Thursday, 28 May 2009

Homophobia: A question of definition and a clash of ethics

In my last post, I considered Ruth Gledhill’s statement that “advances in education mean that young people coming out of schools today find opposition to homosexuality in the churches incredible.” I guessed that she meant that “they are basically being taught that opposition to homosexuality in the churches is wrong.” She confirmed this, and added “More precisely, they are being taught that homophobia is wrong. And I consider that an advance.”

I want to think particularly about the statement “homophobia is wrong” and about the matter of teaching that homophobia is wrong. In search of a definition of homophobia, I turned to my copy of Chambers 20th Century Dictionary (New Edition, 1983) but searched for the word in vain. A quick look on the internet revealed that the word probably first appeared in the early 1970s, and was used by George Weinberg to mean “the dread of being in close quarters with homosexuals.” In other words, it was a psychological condition - akin to agoraphobia or arachnophobia. But the word has clearly evolved, for Ruth Gledhill presumably does not mean to say that it is ethically wrong to have a certain psychological condition.

Wikipedia offered several definitions, but my trust in Chambers is so total, that I checked their online 21st Century Dictionary to find that homophobia is “a strong aversion to or hatred of homosexuals.” And that does indeed seem to be the way that the word is normally used. To describe hatred of (or even aversion to) a certain class of people as wrong is pretty reasonable.

Hence, one would assume that Ruth Gledhill is operating on the same definition of homophobia as me. But it’s not quite that simple. In her article, it is fairly clear that she is criticising people on the basis of the fact that they believe homosexual activity is wrong. She apparently believes that people who view homosexual activity as wrong are homophobic. They may have homosexual friends, they may be of homosexual orientation themselves, but if they believe that homosexual activity is wrong, they are homophobic.

In other words, we have a clash of ethics. Some people believe that homosexual activity is unethical, while others believe that it is unethical to maintain that homosexual activity is unethical. (And of course there is a third group that believes that neither is unethical.)

Which brings us to the matter of education and indoctrination. It is one thing to believe that something is unethical. It is another to believe that schools should teach your ethical values. Ruth Gledhill is pleased that her ethical values are apparently being taught in schools. However, they are not being taught in all schools. I’m pretty sure that there are many private and church schools where they are not taught, so I presume that she is thinking primarily of state schools. Why are these values taught in state schools? Not because all teachers in state schools hold to them - many do not - but because the state decrees it.

And so we have a political question: “Is it the responsibility of the state to insist that certain ethical values are taught to pupils in state schools?” The answer one gives will inevitably depend on one’s political philosophy. Some people would want the state to teach their ethical values. The libertarian answer, however, is that it is not the place of the state to seek to enforce morality, or to propagate a particular ethical code. It is the responsibility of parents - not the state - to choose the ethical code that children are brought up with. Libertarians have a fairly wide range of ethical codes. But they are united in believing that it is not the place of the state to force their ethical values on other people’s children.

Those who reject libertarianism may be happy when the state is pushing their own values. But when the state changes its mind, and they find that children are being indoctrinated with values they do not share, it’s usually a very different story.

So how do we avoid the clash of ethics? Choose freedom.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

The gender of blogs

A new and entertaining website that I have discovered is genderanalyzer. It uses Artificial Intelligence to determine if a homepage is written by a man or woman.

So I ran 20 or so blogs through it, and had some interesting results.

Only one blog (Renegade Parent) was assessed as being probably written by a woman. The others came out as probably written by men.

The most masculine blog was that of Ian Parker-Joseph, the leader of the Libertarian Party, at 90% masculine. No surprises there. When it comes to separating the men from the boys among party leaders, Mr. Parker-Joseph is obviously a real man.

The second most masculine blog, perhaps a little more suprisingly, was Anna Racoon, at 88% masculine. Hmmm.

Depending on what the most recent post happens to be, the gender rating may change a little. My blog was 64% masculine the first time I tried it, but the second time, I got "We think is written by a man (62%)."

Close. But one couldn't really expect "We think is written by a young bear gentleman."

