Godlessness in practice: help workshop KCL atheists’ code of conduct

King’s College London has an atheist society. Technically, an Atheist, Humanist and Secular Society. As is at times the case with student groups as leaders graduate and momentum dissipates, a new committee recently revived it following a dormant period.

While I’ve never attended KCL, I worked peripherally with the group some time ago before activities slow down, and I’m a member of their Facebook page (link above). One of the new guard’s main concerns is making the society more socially conscious and less exclusionary, welcoming a wider range of demographics – the kind of change it’s been said any number of times is needed in secularism. To this end, they’ve introduced a code of conduct, both for Facebook threads and live events.

Joe Stammeijer, the group’s president, has this to say:

It’s not just a comments policy, it’s a behaviour policy. It’s a start on how we want representatives of the society to behave in whatever [KCL]AHS space they find themselves in.

I find this, needless to say, strongly encouraging. The idea that to build an actual movement, we need more than just shared nonbelief – that we need anti-harassment rules and disabled access just as we need fire plans, that just-being-an-atheist shouldn’t be our community’s only requirement, that we can’t and shouldn’t include everyone? This isn’t an idea for which we should still need to argue, and it’s gratifying to see it implemented close to home.

This being said: the code of conduct is at present far from perfect. Its writers know this. Deemed to be necessary and drafted quickly, it borrows heavily from KCL student union’s central ‘safe spaces policy’, and we’ve all of us seen what happens when SUs’ rules are heavy-handed. In atheist groups especially, where certain amounts of controversy are bound to be bred, that documents like this not be over-restrictive is as vital as their presence and effectiveness.

For this reason, society members have decided on a two-week process of review, in which they’ll take suggestions for improving and finalising their rulebook. I’ve offered them this blog as a place to workshop it, and they’ve agreed – in other words, they want your views.

I’m making this an open thread. Below, I’m posting the code of conduct as it stands, with blow-by-blow thoughts on it. In the comments below, please add your own.

Note: this is a discussion about which guidelines should be introduced, not whether any should be. If your view is that secular groups shouldn’t have rules – that codes of conduct, anti-harassment policies and so on aren’t things we should be introducing – or if debating that view interests you, please hold that discussion somewhere else. Constructive thoughts on how this document could be improved are welcome; whether this group needs or benefits from one at all is not up for debate on this page, and comments discussing that will be removed. Take it elsewhere. (I’m happy, for example, to examine that on sites where this is posted.)

Here is the KCL group’s current policy; here it is again, in full, with added comments. (Share yours underneath.)

* * *

KCLAHSS Code of Conduct

By its very nature, an atheist, humanist and secular society will be a centre of controversial debate. We may criticise religions, the arguments for and against them and also the acts of the religious. We may impartially critique those who identify as adhering to a faith, in regards to their religious belief and practice, religions as independent entities or, any ideas for or against religion more broadly. Held within this is the idea that we may criticise a God, gods or prominent figures of any given faith as we consider this to be an idea contained within the religious infrastructure. However, it is important that amidst this challenging debate we hold to strong humanist principles and that we do not slip into prejudice. In order to facilitate this, the following policy has been drawn up with a heavy basis in the KCLSU Safe Space policy, and as always the KCLSU safe space policy applies to any KCLAHSS space. In addition to this, the process for complaints and action to be taken in the event of breach of this policy has also been detailed below. The entirety of this document relates to any KCLAHSS space – online or offline.

  • Regarding the whole document, and especially the multi-clause sections below, the basis of this in student union policy shows through in bureaucratic legalese. This is something of which to be careful: plain English matters, as Orwell writes, but matters particularly in rulemaking, where meaning needs to be as clear as possible. The anti-harassment policies of these secular organisations might make effective style models – it’s important documents like this don’t end up sounding amtlich(My impulse is that the language of ‘safe space’ obfuscates rather than elucidates, and those whose behaviour codes like this serve to address will by and large be inexperienced with it.)
  • To avoid verbosity, one concise phrase to sum up the butt of our critique: ‘religious bodies, beliefs and practices’.

1. Policy

1. As King’s College London Atheist, Humanist and Secular society we assert that no person or persons within the society (or those who come into contact with the society) should suffer (from any member, or, person within a KCLAHSS space) harassment or intimidation due to discrimination related to gender identity, sexual orientation, trans status, marital status, disability, culture, ideology, race, religious belief, age, socio-economic status, maternity/paternity status or any other group with which they identify.

  • Firstly, it’s worth saying harassment and intimidation aren’t things people should suffer at all, even if not on any of these bases.
  • Secondly, we’ve seen at LSE what happens when anti-harassment language is used to censor and silence satire. Clearly not everyone distinguishes reasoned critique and abuse in the same way, so there needs to be some clear illustration of the differences as the atheist group sees them. For instance:
    Criticism etc.: telling others their views are flawed or mistaken; satirising major religious bodies, beliefs or practices; blasphemous imagery; ethical condemnation; blocking on social media or declining to interact in person.
    Harassment etc.: bringing up (including tagging) Facebook page members specifically to insult them; making and distributing derogatory images; threats (violent or otherwise); unwelcome or uninvited physical contact (sexual or otherwise); physically following individuals around; publicising others’ private details (e.g. address, telephone number) without permission. (All of these, I’m afraid to say, are things I’ve encountered in the secular community.)
  • Thirdly: considering many social concerns raised here – gender identity, disability, race, etc. – are ones which don’t affect a large proportion of the atheist group’s current members (hence, in part, this code of conduct’s introduction), how will awareness of relevant issues be improved? Are some areas here ones in which most members lack extensive knowledge, and may not always notice problems? Would it be a good idea, for example, to provide links at the top of online spaces to blogs/video series/organisations dealing with intersections of atheism with these things, which might be used in reference when such topics are discussed or to raise consciousness in general? (This isn’t necessarily an issue for a code of conduct, though it might be. Is it worth, for example, having dedicated, qualified admins to monitor discussions around sexuality/race/disability etc. and act as go-to moderators in disputes?)

2. Criticism of any aspect of any culture, ideology or religious belief should be entirely free from criticism of the individual presenting or promoting the aforementioned culture, ideology or religious belief. Ideas should stand on their own merit, and their critique should not be merged with the critique of their author(s).

  • ‘Culture': often a thorny, unhelpfully ambiguous word. Perhaps best avoided here. What qualified as a culture anyway? Is there a better, more precise term?
  • ‘Ideas should stand on their own merit’ – a good thought, but can be misleading in practice. Context matters at times; the person saying something, events prompting it and occasion on which it’s said might all affect the subtext, and subtext matters.
  • What I sense this is trying to say is that critique of religious bodies, beliefs or practices should never translate into endorsement of violence, oppression, dehumanisation etc. of individuals based on religious identity. If so, say that instead?

3. The society does not recognise criticism of any culture, ideology or religious belief as carried out per section 1.2 to be equal to intimidation, harassment or discrimination as mentioned in section 1.1.

  • This is where the student unionese gets in the way – similarly to the last point, it seems to be making the important distinction between satire and criticism directed at religion and repression or persecution of religious groups, but this gets lost.

4. Any person or persons are free to present (in any KCLAHSS space) any culture, ideology or religious belief regardless of the opinion or official standpoint of the society, unless by presenting said culture, ideology or religious belief the author(s) are in breach of sections 1.1 or 1.2.

  • Again, the style here makes the real point, which is important, rather obscure.
  • I’d also like to hear some specific examples of viewpoints unwelcome in the society’s spaces. Fundamentalists? The political far-right? Homophobes? Transphobes? How does this apply to speakers, rather than online users/individual members? Are these people no-platformed? (Given the reference to removal of those who promote such attitudes, I assume so.)

5. Offense is not equivalent to intimidation, harassment or discrimination. The society fully expects that by presenting some of its core beliefs (for example, the non-existence of any god or gods and therefore the false nature of any religion) some individuals will take offense. The protection of free speech is a core tenet of the society, and as such the society must prioritise the preservation of free speech over the prevention of offense, unless said speech is in breach of sections 1.1 or 1.2. All cases must be taken on an individual basis as assessed by the committee, and when necessary, KCLSU.

