jars at first, then progressed to chunkier mush and eventually to smaller portions of my food. I HATED every moment of it. Messy, expensive, and eventually I started to read journal articles suggesting that it actually hadn't been the best decision for his health. Even worse, I'd made that decision without properly researching it. Cue the mummy guilt! With my second child, I felt a little better informed, was resolved to wait until he was six months old and then found that the little bugger wasn't interested in food anyway. One day, when he was almost 7 months old, he lunged at my plate of Sunday roast, grabbed a potato and scoffed the whole thing. From that point I just gave him bits and pieces that he could grab at himself and let him get on with it. A couple of years later, I found out that this is apparently called Baby Led Weaning. Ok, cool.

And then the doozy... Why did I share a bed with my babies?
This is the topic behind the controversy on Facebook today. I, along with a large number of parents, let my baby sleep in bed with me habitually, deliberately and for a long time (about a year on average). Why??  Because I like to sleep. I really, really like to sleep. And babies don't sleep a lot. Tiny babies have no concept of day or night. Me pleading with my 2 week old son that "it's night time, LOOK (turns towards window to show him the black of night!), why won't you SLEEEEEEP??" was completely pointless, very demoralising. Breastfeeding releases all sorts of hormones, and at night it releases hormones that make me and the baby sleepy. BRILLIANT. Unless you're sitting up in bed to feed, or on a sofa. I will confess now that I dozed off during one of these feeds and baby L slipped out of my arms and into my lap. I awoke in a split second but it absolutely terrified me. So what did I do? Well I got OUT of the bed of course, and I woke myself up, got myself a hot drink, put the tv on and made sure I couldn't fall asleep again. But I LIKE SLEEP. At 2am, my body wants me to be sleeping. A couple of days later, my friend's mum came to visit and I broke down about how tired I was. She then proceeded to show me something that changed my life and saved my sanity - how to breastfeed whilst lying down. She gave me a leaflet about how to make my bed a safe place for the baby, things I must avoid doing in order to keep it safe and how to get comfy and get him fed. He and I both nodded off and that night I had the most incredible night's sleep of my whole life. It was magical. I slept, he slept, I fed him dreamily throughout the night and 5 months later we were still doing the same thing. So when my second son was born, there was no question about how I'd handle the nights, and away we went. When my daughter was born, the same thing applied. Seven years and 3 children later, I can thankfully look back and say I have very limited first hand experience of the 'being up all night with the baby' or the 'dreaded night feeds'.

Has it been easy, any of this stuff? I suppose it depends on how you define 'easy'... It's been a challenge to get comfy at night sometimes with 3 people snoozing in one double bed. If I want to buy new tops I have to make sure I can breastfeed in them comfortably. I get a little too anxious about the idea of anyone criticising me for breastfeeding in public. I gave up asking my doctor for advice about breastfeeding related problems when it became evident that I knew far more about the physiology of breasts than any of them did. I've been on the receiving end of some pretty sharp insults and derogatory comments because I am outspoken about my love of breastfeeding - which apparently makes me "militant". I've had to justify why I didn't want to give my babies a bottle of formula at night "to make them sleep longer" and then field remarks about making a rod for my own back, or how I'm just breastfeeding because it makes ME feel good.

BUT... everything I've done has gone along with my instinct on what approach to parenting would make me happier, what felt closest to my biological imperative as a mammalian mother rearing her offspring. I tell myself to imagine what I would do if I was stranded on an island with just my baby. No television, media, peer pressure, employment concerns, or self-proclaimed baby experts to invade my parenting. If my baby cried, would I leave him to learn to settle himself without my reassurance? Doubtful. If he was hungry, would I deny him food until he had completed an acceptable length of time since his last feed? I can't imagine why... When it came to bedtime, would I put him in a separate bit of the cave (my island is quite accommodating!) or snuggle him up to me to keep warm? Using that analogy, I feel confident that the choices I've made have been the right ones for me and my children, and using the journal articles I've read, I also feel confident that I haven't done anything detrimental to their health in the short or long term. That's satisfactory to me, and yet society persists in telling me I could have made it easier for myself. Funny eh.

At some point soon, I want to write a post about parenting and babies from an anthropological perspective and look at how we've culturally constructed the whole concept. I promise that one will be less of a personal ramble and more of a balanced, evidence-based piece!

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Human Rights and Human Wrongs Part Trois (and I promise, the final piece!)

Part Deux of this post ended with me asking why I ascribe the same claim to human rights for people who have committed violations of human rights themselves as I do to the ordinary, peaceful, every day man, woman and child. 

It's actually a really simple thought process, the conclusion to which I arrived at after reading endless accounts of human rights violations across the globe. 