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Yet more on education and indoctrination (and Ruth Gledhill)

Last week, an article by Ruth Gledhill, the Times’ Religion Correspondent, began with the words
“If there is one issue that threatens to destroy what remains of Europe’s Protestant ecclesiastial communities from within, it is homosexuality. Few Christian communities have kept up with the advance in homosexuals’ civil rights. Perhaps they do not understand how advances in education mean that young people coming out of schools today find opposition to homosexuality in the churches incredible.”
I stopped at that point, in order to re-read that last sentence. In fact, I have read it several times, and I don’t get it. Had she written “Perhaps they do not understand that young people coming out of schools today find opposition to homosexuality in the churches incredible,” I would not have been surprised. There are a lot of things that about churches (and most other aspects of life) that undoubtedly surprise young people coming out of schools today. But to attribute this to “advances in education” was something that I, personally, find incredible.

This begs two questions. The first question is “How can something be described as an advance in education, if it causes the products of that education to be surprised by what they find in the world around them?” Surely a good education is one that helps a person know what they can expect to find in the world around them.

But there is also the question of what these “advances in education” might be. (Is it relevant that today’s Telegraph reports a leading headmistress declaring that teenagers increasingly left school with little factual knowledge?)

So what are these “advances in education” that Ruth Gledhill writes of? Is it an advance in the realm of religious education? Do school leavers know more about churches and their teaching and beliefs? I don’t think so, somehow. Is it in the realm of science? Could it be that they have they been taught that it is a proven fact that homosexuality is genetically determined? I don’t think she means that, either. (First, because the study of the determinative causes of homosexuality is well beyond the scope of high school science lessons; second, because there is no consensus that homosexuality is genetically determined.)

So what “advances in education” does Ruth Gledhill have in mind? I asked a science teacher at our local comprehensive. The reply I got was that she was undoubtedly referring to the personal education / social education / citizenship type classes - in other words, the parts of the state school curriculum that teach children what they should believe about what is right and wrong. Which would mean (putting together what Ruth Gledhill says with what my local science teacher says) that they are basically being taught that opposition to homosexuality in the churches is wrong. In other words, this is basically about indoctrination*, and Ruth Gledhill thinks that this is an advance in education.

Well, maybe that’s not what Ruth Gledhill means. But when she speaks about “advances in education,” I must admit that I really don’t know what she is talking about. And I get the impression that she doesn’t, either.

*see my earlier post here for some thoughts on the difference between education and indoctrination.

Monday, 18 May 2009

My journey to Libertarianism: 3

(Part 2 is here)

During the 1980s, my political outlook was to change. While in 1979, I had felt completely at home in the Liberal Party, by the mid-80s, I was feeling less so. When the party merged with the SDP in 1988, I didn’t join the new party - not because I opposed the merger, but because it seemed like a convenient time to leave. I became disengaged, independent, a floating voter.

The main change in my outlook was my complete disillusionment with socialism. It may seem strange that it took place under a Conservative administration, rather than under a Labour government, but the behaviour of the Labour Party in opposition didn’t exactly help. One problem was that while I believed in a socialism of helping the needy, I came to suspect that socialism as practised in Britain was more likely to produce a society where poverty and dependency were institutionalised, rather than eliminated.

But there were underlying issues that were more serious. There was the growth of the entitlement mentality. People felt they were entitled to everything, courtesy of the tax-payer. (No, I’m not thinking about MP’s expenses.) The slogan “Education is a right, not a privilege” struck me as the slogan of people who expect everything to be handed to them on a plate. This was associated with a dependency culture, where people felt that it was somebody else’s job to do things (i.e. central or local government’s) and so instead of doing it themselves, they lobbied for other people to do it for them. And worse still, it seemed to me that far from being about altruism, for most voters, the appeal of socialism was really self-interest. And that was on a good day. A lot of the time the motivation seemed to be little more than envy.

Yet another thing that bothered me was the fact that many socialists had so little respect for freedom that they didn’t believe that people should have the right to use their money to pay for private education or healthcare. (And in the early 1980s, these were mainstream Labour views.)

The failings of capitalism under Thatcher seemed like pretty minor failings compared to the failings of socialism.

And so, by the late 1980s, I had decided that while I didn’t know which party I supported, I knew which one I was against. The natural response was to move as far away from it as possible - i.e. toward the Conservative Party. But while I might have been prepared to vote Conservative to keep Labour out, the Tories, as a party didn’t actually appeal to me.