  • It’s a good idea, I’d suggest, to acknowledge the distinction between the ‘offensiveness’ of actions deemed to be harmful (e.g. racist or transphobic abuse, jokes about rape, derogatory language regarding mental health) and the ‘offensiveness’ of violating arbitrary faith-based religious taboos, e.g. drawing prophets, naming pineapples Muhammad, screening Monty Python’s Life of Brian.
  • What would harassment of or discrimination against religious groups look like, as opposed to doing things which might offend believers? What would some forms of it be?

6. The committee reserve the right to adjust this policy at any point if they deem it appropriate. The committee will try to inform all members of any changes, but are not responsible for any issues arising as a result of any member not being aware of the most up to date version of this policy. The most recent policy version can be requested from the committee at any time.

  • How can it be ensured this code of conduct – a better, less officious term than ‘policy’ – remains reasonable, and stays both relevant and open to change? How can members make sure it’s updated when necessary, considering committee members (especially at present) are by and large not from the marginalised social groups who might seek amendments/additions here? Conversely, how can the committee be held to account and prevented down the line from making unreasonable amendments? (Would it for instance be useful to consider suggested amendments at periodically, e.g. at the end of each term? Should only committee members be able to propose these?)

2. Process following a breach of the Policy

1. Discrimination can occur whenever it is not consciously challenged, and while it is the responsibility of any KCLAHSS member to actively avoid and prevent intimidation, harassment and discrimination, the society appreciates that recognising individual acts in a society where discriminatory language is commonplace can be challenging. For this reason, the society engages in an active “call out” policy – if any member sees language or behaviour they believe to be intimidating, harassing or discriminatory, the individual using said language or behaviour can be “called out” and told that their language or behaviour is not acceptable. The called out individual must then apologise, clarify any misunderstood intent and the discussion or event can continue.

  • ‘Recognising individual acts in a society where discriminatory language is commonplace can be challenging’ – in other words, it should be recognised that exclusionary statements or actions aren’t usually maliciously intended. Important, that.
  • While this may be controversial, I’d personally avoid the term ‘call out’ – it has rather combative connotations as opposed to, say, ‘flag up’. (I know this is spin, but in the light of the previous point, I feel there’s a case for setting a more cooperative tone.)
  • I’m not sure that compelling people to apologise seems fair; it seems like it might well prompt less-than-genuine apologies anyway. Perhaps a better suggestion would be that people whose actions have been questioned should acknowledge the objection?
  • Also, and I don’t think is a trivial point: should this response be automatically required as soon as a complaint is made? Isn’t it, in fact, the job of moderators or committee members to mediate/rule on complaints at moments like these, so the policy isn’t abused?

2. Any individual not willing to publicly call someone out for any reason may request that a committee member do so anonymously on their behalf.

3. If the called out individual disagrees with any particular event of being called out then this is irrelevant as far as their immediate actions are concerned. For ease of preserving a safe space and because all individual events cannot be predicted and described in this document, any act of being called out must be followed by action as per section 2.1, and any disagreement can be followed up with committee who will discuss the event with the individual. The committee will decide whether the original call out was appropriate, and any further complaints may be taken up via the official KCLSU complaints procedure.

  • This is at times difficult to read.
  • Similarly to the previous point: how are disruptive individuals to be dealt with who abuse the system by facetiously/hyperactively making complaints – for example, users online who register objection to this code of conduct by ‘calling out’ every other comment? Would it be fair or reasonable to expect everyone else to apologise, as per 2.1?
  • It seems to me that some way of discouraging that sort of exploitation of the system (i.e. obviously frivolous use of the sanctions in place) would be a good idea, although the phrasing of a rule to do that would need to be precise and carefully thought out.
  • More pragmatically, though: decisions about whether a particular complaint/’call-out’ was unfair/facetious/frivolous/unwarranted probably aren’t ones that can or should always be made after the fact by formalised process. It seems a good idea that there moderators/committee members/volunteers be trusted at times to uphold or dismiss complaints. (This is, after all, why they have to be elected.) If they fail to do this responsibly, formal procedures can always be taken to deal with that - this seems preferable to me to taking all complaints equally seriously, then evaluating their validity by official process later on, but I might be wrong.

4. The process for managing complaints has been taken directly from the KCLSU safe space policy. Any member of the KCLAHSS committee may act upon a complaint by:
a. Giving the complainant a platform to express their complaint.
b. Reiterate to speakers and those in attendance of the Safe Space policy and issue them with a warning that they can be asked to leave an event/space.
c. Ask any speakers or students complained against to leave.
d. Work with any security put in place to remove speakers/ attendees.
e. Make KCLSU aware of any complaint or incident that has violated the policy

  • Again, I think committee members/admins probably should be able to dismiss complaints when they judge them to be made in obvious bad faith by trolls, provocateurs etc. In case important, legitimate complaints were dismissed in error – which I wouldn’t expect to be all that common, officers hopefully being sensible and having good judgement – putting in place grievance or complaint procedures against committee members or admins at regular opportunity may be a good solution. (Allowing any of these to be aired and discussed at meetings, say, once per term.)

5. The escalation procedure for managing any breach of policy is as follows:
a. Call out
b. If repeatedly called out or if an individual fails to respond appropriately, or if the committee deems the transgression severe, the committee will contact the individual privately to detail to the individual where they have broken official policy and warn against future offence. This is considered the first and final written warning.
c. If the individual fails to show commitment to changing their behaviour, or if they continue in severe transgression or if the committee deems it the most appropriate step, the individual will be removed from the space, with the aid of KCLSU security if necessary.

  • Should the ‘private, individual contact’ step always be necessary? On Facebook pages, for instance, might not the occasional user be so absolutely, obviously out of line – threatening violence, or using extreme slurs – that immediate expulsion would be warranted? This would, of course, need to be kept in check. My suggestion would be that a specific list of behaviours be drawn up and stuck to which could prompt removal without warning.
  • How does this apply, moreover, at physical events, where private contact can’t always be established?

The committee are ultimately responsible for the upholding of this policy, and any member who feels the committee have failed in their duty is asked to inform them, or KCLSU as soon as possible.

* * *

Your thoughts, readers?

When Project Runway tried to do punk

Shortly after Dom Streater’s unexpected but not undeserving Project Runway win, the programme’s latest ‘All Stars’ series is upon us. Greta remains in hibernation; Tom and Lorenzo, citing fatigue, have opted out of coverage. It falls to me then, I suppose, to talk about it for the moment.

‘Your first challenge starts right now’, contestants from past seasons were informed as things began, ‘and it features one of the biggest trends of the year; punk!’ Alyssa Milano, Heidi Klum’s less German counterpart for All Stars, deserves praise for delivering this line without a shred of irony. Punk isn’t punk, near-necessarily, if it’s a trend – mass producing its aesthetics for commercial gain perverts literally wholesale an intrinsically anarchist, anti-consumerist approach to art and fashion.

Project Runway in particular is everything punk isn’t: corporate, profit-oriented, concerned with ‘looking expensive’ over ‘looking cheap’. It prizes quality designs tailored expensively from costly fabrics, favouring ones its experts see ‘flying off the shelves’, offering luxury technology, gainful employment and thousands of dollars to its winners – emerging triumphant from the current series, we were told within an instant of the ‘punk’ task’s introduction, will mean $750,000 worth of rewards.

It’s a series, moreover, whose stylistic impulses are painfully mainstream. Runway punishes clothes in which its wispy models are found to look ‘fat’, which bear overtly sexual overtones or aren’t ‘age-appropriate’, or which appear the products of untrained, inexpert, do-it-yourself labour. How any well-received design it featured could conceivably be punk is hard to know. Guest judge Debbie Harry, as she perused the challenge’s results, noted how high-waisted most ensembles were, suggesting the preferred ‘hourglass figure'; you wouldn’t see it in such excess, almost certainly, on visiting a punk bar, and a collage of women’s footwear there, we can be sure, wouldn’t look like this.

Shoes

How many women in the punk scene wear high heels like these? And isn’t it time Runway had a ‘flat footwear’ challenge – sneakers, sandals, Doc Martens, Brogues? (Images: Lifetime)

The real challenge here was to approximate – actually, appropriate – punk in a catwalk-friendly way, drawing on its outer hallmarks while in keeping with the fashion industry’s particular ideals, eschewing any deep sense of counterculture. That’s a hard balance to strike, and no doubt a harder one to judge. How do you mark designs consistently with Project Runway‘s main criteria (flawless and expert execution, saleability, a veneer of wealth) while asking that they mimic a style deviant by definition from those aims?