Anyone who's been on Facebook or Twitter in the past few days can't have failed to see something called Invisible Children, or the "Kony 2012" campaign. In short, there is a viral film approximately 30 minutes long and made by an American man, Jason Russell, documenting his campaign to bring about the arrest of Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda. The history of the LRA's actions in Uganda is a long and bloody one, incorporating the abduction of children to turn into child soldiers (boys) and sex slaves (girls), murder, rape, pillage, mutilation and torture. The video is an overly simplistic representation of a very complex problem and smacks slightly of a 'Team America' approach to saving the world and easing the "White man's burden" - but that's another blog in itself! 

The reason I bring up this particular issue is because of the incredible speed with which is has become a viral topic and how rapidly it's brought human rights onto the public and social networking agenda. The YouTube video (linked above) currently has 15, 173, 840 views. That's a lot. It's a lot more than this time yesterday. The hashtag #STOPKONY has been a top trend on Twitter for the last 24 hours (although now appears to have slipped down in favour of popular culture references I don't understand). There have also been a huge number of blogs, articles, personal posts and so on critiquing the Invisible Children movement - and this is where the issue gets very complicated. Some look to the organisation's ideology, others to its questionable ethical business practices  (do read this one, it's a much more thorough and well informed assessment of the situation than I could provide) and support of the Ugandan army - a force themselves guilty of rape, torture and murder. 

One thing seems to be emerging (and this highlights my incorrigibly optimistic nature) which is that more people are talking about the complexities of human rights on a larger scale than I've seen since I sat in a university lecture room with 40-odd people who all cared about it very passionately! Of course it may be that x-million people will blindly click "share" on the video link from YouTube and then never do anything else. Awareness is great, but it doesn't solve problems. Blind awareness and support solves even fewer problems, and in fact creates some of its own (another blog! One thing at a time!). BUT if more people take the time to read more widely around the whole issue, learn about Joseph Kony & the LRA, learn about the local community-based projects in Uganda who've spent years tackling this head on, go to organisations like Amnesty International and learn about OTHER human rights atrocities all around the world - SyriaIranPalestineZimbabwe - the list really does go on and on and on - then something positive will be achieved simply through more people acknowledging that this is happening right now. All around the world, people are being oppressed, tortured, executed, detained in horrific conditions, institutionally raped. It's very difficult reading - but try to bear this in mind next time you read a Daily Mail article wailing about how immigrants and asylum seekers are taking over Britain. What would it take for you to flee your country of origin, in fear of your life?

Back to the original issue behind this post then - we've established what human rights are, we've discussed how people around the world are suffering at the hands of others, we've touched briefly upon how misunderstood and underrepresented the plight of so many people is in Western media. What does this mean for my initial point, that even the really Bad People have rights.

As I said slightly earlier - it's actually incredibly simple. If you've been inspired by this post to go and do some more reading about the global human rights situation, you will probably have learned that there are more people living under oppressive and murderous conditions than you ever thought possible. The first time I realised that, I was heartbroken. I don't want to believe that we live in a world where people live their whole lives in fear, where children say they would rather die than try to fight and survive, where bad people go unpunished because of political preferences from national leaders. I WANT to live in a world where bad deeds are punished, bad people brought to justice, good people the world over live a life of freedom and peace. I think it's safe to say that's a ubiquitous desire. We can only ever hope to achieve this if we sustain a certain moral standard - in order to single out and bring justice to the Bad Guys, we must be the Good Guys. We cannot, either directly or tacitly, condone torture or execution, because if we do, we just become part of the spectrum of bad guys. If we deport known or suspected criminals back to their countries of origin where we know they will be tortured or executed as part of that country's penal system, we step into very murky waters and we stop being the good guys. We stop having the right to condemn others for torturing and murdering innocent people, if we are even complicit in the torture and murder of anybody. 

My human rights that protect me from being tortured and murdered exist because our country's moral stance prohibits this, but it should be prohibited worldwide and for all persons. Can we really say that we as a nation are outraged at Christopher Tappin's extradition to the US to face charges for which no evidence has ever been brought before a UK court, amidst an American media campaign to portray him as a truly evil man and a 'danger to the community' - the notion which has been used to deny him bail? Well yes, we can say we are outraged, because he's been treated very badly by what appears to be a corrupt system - there's no transparency to the case against him, and accounts I've read so far appear to believe that he's been falsely accused (or at least that the case against him has been constructed falsely). 

I am in no position whatsoever to speculate on his guilt or innocence - but I can say that his human rights risk being violated through the course of the last few weeks. That's certainly the perspective of the British media in reporting each new turn of events. But... he's not the only person in the current press limelight looking at being removed from the UK to face trial in another country. There's also Abu Qatada, albeit in a very different manner of media portrayal. 