And libertarianism? It was pretty much off the radar, except for the libertarians who were making inroads in the Federation of Conservative Students. My main memory of this was an item on Radio 4 news about these libertarians - who by that stage were being purged from the party. The report described their beliefs, including the legalisation of incest. A Ph.D. student of my acquaintance reacted negatively and vigorously. In fact, so violent was her reaction, that I thought it was probably not worth telling her that this probably didn’t mean what she thought it meant. And, to be honest, it certainly didn’t do anything to attract me toward libertarianism.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

The repentant trougher

Someone mentioned Zacchaeus last night, the little tax-collector who climbed a sycamore tree to see Jesus (Luke 19:1-10). I immediately thought of the ongoing saga of MP’s expenses. In particular, I was reminded of the way some MPs have offered to pay back expenses that they should not have claimed.

But when Zacchaeus met Jesus, he went a bit further. "Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount."

Four times the amount. I haven’t heard any MPs volunteering to do that.

And it wasn’t as if Zacchaeus had just been caught, and his troughing* activities were newly revealed to people of Jericho. They had known for years, but were powerless to do anything about it. No - it was simply that Jesus had invited himself to dinner at Zacchaeus’ house.

Now there was a man who was sorry. Not sorry that he had been found out. Not sorry that the people were angry at him. Not sorry that he faced losing his position. But sorry that he had done what was wrong.

* trough v.i. to greedily help oneself to whatever perks and benefits one can get one’s hands on. [From the behaviour of pigs at a feeding trough.]

Friday, 15 May 2009

A pointless post

My favourite microbiologist has handed me a chalice, and confident that he’s a good chap and will have ensured that it is germ-free, here goes.

Eight pointless things about me:

1. I have never set foot in Andorra.

2. The clock on the computer I am currently using is about half a second fast.

3. I ate a grapefruit this morning.

4. I regret the fact that modern laptops do not come with a floppy disk drive.

5. I hate Tesco, but shop there anyway.

6. I have a 100% feedback rating on ebay. (Don’t we all?)

7. I once spent a pleasant hour or so reading the most ancient archives of The Last Ditch.

8. A friend of mine from university is now a leading LibDem blogger.

And who do I nominate? Well, actually, when I was a young bear, my Aunt Lucy taught me never to send on chain letters. This is not really a chain letter, but it certainly has some similarities. And, as a libertarian, I am into breaking chains and setting people free.

On the other hand, some people might see listing eight pointless things about themselves as a liberating experience. If Jonny Newton, or that man of destiny Andrew Hunt (first ever LPUK candidate in an election) come into that category (and either of them actually read this!), they may consider themselves free to draw up a list.

We still have freedom of speech in Britain . . .

Recently, the Rev. Ian Watson, a minister in the Church of Scotland, posted a sermon on his blog. Mr. Watson, who believes that the Bible teaches that sexual relations between people of the same sex are wrong, compared the struggle in the church against those who believe that homosexual lifestyles are acceptable for Christians to the struggle against Hitler in World War II.

Not surprisingly, this didn’t go down well with everyone. The Times headline screamed “Anti-gay minister the Rev Ian Watson in ‘Nazi battle’ outrage.” (What has become of The Times? That sounds more like The Sun to me.) The sermon is not short, and I wonder how many of Mr. Watson’s critics read it all. I certainly didn’t, though I skimmed it, and discovered that it didn’t say much about homosexuality, and never mentioned the word ‘Nazi’.

Most of those who share Mr. Watson’s views on the interpretation and authority of the Bible would probably not think it very controversial, while most of those who don’t, undoubtedly think that it is completely over the top. However, it is not these issues that I wish to comment on.

What I wish to comment on is one line in The Times’ report.
“The sermon was greeted with outrage and disbelief by people inside and outside the Church of Scotland. Some observers questioned whether Mr Watson had infringed legislation on sexual equality.”
In other words, some people - people that The Times consults - actually believe that it is probably illegal in modern Britain for a clergyman to say that he thinks homosexual behaviour is not right for Christians. And one gets the distinct impression that these people think that if it isn't illegal, it probably should be.