Contestants’ work and comments on it, perhaps due to this paradox, both ended up all over the place. Even the top-ranked trio of outfits looked wildly different from each other.

JEFFREYobverse

Third season winner Jeffrey Sebelia‘s design was, true to his roots and to his credit, the only one that really looked punk. That’s why I might well have sent him home for it.

I see a real punk woman wearing this dress; I see her making it herself, and I watched a bona fide punk rocker cut it. It looks pulled together from found material, sewn in a cellar with a foot-powered machine or else by hand; it’s owner didn’t buy it, dons what she likes and doesn’t care about what’s in.

It does not look like a winning Project Runway dress.

The shoulders aren’t even; the peplum seems pointless, and pointlessly huge at that; it looks lumpy, formed from disobedient fabric which is probably one textile too many here. The leopard print lapels are similarly shapeless, and Jeffrey had to fight pre-catwalk to press them into serviceable shape; the organza skirt looks amateurish, added perhaps to cover up an error in the black skirt underneath, and doesn’t seem to go with them or the black leather of the jacket. Though it doesn’t show up in this image, its finish looked rough and ready on the programme, nowhere more than in its messy-looking hems.

It’s a great dress by punk standards, but a misfire by Project Runway standards (at least, those which it usually applies). Crucially, the fact it sails so far into authentic do-it-yourself aesthetics means it fails to tread the fine line between punk and catwalk which this challenge demanded.

SETH

Seth Aaron Henderson, winner of season seven, had the opposite stumbling block. I see some punk here – the tartan and the braces in particular – but it feels obvious to the point of superficial gimmickry, and the rest has serious problems for me.

Coupled with the belts’ chunkiness and the deeply un-punk PVC-esque sheen of the jacket’s fabric, the fact we’d see bare breasts on its removal drives things overtly into sex shop territory. There’s nothing wrong with this, particularly – plenty of well-made fashion hints at kink – but since clothes like the ones evoked here (fitted, rubber, explicitly sexual in function) are found mainly in commercialised kink, on sale in red light districts, and not worn day-to-day, it teeters into looking costume-like.

The gothic horror style of the sleeves, straitjacket-like, and their red, Dracula-style lining doesn’t help – and costume qua costume, especially the kind one pays to rent and wear, isn’t a punk reference point.

More positively by far…

ELENAobverse

…I’ve no dispute at all with Elena Slivnyak being named the winner. Initially unsure of how to give her look an edge, she turned the jacket backwards when her model mentioned wearing clothes the wrong way round from time to time. See the reverse:

ELENAreverse

Perhaps what I like best about this concept is that while not focusing too much on the details, one could almost think the model – typically slender and small-chested – was facing forward, before noticing seemingly twisted, mutilated limbs.

That subtext’s gruesomeness means the outfit somehow speaks to the tortured, mangled aesthetic collision of the challenge, as if Project Runway itself had to be twisted out of shape to make punk work. The implications of violence and, again, a straitjacket give the garment an air of confrontation and discord at total odds with its colour palette, that of a Twister ice cream.

That aggression, channelled into style and grace despite itself, is definitively punk – a clear winner.

CHRISTOPHERobverse

A close second for me was Christopher Palu‘s design. Ordinarily, I’d say judges were right to rule this ‘safe’, but the absence of anything else I liked beside Elena’s look bumps this up into my top category, even if still a rank below her design.

It might have been a winner, had Christopher not snatched defeat from victory’s jaws by overworking it so much – the entire getup, an intriguing jeans-and-cardigan-of-post-apocalyptic-future number, was simply in dire need of edition.

Credit indeed for making something interesting and graceful out of safety pins, rather than using them for use’s sake (see below), but between those, the asymmetric layering, the the cape effect, the unorthodox hem of the grey tunic and the strange chain cross-formation, there’s just too much going on here.

Things only get more hectic when the model turns around:

CHRISTOPHERreverse

Christopher. Really. Edit.

A good catwalk piece nonetheless – perhaps the attire of a drama student in the eighties, punk-inspired dystopia of Mad Max.

The judges’ other picks for safety were, to quote Bill Bailey, about as punk as Enya.

DANIELobverse

Daniel Esquivel made a fitted black trouser suit! Not that he’s ever done that before.

Don’t worry, though – he put a garish, hot pink bale of straw around his model and a stripe across her face to stop us noticing. Somehow, I still did.

If anything this is futuristic, but even then, it’s only because of those details and the over-the-top shoulders. Very well made, but the thousandth time round, who cares? It’s not interesting, and it’s definitely not punk. Clear bottom two material for me, and might very possibly have gone home – I’d certainly rather see more from Jeffrey than from Daniel.

IRINAobverse

Neon straw does not a punk aesthetic make, Irina Shabayeva, nor tortured ribbons around wrists.

This was a confused look. The hair is punk, the ribbons reminiscent of Avril Lavigne ten years back and the dress more goth in my eyes than anything. Points here too for using zips interestingly, but they feel arbitrary. Without that pattern of clenched metal teeth, what would be punk about this?

The crisscrossing straps don’t help, and things take a serious turn for the worse from the rear view.

IRINAreverse

Those points for using zips interestingly? Lost, for failing to use one as, well, a zip. That undone fastening looks like the model got caught undressed, perhaps with an attractive stranger, fleeing the scene without stopping to do things up. (Punks don’t flee, and when they show things, it’s on purpose.)

KORTOobverse

Film noir Amy Winehouse, bouffant drearily deflated. Earnestly though, this silhouette says fifties housewife and the details on top do nothing to obscure that.

The collision of a pleated-looking skirt, sultry cutouts and chains in the back is jarring, too.

KORTOreverse

Nul points, Korto Momolu.

MYCHAELobverse

True of Korto’s chains and just as true of Mychael Knight‘s safety pins, holding a bodice together that appears to be made from low grade serviettes. Impeccably cut perhaps, but this is a cocktail-cum-sundress with steampunk eyewear, and ‘steampunk’ isn’t ‘punk’.

MELISSAobverse

Melissa Fleis made something I liked, and which felt punker by far than most of its competitors. Like Daniel’s work here, of course, I liked it the first five times I saw from her too, but something about the dress – its mixture of print and asymmetry, perhaps? – very much works, and the jacket frames it edgily.

It might be that Melissa’s familiar aesthetic was just suited to this challenge, and I shan’t blame her for that. Top three for me, if the least of those three. Judges didn’t care for it, but I did.

ARIobverse

Ari South. Oh Ari. You should not have gone home for this.

I’ll admit Ari – Andy when she placed third, prior to transition, in season eight – is a personal favourite of mine. I’d looked forward eagerly to seeing what she’d offer this time round, and will defend her to the death.

Granted, it’s far from exquisite. I don’t know what the swathe of lime green fabric there is doing, and I want to get rid of the necklace. The jacket has unmined potential. The shorts are well made, if not very punk.

I can’t agree with the judges that nothing here was punk in any way – the jacket’s collar and lapels feel vaguely biker, which developed further might have chimed with the relaxed shirt underneath. Turning what were trousers into the jacket’s sleeves was a stroke of brilliance; I only wish I could tell that’s what they were. (Some pockets or turnups featured there, say, could have saved this.)

In any case, this was competent if uninspired, and the styling hits the right note. This should not have placed in the bottom two.

VIKTORobverse

Neither should this, Viktor Luna‘s equally pedestrian-but-inoffensive effort. I can’t say how much it pained me seeing him and Ari, two champions of mine, as bottom two.

Yes, there are definite problems with this. The styling – bag, hair, shoes – kills the entire outfit, particularly in the latter case. (Team those trousers with a sneaker and their punk potential would light up.) If the jacket had shorter or more fitted, that might have saved it, and as judges said, the copper details needed more establishment.

But this ensemble and Ari’s, worse than Daniel’s tranquiliser of a trouser suit? Irina’s era-confused party dress? Korto’s waitress-at-a-funeral, Mychael’s heiress in space, Seth’s kinky vampire sex pirate? Viewers were spoilt for choice as far as better candidates for offage go.

One can’t help wondering if the poorly-defined, paradoxical nature of the challenge allowed judges freer rein than usual to expel contestants of their choice, criteria for success being less clear and more open to debate than ordinarily they’d be.