Now, I hear you exclaim, how can I possibly compare the two?! One is a nice, respectable British businessman falsely accused by a corrupt American legal system to provide them with a tidy scapegoat; the other is widely believed to be an Islamic extremist, indicted on charges of terrorism by a Jordanian court and believed to be affiliated with Al Qaeda. But let's look at that for a moment-  Abu Qatada has never been charged with committing a crime in the UK and was arrested and detained indefinitely, without trial, under dubious anti-terrorism legislation in 2002. As far as we know, since living in Britain he's lived a law-abiding life and at one stage was thought to be aiding British intelligence agencies with information about terrorist organisations. The charges against him in Jordan were founded on evidence and testimonies obtained through torture and the argument against deporting him back to Jordan for further trials is based upon the possibility that he himself would face being tortured. Again, whether or not he's guilty of the alleged crimes is something I am in no position to speculate on, but it alarms me that rather than strive to stamp out the use of torture in the Jordanian courts, the British press has instead focused on being outraged that such a dangerous man can be allowed to remain the UK at all, horrified that the European Court of Human Rights forbade his deportation.

 Let's just look at that again - if we take the British media's perspective at face value, we are saying that we would sooner accept the torture of a man than we would put the time and effort into ensuring that he faced a fair trial and was brought to justice for crimes which it had been proven he was guilty of.

That frightens me. Remember what I said before - what right do we have to condemn others for torture and murder if we are complicit in torture and murder ourselves? 

Well the short answer is that we don't. It's not justice if we accept any nation using torture and execution as part of its legal system. It's anarchy. 

I'm no legal expert; I can't tell you whether I think Christopher Tappin or Abu Qatada are guilty of the crimes of which they are accused or not. I can only tell you that the only way of guaranteeing that their respective guilt or innocence is reliably established is to ensure that both men - and all people in these situations - are tried by an uncorrupted court, using evidence that is truthful and accurate, and that if found guilty their punishments are proportionate to the crime. 


At this point, I could start talking about existing laws regarding sentences for various crimes, but then we'd be here for at least another 3000 words! In short, I oppose the death penalty entirely, in all its forms and as a sentence for any crime you could think of. 

There is so much more that could be said on this issue. There are hundreds of books, written by well respected academics in the field of human rights and they are full to the brim of case studies, theoretical arguments and statistics on human rights topics. I started with a book written by my human rights lecturer at university, and I wholly recommend it as a basic start to understanding the subject: Human Rights: An Introduction by Darren O'Byrne

Human Rights and Human Wrongs: Part Deux

A couple of posts ago, I pontificated on my general philosophy about human rights and how they apply to the people of the world who have done Bad Things

As a very brief summary, I feel that preserving the human rights of every single human being on this planet is the absolute most fundamental basis of a true justice system - no matter how appalling a crime a person has committed. 

Up until now, I haven't specified exactly what I mean by "human rights". It's an intangible concept, a phrase that has popped up here and there in the media, mostly recently in the context of the UK government wanting to deport people out of this country, but being unable to do so because it would infringe their human rights. I now frequently see people tutting and raising their eyebrows at those two words, as though human rights is some terrible albatross around our necks, prohibiting us from disposing of people whose behaviour and philosophies aren't quite right for us.

For the sake of accuracy, let me highlight exactly what I mean by Human Rights, by referring to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948).

There are 30 articles to the declaration (which I won't copy and paste here, because it's very long and you can read it for yourself by following the above link), which set out the fundamental conditions for each and every person on this planet to be able to live a life of freedom and comfort. 

Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world

The UDHR was established following the Second World War, with the express intention that atrocities which had occurred during and prior to those awful years would never be allowed to repeat themselves. It is, however, impossible to ignore the widespread conflicts across the Middle East, the so-called "War on Terror" and escalating tensions between ethnic groups across the UK and USA. Within this framework, the topic of human rights has cropped up a few times and not entirely in the manner one might expect, given the relatively young age of the UDHR.

I said in my previous post that I would return to this subject later on and elaborate on specific cases to illustrate my point in practice, which is my intention with this post. I will endeavour to write sensitively and thoughtfully, support my statements with evidence-based research and in so doing, hopefully make an eloquent point about the different ways we apply human rights in practice to the people who find themselves falling back on them. As such, I thoroughly expect that this will be a very, very long entry, for which I apologise, but in the interest of making my point carefully it will be necessary to cover a lot of background. 