Of course, Mr Watson has not infringed the laws of this country. But in the last decade we have had so much new legislation in Britain - much of it designed to curb our historic freedoms - that people now assume that we have fewer freedoms that we actually have. That is worrying. And even more worrying, there are clearly people who think that this process has not gone far enough, and are keen for our freedoms to be eroded still further.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Silly guidelines or stupid people . . . or both?

There is a wonderful story in the Telegraph this morning about a mother getting a letter warning that her five year old was overweight and in danger of all manner of dread diseases because he was outside the ideal weight range by one pound. Yes, one pound. He was 3st 5lb, when, ideally, he should, apparently, have been between 2st 7lb and 3st 4lb.

The good bit, though, was this:
“The [Oxfordshire NHS Primary Care Trust] apologised for any distress caused to Mrs Forder, and said it was following Department of Health guidelines on the format and content of the letter.”
That's modern Britain for you. Someone draws up silly guidelines, and people are stupid enough to follow them, even though they should be able to see that they are daft.

Personally, I’m surprised that the Oxfordshire NHS Primary Care Trust are not in big trouble for using imperial units.

Phrases of the week

As we have watched the MP's expenses saga unfold over the past few days, there are three phrases that come to my mind, and that seem to encapsulate the whole thing.

1. "If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear."

2. "The court of public opinion" (Harriet Harman)

3. "The prospect of hanging concentrates the mind wonderfully." (Dr. Johnson)

Monday, 11 May 2009

More fun with Google

Google never ceases to amaze me. Prompted by someone else who tried it first, I put the words "British", "Christian" and "blog" into Google, this blog - yes, the one that you are reading, comes up number one.

In other words, Marmalade Sandwich is the British Christian blog.

("Thank you, thank you, thank you. I am just overwhelmed. I don't know what to say. I'd like to dedicate this honour to my parents, who . . . .")

On the other hand, when I put the the words "British", "Libertarian" and "blog" into Google, I came out number two.

Rats. Beaten by Samizdata. Oh well, better luck next time.

Saturday, 9 May 2009

The avaricious servants: a parable

Once there was a race of beings called MPs, whose duty it was to serve The People. And for their service, The People rewarded these MPs generously. In the course of their duties to The People, these MPs would occasionally spend of their own substance, and The People agreed that it was right that they should be reimbursed, and made reimbursement to them.

Now the MPs took great delight in treasures on earth, and it came to pass that they began to obtain reimbursement for items that they did not tell The People about. And they spoke among themselves, and agreed that it was not good that The People should know about these things.

But a day came when The People heard of their actions. And when The People heard thereof, they were wroth, and they made their anger known to the MPs.

But the MPs apologised not, nor did they repent, for they were righteous in their own eyes, and they just could not see why The People were displeased with them. For, lo, their eyes had been blinded by the god of this world.

Friday, 8 May 2009

Jeff Randall agrees with me!

I could hardly believe it. But when I turned to this morning's Telegraph, Jeff Randall was saying much of what I said yesterday.

"For once, Gordon Brown got it right. Don't laugh, he really did. At this week's Prime Minister's Questions, the Weary One scolded his Conservative tormentors for playing the man (him) instead of the ball (government policy). . . . Who cares if he chucks his phone at the wall? . . . Forget wisecracks about the Prime Minister's psychological flaws, let's concentrate on his track record."

And Mr. Randall had a lot of other good and useful things to say. (By which I mean things that I agree with.) Do read the whole article.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

In defence of Gordon Brown

In today’s Telegraph, Simon Heffer expresses the opinion that Gordon Brown is unfit to be Prime Minister because of his personal character flaws. He writes “It is not just that he seems incapable of accepting a challenge to his way of thinking; it is that he seems to have a fear of having to do so, a fear not just of departing from the script and having to think outside his briefing notes, but a fear also of what he might find if he did.”

I am sure that Mr Heffer has more expertise in analysing the psyche of politicians than I have, and there may well be something in what he says, but I find it hard to believe that the Prime Minister has reached the position he holds without some real personal strengths, and I suspect that he is probably as capable of accepting challenges to his way of thinking of most leading politicians in this country - or indeed, most of the people of this country.

Mr Heffer is not alone in commenting on Gordon Brown’s character. Much has been said about the mobile phone throwing incident. But I find myself saying “So what? Most people lose their temper once in a while. Some of them might make excellent Prime Ministers. The problem with Gordon Brown isn’t his temper, it’s his dreadfuly policies.” I agree that character is important - indeed, I probably believe that more strongly than most people in this country, but I find it hard to believe that it is the real problem with our current Prime Minister.