Let’s hope for a return to normalcy next week. My verdict, in the mean time:

Winner: Elena
High: Christopher, Melissa
Safe: Viktor, Ari, Seth, Irina Mychael
Low:
Jeffrey, Korto 
Eliminated: 
Daniel

A very British nightmare: 28 Days Later, Danny Boyle’s anti-imperialist zombie flick

Spoiler warning with immediate effect.

Content note: fictional scenarios mentioned of infanticide, racially motivated violence and (separate) sexual harassment, enslavement and attempted institutional and ritualistic rape-to-impregnate in a post-apocalyptic horror context.

Atop the Big Brother house, picking the undead off by long-range rifle through its outer fence, characters in Charlie Brooker’s Dead Set (Channel 4, 2008) wonder why zombies overrunning Britain gather outside. ‘Some kind of primitive intuition’, offers gauche outsider Joplin. ‘Don’t forget, this place was like a church to them.’ It’s a hat-tip to Dawn of the Dead, George A. Romero’s film whose walking dead are drawn by a instinct to a shopping centre where survivors hide; iconic scenes show them traipse brainlessly down retail aisles, hardly distinguishable from their former selves. Dead Set‘s treatment of reality TV reprises this as well, and both stories (if Brooker’s more overtly) are satirical, picturing consumerism’s nosedive into actual flesh-eating.

Zombie narratives make thought-provoking commentaries since they differ from us only in being dead – we see in them a duller, hungrier echo of ourselves, one less pronounced in vampires or werewolves, and their worlds feel instinctively like places ours has the potential to become. Loving genre parody Shaun of the Dead (2004) plays with this theme, and Dominic Mitchell’s social realist horror series In the Flesh, screened earlier this year on BBC Three, is built around it, but Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later was the film to codify the zombie flick as social criticism, reviving and updating it as a cinematic form. Its creatures, not zombies in strict terms at all, are raging, hyper-violent Britons, driven by fictional infection to mindless hostility; the aforementioned stories all owe something to it, and repeat views leave me more and more convinced it’s a horror of national identity.

Released ten years before the 2012 Olympics, whose opening Boyle would stage as a collage of British cultural iconography, the same hand is still visible at work in it. Bleak as it is, the film’s landscape is packed with imagery of this sort: a deserted London’s skyline, silent at its outset, a red bus on its side as if lying wounded; the black cab in which characters flee the city; the ruined castle where they picnic and stately home where they seek refuge; Manchester’s smoking ruins and the Lake District’s glacial valleys. Boyle’s Olympic ceremony leaps implausibly to mind in certain scenes, as a looted supermarket’s trolleys glide balletically into shot, horses canter unaware through English fields and wind turbines whirl next to the M6. Moments like these alternate surreally with ones of undiluted horror, suggesting the two might be sides of one coin. As we switch from pastoral idyll to Wyndhamian hell and back again, Cillian Murphy forced in his first major to end a feral child’s life, the thought occurs that what the script calls a ‘diseased little island’ might itself teeter between the two – that both are part of Britain’s character, infection merely letting them resurface.

Christopher Eccleston’s grotesque but somehow dignified commandant, Major Henry West, leads a troop of human villains who by obvious design (perhaps to emphasise this point) bring empire to mind. Lamenting his soldiers grow lebensmüde in their fortified, once upper class estate and sanctioning the rape of survivors Hannah and Selena (Skyfall‘s Naomie Harris in an early part), he confesses ‘I promised them women, because women mean a future.’ That Selena is black, a fact would-be perpetrator Corporal Mitchell fetishises, gives the soldiers’ planned sexual violence imperialist connotations, and procreation here seems little more than pretext for it: if pregnancy is what they want and not just an excuse, why Mitchell’s harassment of Selena on meeting her? Why no question of her current fertility, or whether ambiguously adolescent Hannah can conceive at all? Why force them, as West’s underlings do, to dress up in scarlet ball gowns?

Aptly-named West’s real motive may be as as colonial as his chaining and yoking the infected soldier Mailer, also black. ‘What do nine men do except wait to die themselves?’ he asks while justifying his scheme, hinting at homophobic paranoia – is West afraid the homosocial interplay of his brigade (‘You killed all my boys’, he later tells Murphy’s protagonist), unchecked by ceremonial sex with women, might flower into eroticism? These attitudes to sexuality, gender and race, ones Britain exported worldwide at its historical brutality’s peak, are dormant mainstays here of its establishment, reawakened by the (not quite) zombie plague. Even West’s voice implies he aspires to this regime, Eccleston’s native Salford showing through the major’s plummier, affected vowels, suggestive of a man with establishment pretensions, determined to appear above his roots.

A newer imperialism features too, if subtly, in Boyle’s film, released a year or so post-9/11 in Britain and mid-2003 stateside. Its opening shot, inserted perhaps during the War on Terror’s genesis, shows scenes of police attacks on British demonstrators, public chaos in the Middle East and topoi which would otherwise become familiar in the years after, before cutting away to reveal these on television screens, shown forcibly to a chimp clad with electrodes. The rage virus’s spread, about which nothing else is indicated, begins when animal advocates release infected chimps from this laboratory; should the fact this is the sole hint viewers get at the infection’s origins tell us, on some impressionistic level, that world politics Britain was entering at the time somehow created it? That the rage of rioters, soldiers and war victims the chimps are made to watch somehow transfers to them, and subsequently infected humans? Major West, at dinner with the film’s protagonists before revealing his men’s plans, comments that ‘people killing people’ is all he remembers seeing before the outbreak, ‘which to my mind puts us in a state of normality right now.’ The violence of the infected stems, it seems, from that already harboured and practised by Britain, especially through military men like him.

The corollary of this, embodied in Selena and Jim’s relationship, is that whatever use compassion has as an antidote to carnage, it has here and now. Their love story, a better one than zombie films have often told us, lies improbably at the film’s core: Selena, hard as nails and able to dismember her infected friend initially, regains some measure of humanity from Hannah and Jim during the film, despite initially warning him ‘If it happens to you, I’ll do it in a heartbeat'; Jim, initially reluctant to kill and slowing the party down, unearths his lethal side in order to save her and Hannah at the climax. When Selena, mistaking him for one of the infected as he kills Corporal Mitchell with his bare hands, hesitates to attack, Jim tritely, knowingly remarks ‘That was longer than a heartbeat.’ The moment their attitudes meet in the middle is when we know they care about each other, a balance between callousness and mercy being struck which offers some degree of hope, as if walking that fine line might be what saves them, and stops our own society’s collapse into an abattoir. Boyle’s film is a British nightmare, a horror of things lurking in our nation’s woodwork and what might befall us should we fail to toe the line.

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Updates on student union goings-on at LSE

Abishek Phadnis, one of the students castigated at LSE for donning Jesus and Mo t-shirts, gives his version of events in an account at Trending Central. Given the swamp of student union trouble waded through by atheists there in the past, he’s had no end of practice drafting succulently barbed rebukes; this latest doesn’t disappoint.

The trouble with advertising yourself as an institution for people who enjoy being “challenged intellectually, socially and personally” is that some of us will actually believe it, and expect you to live up to that promise by being a haven for free inquiry and free expression.

Paul Thornbury, the Head of LSE Security, was summoned to inform us that we were not behaving in an “orderly and responsible manner”, and that our wearing the t-shirts could be considered “harassment”, as it could create an “offensive environment”, which is an absurd claim to make of wholly innocuous t-shirts whose writing, in any case, is obscured unless you stop, stare and squint at the right angle while the wearer is still. And that’s if you visit the Atheist Society Stall, never the most popular hangout for deeply religious people anyway.

Mr Thornbury was unmoved by our arguments, and had us surrounded by security guards, with the warning that should we disobey his command, we would be dragged out. Browbeaten and awaiting a clearer interpretation of the rules, we said we would temporarily put on our jackets, and so in a surreal sequence, the Head of LSE Security hovered about us like a short-sighted tailor, assessing whether we had concealed enough, pausing to protest at one point that the word “prophet” was visible from a certain angle. He then deputed two guards to stand in the aisle, facing our stall, to stop us attempting to take our jackets off and to shadow us wherever we went till closing time.

Shortly after midday, Deputy Chief Executive O’Hara descended on us, demanding we take the t-shirts off as per his instructions of the previous day. We explained to him that we had redacted them this time, and offered to use our home-made tape to cover any other areas he wished to see covered. Our concessions came to nought. He refused to hear us out, and left, warning us that he was summoning LSE Security to remove us from the premises.