As I have said previously, it's not always a comfortable perspective to respect the basic human rights of a person who has, or is accused of having caused suffering to other people. Sometimes I have to work really hard at overcoming my anger when reading about those who have exploited or harmed others on any level - something that came to the front of my mind over the weekend when someone on Facebook posted a picture of the World Trade Centre in New York with the second tower in flames shortly after the hijacked plane had crashed into it. 
An emotive image in itself, evoking memories of that pivotal change in global politics when I, as a 17 year old girl, suddenly felt very grown-up and a bit frightened of the world.  The image wasn't what got me riled up though, but the caption accompanying it did. It consisted of a letter (supposedly) written by a Canadian housewife to her local paper, venting her umbrage at the reported condemnation of US soldiers defiling the bodies of deceased insurgents and the allegations of torture and abuse by US and UK forces. Her precise point was along the lines of 'why should I care about them when they attacked us first?'. The last time I looked at the image on Facebook it had been shared by 45,517 people. That's a lot of people (I presume) agreeing with this woman. 

I am one person who doesn't agree with her. I could post the image and the accompanying text here for you to make up your own mind, but to be completely honest I don't want to. Reading it again fills me with such sadness for the seemingly huge number of very narrow-minded people, I just don't want to pollute my blog with it. If you really want to look at it, you can follow this LINK, but I will warn you now, it makes for very uncomfortable reading - not least because it's a very poorly researched rant, almost worthy of the Daily Mail. 

At this point, I would like to include one of my favourite and recently discovered quotes. It summarises very neatly how I feel about people who like to make extreme statements without having all the facts at their disposal:

"You are not entitled to your opinion. You are entitled to your informed opinion. No-one is entitled to be ignorant." - Harlan Ellison

It's a beautiful point, nicely made. Hold whatever beliefs and ideas you want - but let them be well informed. READ widely about issues before you make your mind up and condemn one party or another. Tell me I'm an idiot for my views if you like, but please research as much as I do about these issues before deciding whether or not to agree with me.

The issue of human rights is a very personal one. You either believe that everyone is entitled to their basic human rights, or you don't. There's a wealth of logical - and even spiritual - arguments to support my belief on this matter, but an equal number of emotive and persuasive ones to the contrary. 

My view on human rights is informed by two things: firstly, the accounts I've read of torture, oppression, exploitation, and execution through the brief time I spent studying human rights at university. What I learned in that time made me feel so utterly despondent about how we, the human race, behave towards one another that I wanted to run away and live on the moon. Secondly, I thought about what MY human rights meant to me. What sort of scenario could I envisage where I might need to call on my human rights to protect me? 

Let's imagine a hypothetical situation where I am accused of some dreadful crime. We can expect that I would not be arrested or detained unless there was sound evidence against me, and in that instance I would receive a fair trial by jury, the evidence presented would be accurate, testimonies against me would be truthful and the sentence I received - if found guilty - would be proportionate to the crime I had committed. All of these elements of my treatment are protected exclusively by MY human rights - me, the hypothetical criminal. 

Let us change the scenario slightly and presume that I am innocent. The theory of the UK justice system is that everything possible is done to ensure that no innocent person is ever convicted of a crime they didn't commit. We can reasonably expect, therefore, to have our innocence presumed until guilt is proven. As such, we can expect that I will have access to competent legal defence, will be treated with dignity and respect if remanded into custody, fed and watered adequately, and at all times assured that the case against me will be examined fairly so that my innocence can be ascertained and I can be released back into my regular life with no repercussions from the incorrect allegations made against me. Once again, this relies entirely on my human rights being observed. 

I am a good, law-abiding person as and such I can be reasonably confident that my daily life will continue without the threat of arbitrary arrest, torture, systematic rape, oppression or censorship. The very fact that I can sit at home and write this blog without fear of repercussion from the state is actually quite a big deal when you put it into context with nations of poor human rights records. 

The whole entire point is that these rights of mine will always be there. Nothing will take them away. I will never be in danger of the police hammering down my door and carting me away because of something I've been falsely accused of, then watching a corrupted trial take place where the evidence produced against me has been entirely fabricated or obtained by torturing me. 

This is not true of many countries. In fact, it's not even always true of Britain. It's something of a myth that we as a nation have an impeccable human rights record. We are not a paradigm of morality- a statement that is only vaguely alluded to in the Canadian housewife's rant attached to the picture from September 11th, 2001. It is worth noting that she doesn't deny that there are substantiated claims of US and UK forces abusing and torturing detained insurgents in the Middle East - only that she doesn't care.

But what does any of this have to do with the rights of Really Bad People? You know the ones I mean - the ones in the papers, who've committed unspeakable acts of violence or abuse against one or more persons. They might be child molesters, rapists, terrorists, murderers, wife beaters, or any one of a whole spectrum of reprehensible acts a human is capable of perpetrating against another. WHY do I ascribe the same claim to human rights for these people as I do to you and me, the decent, respectable, well behaved, functioning members of society?

THAT is going to have to come in another instalment. Well done if you've managed to stick with me so far. I promise that part 3 is not far behind and worth reading! Go and grab a cuppa and the next part will be along shortly, possibly once I've had a cup of tea and finished editing it.