However, Mr Heffer’s comments are as nothing, compared to David Cameron’s performance at prime minister’s question time when he referred to Hazel Blear’s “YouTube if you want to” comment at the weekend, and asked “How much more mocking can you get than that? Who on earth do you think she is referring to. Don't you realise your government simply cannot go on like this? Why is she still in the cabinet?

How utterly, utterly, trivial.

When Gordon Brown replied “I've listened to your six questions and not one of them has been about policy,” it was difficult not to admit that he was onto something.

The fact of the matter is that politics seems to have degenerated into a childish game, and it is all about silly point scoring.

The problem with Gordon Brown isn’t that he sometimes loses his temper, or that he has severe and unusual character flaws, or that members of the government may disagree with him - it is that his government has completely misguided policies, is making completely misguided laws, and is throwing our money at completely misguided projects.

My guess is that we are not going to hear anything from Mr Cameron about the £58 million that the government is about to throw at social services, just as we have not heard anything from him about the proposal to reduce the national speed limit to 50 mph, or the government’s car scrappage scheme. One suspects that he considers these things to be too trivial to bother with.

Monday, 4 May 2009

The 1979 General Election - 30 years on

It has been said many times that the Conservative victory (under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher) in the General Election held on the 3 May 1979 marked the end of an era in British politics, and the dawn of a new age, and there has been much comment on it.

I want to comment on just one aspect of it - the fact that the Labour Party, under James Callaghan received more votes (11,532,218) in that election that it did under the leadership of Tony Blair in either the 2001 election (10,724,953) or the 2005 election (9,562,122) - this despite the fact that the electorate was larger in the latter two elections than it was in 1979.

In other words, Mr. Callaghan was a more successful leader, in terms of attracting voters, than Mr. Blair was in 2001 and 2005. (It was a different story in 1997, when Labour received a remarkable total of 13,518,167 votes.)

Or, to put it another way, Labour didn’t win the last two General Elections - the Conservatives lost them. And even the Liberal Democrats, who are reckoned to have had a very successful election, fell short of their total number of votes in 1992, and well short of the totals achieved by the SDP/Liberal Alliance in 1983 and 1987. They even fell short of the number of votes the Liberal Party received in February 1974.

The reason is, of course that the last two General Elections saw turnout falling from around 75% (rough average 1970-97) to 60%. Which means that 20% of people who would normally vote, didn’t bother. And I suspect the reason for that is total disillusionment with both main parties.

I hope that a lot of those people will be looking at LPUK and its policies over the next few years, and like me, seeing that this is a party that offers something a lot better.

Friday, 1 May 2009

The changing shape of British politics

Ian Parker-Joseph, leader of the Libertarian Party, has written his assessment of how British politics has changed over the past 12 years, and in particular how the main parties have changed.

I’m not going to reproduce his article here (not even the nifty diagrams of how the different parties have changed - though I was tempted to borrow them!), because you should go over to his site and read it yourself.

What particularly interested me was that his diagrams not only showed the major political parties all becoming less concerned about individual liberty than formerly (in my opinion, that was fairly obvious) but also showing the Libertarian Party today as not very far from where the major parties used to be.

And in similar vein he writes “We are looking to return Britain to a moderate Britain, where personal freedom is important, where our rights and Liberty are guaranteed at birth, not granted at the whim of a government, a Britain where our laws are consensual, based upon the rights earned by our forefathers, laws written and agreed in Britain, by members of a Parliament that represent the people who elected them rather than those who pay them from abroad.”

And I think that he is on to something there. The LPUK is not a utopian party, believing in doing something outlandish, and seeking to recruit people on the fringe of the political spectrum. It is a party of people who are aware that the personal freedoms that we have in this country were gained by the struggles of many people over the centuries, and are being lost rapidly as the political classes in Britain lose interest in those historic freedoms.

In short, the LPUK should be seen as the true party of moderation in Britain. While the mainstream parties may be considered moderate (simply because they are mainstream), they actually believe in increasing the power of the state in a way which in previous generations would have been recognised as completely extreme.