Surprisingly, several hours passed before their next move (a curiously tardy response for an administration purporting to counter harassment), in which Mr Thornbury reappeared near closing time, armed with a letter from the School Secretary Susan Scholefield, which claimed that since some students found our t-shirts “offensive”, we were in possible breach of the LSE Harassment Policy and Disciplinary Procedure. It claimed that our actions were “damaging the School’s reputation” and concluded by asking us to “refrain from wearing the t-shirts in question and cover any other potentially offensive imagery” and warning us that the School “reserves the right to consider taking further action if warranted”. On our way out at closing time, we saw Mr Thornbury, General Secretary Stoll and Deputy Chief Executive O’Hara skulking in the corridor, accompanied by a posse of security guards. They shadowed us to the exit.

Mr Stoll and the School have some nerve to claim that we were threatened because “it was feared” that we would “disrupt the event”, when in fact the event was progressing perfectly smoothly until it was disrupted by the ham-fisted intervention of the student union. We strove to remain calm, pacific and reasonable, standing our ground even as we were subjected to a barrage of increasingly egregious demands and jostled by security guards. If harassment is, as the LSE Harassment Policy defines it, anything that “violates an individual’s dignity and/or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment”, then we were harassed.

Our critics contend that we were being needlessly inflammatory. Quite apart from the cliché that the people who rule over us are the people we cannot criticise, do these people genuinely think it is a waste of time and effort defending freedom of expression from religious reactionaries? Could they suggest a better cause? Perhaps they will be swayed by the fact that the gifted cartoonist whose t-shirts we wore publishes his work under a pseudonym because of threats to his life.

These sickly invocations for decorum are of a piece with the risible claim made by Mr Stoll and the School that their clampdown was prompted by the fear that we were sabotaging the prospects of a sanitised Fair “designed to welcome all new students”, and that our t-shirts and posters were welcome once this delicate initial period had passed. We have good reason to doubt this.

For one thing, Mr Thornbury contradicted it with his warning that we would be evicted if we were ever seen wearing these t-shirts on campus again. And just last year, our efforts to better signpost ourselves for Muslim apostates on campus by adding “ex-Muslim” to our Society’s name (on the lines of ex-Mormon groups in the U.S., and for the same reasons) were gratuitously frustrated. First, the Union ordered us to prove “clear cooperation with the Islamic Society” before they would consider our application; then, they backed out with the wet excuse that the change could jeopardise the “safety” of ex-Muslims in our group, which came as news to the ex-Muslim organisations on whose insistence we’d sought the change.

But it isn’t all gloom.

In one of those beautiful little ironies of life that makes even a staunch atheist like me wonder if there might, after all, be a god, the LSE student newspaper reported in its edition of October 3 that LSESU had been rated the worst Students’ Union in London[.]

General Secretary Stoll, everything about whom smacks of New Labour, invited me last week to correspond with him about his student union’s actions, offering to comment on the record (i.e. for this blog). Our exchange of emails looked like this:

Hi Alex

How do you want this to work? You send some questions and I answer? Would just want to point out now that Im [otherwise engaged] all day, so you’ll probably have full answers to any questions by tomorrow night at the latest. 

Hope this is okay,

Regards

Jay

All right, let’s begin like this.

Since your official statement from Friday, while failing to mention details like attempts to confiscate society material and use of security staff, doesn’t challenge your atheist society’s account of what took place on Thursday, I’m assuming you don’t dispute it.

Perhaps you could start by explaining how that society’s treatment by LSE’s student union and staff is justified: why forcing them to cover their t-shirts (below), surrounding them with LSE security, trying to expel them from the building and threatening disciplinary measures was a fair course of action.

I’d like you to answer both in terms of ethics and of how they were breaching regulations – including specifically LSE’s harassment policy, which School Secretary Susan Scholefield told the group prohibited these t-shirts.

Thanks.

Alex

Hi Alex

Sorry to have to renege on this, but I have been advised by the LSE to not give further comment as we are releasing another official statement today. Further, I will be addressing the Union at our General Meeting where I believe the National Collective of Atheist Societies will be present – so there won’t be a deficit of accountability!

Again, apologies for the inconvenience but as Im sure you will appreciate, the press situation is constantly changing and we have to act accordingly.

Best

Jay

The statement in question says nothing very new:

At the LSE Students’ Union Freshers’ Fair on Thursday 3 October two students from the LSE SU Atheist Secularist and Humanist Society (ASH) wore t-shirts that were clearly designed to depict Mohammed and Jesus in a provocative manner. A number of students complained and the ASH students were asked to cover their t shirts by representatives of both the School and the SU.

This has led to a great deal of debate on social media platforms and concerns that the School will stop students from wearing similar t shirts at an event hosted by ASH on 15th October, the topic of which is the wearing of the Niqab. This is a student society event, open to the public, and utterly in the spirit of LSE’s commitment to free speech and the discussion of contentious issues. It will be chaired by Professor Chetan Bhatt, the Director of LSE’s Centre for the Study of Human Rights.

The event is quite different to the Freshers’ Fair, which must be accessible, inclusive and welcoming and which was in danger of being disrupted. The School hopes that those attending the event on 15th October will do so in a spirit of open discussion and respect and that any views expressed – orally, on clothing or however – will be in this spirit.

The School and the SU would also like to put on record concern over the nature of some of the social media debate, which has been highly personalised. The good campus relations group at LSE will take forward work to discuss the issues raised by the recent events in a calm manner that can further understanding, bring reconciliation and continue to make LSE the centre of global debate on the issues that matter to us all.

It’s a back-to-front approach to free expression, to say nothing else. If for instance LSE’s Islamic Society want to prohibit cartoons of prophets at their meetings, that’s up to them – communal spaces are exactly those from which heretical items shouldn’t be banned.

I’m inclined anyway not to trust the competence of a body whose work on ‘good campus relations’ starts with threatening and trying to intimidate people who wear blasphemous t-shirts. (‘This is an inclusive event,’ they told the atheist group, as Jesus and Mo‘s author puts it. ‘Get out!’) I’m especially disinclined to trust a student union whose staff and representatives seem unwilling, pressed over and over again, to answer critics.

Pragna Patel: the right to blaspheme is ‘a matter of life and death’

Pragna Patel, of Southall Black Sisters and Women Against Fundamentalism, is one of my favourite secularists. In the recent, ongoing rows at Britain’s universities over cartoons of Mohammad and tropical fruits named after him, I’ve been sharing her presentation from last year’s National Secular Society conference a lot.

Reading’s and LSE’s student unions have both taken action against atheist groups whose blasphemous actions they deemed to harass Muslims; in one case naming a pineapple Muhammad, in the other wearing t-shirts with cartoons of so-called prophets on them. Reminiscent of the case of Gillian Gibbons, arrested in Sudan six years ago for bestowing the name Muhammad on a teddy bear (Reading’s atheists named their pineapple in reference to this), the rulings have made reference to ‘Islamophobia’ and ‘religious hatred’, defining and proscribing blasphemy in the language of race relations. It’s exactly what New Labour’s Racial and Religious Hatred Act did in 2006, both student unions having utilised localised versions of it.

Patel speaks compellingly and instructively to the effect this positioning takes, especially to how the religious right in ethnic minorities has been granted representative status, and these ‘communities’ resultant religionisation has enforced conservative norms there at women of colour’s expense. (See in particular her discussion of how Behzti, a 2004 play about sexual and ‘honour’-based violence in a Sikh temple by Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti – herself a Sikh – was attacked on grounds of ‘religious hatred’, forcing her to go into hiding.)

It’s an intensely relevant discussion both for secularists and anti-racists, especially for those of us who aspire to be both. Since I couldn’t find a transcript anywhere online, I’m attaching one below. Read and take note.

It’s an absolute pleasure and an honour to be invited to this conference to discuss what I think to be one of the most urgent and probably the most difficult challenge that we all face, which is the challenge to stop or prevent the shrinking of secular spaces at all levels of public life.

The title of this conference is ‘Challenging religious privilege in public life’, and Peter [Tatchell] has just stolen my first few lines. I was going to say that it is both shocking and surreal, to say the least, to stand here in 2012 talking about the need to challenge the role of religion at the public table. We took the secular fabric of the public institutions and the largely secular public culture that exists in this country for granted, I think. I did not think that we would be adding the struggle for progressive secular spaces and secular values to the long list of struggles against inequality and injustice, and for democracy, that we then faced. But here I am discussing one of the most urgent challenges that we all face – one that involves countering the rise of the religious right in particular, in all communities, at the same time as challenging the accompanying rise in racism towards minorities, especially Muslims. In the time that I have, I cannot do justice to a discussion to both of these areas of struggle, but I would like to stress that the pursuit of human rights and its claims to universality will be futile if we do not, at the same time, challenge authoritarian and hierarchical systems of power that subjugate and infantilise others on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion or indeed any other category including gender, sexuality and disability.

Having said that, I of course will want to focus on the issue of secularism in particular, and its implications for the women that I work with – black and minority, especially South Asian women – and their struggles for equality. In the last few decades or so, it’s becoming clear that religion increasingly has a stake in politics. Even in this country, where it is assumed that religion has been formally relegated to the private sphere, it has never been absent from politics. Not really. However, this lack of separation of church and state has come back to bite with a vengeance. It has provided the space for religion, particularly Christianity, to encroach upon public institutions. The result of this lack of separation is that we now see a noticeable upsurge not only of the Christian right but also of radical and fundamentalist groups in other religions seeking to transform society along religious norms. It is, of course, a phenomenon that we are witness to the world over.

I think I perhaps, at this stage, should make it clear what I mean by secularism. By secularism I do not mean anti-religion, but my call and SBS’s call for a secular state (which Britain isn’t) does presuppose the need to ensure that there is a separation of religion from political power. This means that the rule of law and other essential political, legal and civil-society institutions and their functions should not be informed by patriarchal and anti-democratic religious values that are highly discriminatory and divisive in practice. Secularism in itself does not guarantee equality or democracy, and history tells us this quite clearly, but it is an important precondition, and that is why the demand for a secular state must also be tied to the demand for democracy – a democracy that is meaningful in that it advances, rather than hinders, access to fundamental rights and freedoms.

So now I want to come back a little bit to the SBS experience. In the UK religion is increasingly being used as a tool to reshape relations and the social contract between the state and minority communities. Needless to say this development has very specific consequences for all progressive struggles, but especially for those waged by minority women, whose bodies have become the battleground for the control of community representation. Over the last two decades, the British state has vigorously promoted a religious or faith-based approach to minorities, notwithstanding the often contrary and assimilationist tendencies of successive government agendas on cohesion, integration, ‘Big Society‘ and localism. (I was interested to see that the first speaker of the day was Ted Cantle, and he was, I think, instrumental in promoting a very integrationist approach, but it is an approach which I found highly flawed in respect of minorities.)

This faith-based agenda is partly to do with a perceived need to appease conservative religious leaderships within those communities, to keep them on side as it were for the War on Terror, but it’s partly promoted in the belief that the right to manifest religion signifies equal treatment of minorities, and it’s a belief that’s actually shared by sections of the so-called progressive left. Our experience of working on the rights of minority women in the UK reveals that wherever the religious right are in the ascendency, the right to manifest religion always overshadows the right to freedom from religion. Of course this reflects a number of economic, social, political, global and national trends, but the result is in any event an ever-diminishing welfare state and a corresponding increase in the communalisation of minority communities, with community groups and civil society organising solely around religious identity.

The faith-based approach to minorities, as driven as it is by ideological and economic imperatives, is in effect a political resource used by the state and the religious right within minority populations to gain power and privilege. It is in this context that I say the struggle for human rights by many black and minority women in the UK is now inextricably linked to the struggle for secular spaces, and such struggles have taken on a sense of urgency.

The turning point in compelling feminist organisations like Southall Black Sisters to make explicit the link between gender equality and secularism was of course the Rushdie affair, and it’s obviously a very topical moment now, with his autobiography coming out. That moment represented the growing power of religious fundamentalists, who used the then-multicultural and now multi-faith terrain to pursue a vigorous de-secularisation agenda. The early nineties saw the rise of the religious right in all religions in the UK, and that created the conditions for the emergence of a culture of intolerance, a culture of fear and censorship, that remains with us in heightened and incendiary forms. Since the nineties we have witnessed with alarming frequency religious fundamentalist and authoritarian protest to any form of dissent from an imposed religious identity, much of which has centred directly and indirectly on the control of women’s sexuality.

Nor are such protests confined to Muslims only. Hindus, Sikhs, Christians in the majority community too have sought to impose strict religious identity on followers by clamping down on dissent. The furore created around the play Behzti in 200[4], as many of you remember, is an example of one of the many attempts by the religious right (in this case the Sikh right) to suppress dissent, and that involved silencing minority women who dared to speak out against religious and cultural impositions that undermined their freedom and rights. For those of you who remember, the Behzti play furore involved protests by Sikh fundamentalists – but also so-called moderates – against the play. (Behzti means dishonour, and it dealt with the issues of rape and abuse of power within a Sikh temple.) The so-called Sikh community took offence, protested and had the play removed from the Birmingham Rep[ertory Theatre] company. The author had to go into hiding.

That’s just one example. I can quote to you many, many more that don’t even make the headlines. We in SBS are aware also of countless cases around the country where South Asian and other minority women have been prevented from voicing their thoughts and prevented from exercising self-determination. Religious institutions have been involved [with] or condoned domestic and sexual violence and abuse within minority communities. There have even been cases where religious leaders have sought to ‘exorcise’ women or children by beating them, sometimes to death, for non-conformist behaviour perceived as possession by evil spirits. Last week there was one such report of a woman who, with the collusion of the local imam, was beaten by her family, who thought she was possessed by evil spirits. That was in Bethnal Green, I think.

Whilst these cases represent the more dramatic end of the spectrum, women find their aspirations quashed by religious leaders on a day to day basis. They often find themselves trapped at home because of the stranglehold of culture and religion, and as minority women in the UK have no effective political representation and no power to challenge the hegemony of the religious establishments, they (along with other subgroups) have the most to lose. Women have only their voices of dissent as a tool by which to demand more freedom. The suppression of dissent is therefore not just a question of freedom of expression, but literally a matter of life and death for many.

This is precisely why we supported Salman Rushdie, and why we also opposed the creation of the new offence of ‘Incitement to Religious Hatred‘ in 2005. We perceived it as an attempt to introduce the outdated blasphemy laws through the back door, and argued that the main targets would not be those engaged in fermenting religious hatred toward others, but those who wished to dissent from religion itself – in other words, those representing a challenge to orthodox traditions such as women, gays and lesbians. Our fears were confirmed [by] a spokesperson from the Sikh (so-called) Human Rights Group, who in response to the Behzti affair stated on television that if the law had existed at the time, the group would have used it to prevent the play from being performed.

The state’s faith-based agenda has given a further fillip to fundamentalists and religious right forces, who are in the process of consolidating their power and control over communities and resources. Partly in response to the rise of anti-Muslim racism, many Muslims including Muslim women are becoming increasingly vigilant in their efforts to protect religious identity, and this has resulted in a series of demands for greater religious recognition in public spaces. Dominant demands for legal tolerance, cultural rights and access to public resources, evident in (for example) campaigns to extend the blasphemy law, funding for religious schools, dress codes and the right to apply customary or personal religious laws in the governance of family affairs instead of civil law are just some examples, and – not to be outdone – other minority groups, predominantly Hindus and Sikhs, have followed suit, demanding that their educational welfare and family needs also need to be addressed in accordance with their religious values.

Such demands use the language of human rights, and even anti-racism, but actually what they’re doing is subverting these very principles, stripping them of their progressive meaning. Their demands seek not only to alter public culture but to strengthen the control of women in the private sphere. What is particularly troubling about all of this is that these demands have been taken to represent a strong counter-hegemonic voice to so-called Western cultural and religious imposition. To that extent, at all levels of society, minority rights are increasingly and almost exclusively linked to the right to manifest religion, and our concern at SBS is that in the process, the state is unable to distinguish between valid demands for equality and those that simply mask and perpetuate inequality.

Instead, the state happily obliges by promoting and funding multi-faith forums and projects at central and local government levels, to tackle all sorts of social problems even where those involved in such forums have had no historical interest in gender equality or social justice and human rights issues. Most are only concerned to ensure that the demand for equality is substituted for more religious literacy in all public institutions – that is, they demand that the state recognises the supposedly authentic theological values and traditions of minorities, but they don’t want, and erase in fact, the diverse, syncretic, liberal, cultural, political, secular traditions (including feminist traditions) within communities. It’s a demand which elements of the progressive left are all too willing to accommodate.

For the sake of clarity, and so that there’s no misunderstanding, I need to stress that equality and human rights are not Western concepts. The struggle for equality and human rights by black and minority women against religious and patriarchal authority in the UK, and indeed by women and others across the world, show that they are waged on a daily basis – often simultaneously with struggles against Western imperialism and racism that is also troubling because it’s increasingly linked to Christian evangelism. The feminist and human rights scholar Karima Bennoune, who is based in the US, has stated that the struggle to keep religion and the law separate is one of the most urgent struggles that is now taking place globally. This is certainly true of our struggles as minority women in the British context, where the gains that we have made in compelling the state to fulfil its obligations as the guarantor of human rights are increasingly under threat.

Although the state has begun to assert more clearly that harmful cultural practices such as forced marriage [and] honour-based violence will not be tolerated (and that in itself is a legacy of our short-lived attempt to create a mature multiculturalism), the faith-based approach contributes to a set of contradictory policies and practices aimed at recognising and protecting religious identity, increasingly to the detriment of women’s rights. For example, on the one hand, the state acknowledges issues such as domestic violence, honour crimes, forced marriage, female genital mutilation etc. as an abuse of women’s human rights, and actively seeks to intervene in its protective capacity, but on the other hand – in the face of the power of religious claims – it fails to acknowledge the lack of ability and the absence of social permission for the more vulnerable in minority communities to exercise choice in determining their cultural and religious affiliations, practices and identity.

Yet the emphasis on religious identities in social policy and practice brings with it a number of problems linked to questions of validity and authenticity: questions about which religious identities and demands are valid, and whose opinion constitutes the authentic voice, are matters that are rising in the battles that are now taking place. This is clearly evident in recent debates and development in respect of the demand to incorporate aspects of personal laws (Sharia laws) in relation to the family in particular within the English legal system – a move which, unsurprisingly in an economic context where controlling time-consuming litigation and slashing the legal aid budget is an overriding objective, is encouraged by leading establishment figures in the judiciary and the church itself.

We conducted a study at Southall Black Sisters to map some of these shifts toward multi-faithism, and implications on policy and practices for minority women. The findings of that study showed that women absolutely valued their right to freedom from aspects of their religion and culture, a freedom which is often seen [as] necessary to secure their right to life, to be free from inhuman and degrading treatment, to choice in marriage, to private life, to freedom of expression, to an education and to a fair trial. They also complained of the rise of religious leaders and institutions as providers of services: they felt that it would threaten their access to protection and justice. They cherished the secular space provided by Southall Black Sisters, which they saw as an empowering space, a space that enables them to gain access to other essential secular state, welfare and legal services, which actually provide the final safety net when they are at risk of serious harm or [losing] their lives, and they were clear that however flawed the secular nature of the state, it did at least enable them to assert their fundamental rights and freedoms in the family.

Yet in spite of the history of achievement of feminist groups like us, and there are many others up and down the country, support for and engagement with religious forums (such as the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal for example) is gathering pace. On the face of it, formalised religious forums of arbitration such as the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal present themselves as professional bodies that seek to adhere to formal legal rules of engagement and to non-discriminatory principles, but what they are in fact seeking to do is create the conditions for the establishment of parallel legal systems based on divine law. Quite apart from the fact that in the UK there is no substantive evidence, as our study showed, that the majority of Muslim or other minority women want religious arbitration in respect of personal and family matters, we actually know from women’s experiences of formal and informal religious arbitration systems that they are gender-biased and profoundly discriminatory. There is nothing in the operation of these forums to suggest that they are progressive on women’s rights, irrespective of what they say publicly and of the views of some of the individuals associated with it. Backing religious forums will therefore in effect mean state backing for the most discriminatory and often abhorrent practices to be endorsed, and backing such forums will actually enforce a lack of choice on the most vulnerable within minority communities, especially women and children.

In our view, the aim of the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal and other religious tribunals is to present themselves as legitimate mediators on women’s issues, but in reality they attempt to oust the position of feminist organisations that have historically campaigned on gender-related violence and gender equality in the family. The political context, therefore, and the issues of power that flow from demands from separate or parallel legal systems cannot be overlooked. They are made by those who have specific political agendas, and who are themselves unrepresentative of and unaccountable to the communities they claim to represent. So in conclusion, we would say that the duty to exercise due diligence, in order to prevent, investigate, punish acts for example of violence against women or other violations of women’s rights (including those carried out by non-state actors) is a necessary function of a democratic state. In our view this duty is being subverted by the state’s accommodation of demands for personal religious laws to govern family affairs, and for greater recognition of religious identity in public institutions.

In the final analysis, I suppose the question that has to be asked – but it remains unanswered so far – is why, despite evidence of discrimination and denial of rights, especially for women and sexual minorities, there is such widespread acceptance that family law can be culturally specific rather than subject to universal human rights norms. I think the connection between gender, equality and religious-political movements needs to be urgently examined, since it has human rights ramifications for the UK, particularly for the vulnerable in the UK. The current promotion of faith-based projects in all areas of civil society is in danger of compromising the gender equality agenda for black and minority women and for sexual minorities in particular. Ultimately though, there needs to be constant vigilance against the use of women’s issues, both by the state and religionists, in pursuit of other agendas.

LSE threatens disciplinary action against atheists

LSE students’ union, which on Thursday tried to confiscate material from its atheist society during freshers’ fair, had security guards surround and follow members and threatened them with expulsion, has issued a public statement.

Jay Stoll, the SU’s general secretary, has the following to say about what happened:

At the LSE Students’ Union Fresher’s Fair on Thursday 3 October two students from the LSE SU Atheist Secularist and Humanist Society (ASH) wore t-shirts that were clearly designed to depict Mohammed and Jesus in a provocative manner.

Here are the t-shirts. Judge for yourselves.

The Students’ Union, which runs the event, received a number of complaints from other students.

The SU asked the students to cover the t-shirts in the interests of good campus relations. The society remained free to share their literature and views.

One member of the society declined to do this. The student was attended by a cameraman and it was feared that his behaviour would disrupt the event.

The SU referred the matter to the School. Representatives of the School in attendance agreed that the matter was a cause for concern and that the presence of the t-shirts was in danger of eroding good campus relations and disrupting efforts to run a Fresher’s Fair designed to welcome all new students.

LSE is committed to promoting freedom of expression and is known for its public events and wide range of speakers. In this instance, it was judged that the actions of the students were undermining what should have been a welcoming and inclusive event.

Banning cartoons to promote freedom of expression; trying to make people leave so as to be inclusive. Orwellian, isn’t it? And it only gets worse.

Here’s what happened yesterday, on the second day of freshers’ fair, according to society members:

In silent protest at our treatment the day before … and still unsure as to what parts of the t-shrits had allegedly caused “offence”, we put tape (with the words “Censored”, “This has been censored” and “Nothing to see here”) over the faces of the “Jesus and Mo” figures on the t-shirts.

Shortly after midday, the LSESU Deputy Chief Executive Jarlath O’Hara approached us, demanding we take the t-shirts off as per his instructions of the previous day. We explained to him that we had covered the “offensive” parts this time, and offered to use our tape to cover any other areas deemed “offensive”. He refused to hear us out, insisting that if we did not take off the whole t-shirt, LSE Security would be called to bodily remove us from the premises. He left, warning us that he was summoning LSE Security to eject us.

At about 2:30pm, Paul Thornbury, Head of LSE Security, delivered a letter from the School Secretary Susan Scholefield. The letter claimed that some students found our t-shirts “offensive”, even though we had covered up the “offensive” parts of the t-shirts. It claimed we were in possible breach of the LSE Harassment Policy and Disciplinary Procedure, and that our actions were “damaging the School’s reputation”, and “undermining the spirit of the LSESU Freshers’ Fair and good campus relations at LSE”. It concluded by asking us to “refrain from wearing the t-shirts in question and cover any other potentially offensive imagery”, and warning us that the School “reserves the right to consider taking further action if warranted”.

Shortly thereafter, having completed our work at the stall, we began packing up. As we were about to leave, Paul Thornbury returned to confirm we were leaving. We told him that we were, and as we left the room, we saw that he was accompanied by several security guards, LSESU General Secretary Jay Stoll and Deputy Chief Executive O’Hara. The Security officials left the building at the same time as we did, confirming our impression that they had only been there to monitor us, like the two security guards positioned at our stall the day before to stop us attempting to put our t-shirts back on.

I don’t think those t-shirts damaged LSE’s reputation. You know what I think damages its reputation? Enforcing blasphemy taboos from one conservative interpretation of one particular religion at its freshers’ fair.

It’s abundantly clear officials, when asked, couldn’t identify what parts of the cartoons the t-shirts bore were objectionable. It’s clear in particular that it wasn’t the text, which yesterday was covered. The mere fact a cartoon showing (Jesus and) Mohammad in a humorous way – not one which in any way endorsed ostracism of Muslims – was present at its freshers’ fair was enough for the union to make harassment allegations.

Previously, and prompted by Jesus and Mo cartoons’ presence on the atheist society’s Facebook page, the student union passed a ‘No to Islamophobia’ motion, designed to oppose anti-Muslim bigotry in the same way as anti-Semitism. Unfortunately, its resulting rules define ‘Islamophobia’ (a stupidly misleading term, as Marwa Berro describes here) in the following vague, unwieldy way:

a form of racism expressed through the hatred or fear of Islam, Muslims, or Islamic culture, and the stereotyping, demonisation or harassment of Muslims, including but not limited to portraying Muslims as barbarians or terrorists, or attacking the Qur’an as a manual of hatred

Tackling racist, anti-migrant, anti-Muslim sentiments is a project that, as I wrote yesterday, deserves support. (I’ve written before at length about the atheist movement’s failings here.) But this rule makes it impossible to know where prejudice ends and blasphemy begins. Muslim students, like anyone else, are entitled not to be bullied, harassed or demonised for their religion – this is a serious, credible problem. They are not entitled, any more than anyone else, to have things excised from public space which violate their faith-based taboos.

It’s clear some think a named pineapple is racist and Islamophobic; some think any cartoon depicting Mohammad, no matter how or to what end, is racist and Islamophobic. Rules made here need to distinguish between xenophobic, racist demonisation of Muslims and criticism or satire of beliefs. Events like these are what we get when they don’t, and LSE student union’s oily careerist bureaucrats seem not to see this.

Lessons from Atheism Plus

A+ began just over a year ago. I’ve never been wedded to it personally, though I like the general concept; my interaction with it is limited, more or less, to being mildly critical in August 2012 and fending off some more ridiculous attacks this April.

This expresses my broader feelings rather well. I’m supportive, in principle, of atheist discourse being more socially conscious; I’m supportive of Atheism Plus existing, for those who want to be involved with it; I’m supportive of them taking on the A+ label, if so they wish, while personally I don’t feel much need for further labels; while I’ve always thought A+ has much potential, I’d raise strategic concerns about parts of it; at the same time, the core of opposition is contrived, reactionary, antediluvian. (Those core opponents by and large seem to find subtlety and nuance challenging, so I hope this makes things clear enough.)

That the brand now tends to be drenched whenever mentioned in automatic vitriol and derision – the same derision on the whole that greets anything resembling online feminism – has poisoned the well to a hard-to-ignore degree. It’s tough to retain the optimism many people had about the project when it started, but the pushback looks to me like it distorts the picture now and then. Atheism Plus has a forum with several thousand members, it’s been represented at national conventions (and despite the down-voting campaigns of YouTube atheism’s lesser denizens, got a strongly positive reception there), it’s developed a communal means of dampening harassment and abuse on Twitter and significantly raised awareness of accessibility improvements (transcripts for video discussions, signing at events, audio-convertible web content). These strike me as good steps, and Atheism Plus – as I’ve been reminded in my more critical moments – isn’t going anywhere.

It takes subcultures time, and sub-subcultures more time still, to stabilise. I don’t identify as A+, I’m not a member of its forum, I’ve never had much engagement with it and aspects of the project trouble and dissatisfy me. At the same time, its potential to be valuable once things calm down remains, and it might be sensible not to let jeers and smears drown out its uses thus far. RealityEnthusiast has a blog post testifying personally to some of these:

I thought as a group we’d do things like talk, write, and start various projects. I thought I would help by organizing and writing. I assumed I was qualified to do both. I did not expect to be confronted almost immediately by the staggering dimensions of my own ignorance and arrogance.

I am a white, straight, cisgendered, American man. I have a history of depression, and I suspect I fall somewhere on the autism spectrum, but for the most part I happen to conform to the dominant culture’s standards for normalcy. Until I began to pay serious attention to the stories and experiences of people not like myself, however, I had little reason to think critically about those standards, how they inform my identity, how they affect the way I view and treat others, and how they operate in our society.

Atheism Plus put me in contact with people who did not have the privilege of ignoring or treating as academic problems such as racismsexismtransphobia, and ableism. These people were fighting daily for the recognition of their humanity. They did not need my analysis, advice, well wishes, statements of solidarity, or even my friendship–they needed my assistance. They knew more about the reality of their struggles, the goals and methods of their oppressors, and the needs of their respective communities than I did, so if I really wanted to help out, I would have to shut up, listen, and learn.

Until the Atheism Plus forums gave me access to safe-space conversations among trans and genderqueer people about how they experience their bodies during sex, I did not realize how simplistic some of my assumptions about the body, gender, sexuality, and human identity really were. The gender I feel myself to be is not hampered or hindered by the physical realities of my body. I don’t know what it is like to have a disappointing or frustrating relationship with my body, to have my natural expectations and desires stymied by the presence or absence of certain parts, or to have parts that refuse to provide the sensations I need for fulfillment. Neither does the gender I feel myself to be conflict very much with the gender role I was assigned at birth. I don’t know what it is like to be counted as a type of person I know I am not, to be forced to move, act, speak, and look in ways that are fundamentally unnatural to me, to be told the specific combination of traits that are natural to me is impossible and therefore non-existent, or to have my purported non-existence render my humanity invisible to most.

Through reading firsthand accounts of people whose bodies and societies betray them, I was able to see that gender dysphoria is not the result of confusion or defiance, but has to do with brain/body parity and the ubiquity of inaccurate and incomplete gender categories. Dysphoria manifests in the lives of the affected in understandable ways and requires practical solutions at both the individual and societal level. I credit Atheism Plus with illuminating the struggles of gender-nonconforming people for me and showing how their more visible choices such as clothing and hairstyle do not exist solely for others, but connect to their internal reality in meaningful ways and have potentially restorative functions.

Real people with gender dysphoria alerted me to a fact I was aware of but hadn’t really considered before: I have a gender! Before this, I thought my male body automatically dictated my masculinity. But, if a quirk of genetics or hormones could have easily resulted in a major break between who I feel myself to be and what kind of body I have, then minor breaks might exist. And if society could get trans and genderqueer people so disastrously wrong, it could get me wrong. A critical look at my gender identity and role was now possible for me. This was tremendously empowering. I was free to deconstruct and reconstruct my identity to better suit my actual nature.

In their writings, womanist and black feminist activists revealed the existence and functioning of some of the stereotypes occluding my vision. I began to look at popular media portrayals of black women in a much more critical way after the racist utility of many of these images was made evident. I also began to understand the enormity and complexity of the project to alienate and stigmatize black women, the toll this constant assault takes on their minds and bodies, and the reactions such treatment can elicit.

I would like to conclude with a list of 25 noteworthy things I learned during my first year of involvement with Atheism Plus.

I have my critiques of Atheism Plus, and I’ll offer them soon enough. Give RealityEnthusiast’s list a look, though. It’s encouraging reading: that people are learning this from our community doesn’t make atheists look bad, it makes us look better.

Atheist society harassed by student union at LSE freshers’ fair

Grave matters at Reading University. Grave and worrying similar matters in London too.

Yesterday at the London School of Economics’ freshers’ fair, the atheist society manned their table wearing t-shirts which bore images from Jesus and Mo, a popular atheist web strip satirising religion, principally Christianity and Islam.

It’s justified to grimace in anticipation when cartoons of Mohammad come up. Fear not: Jesus and Mo is nothing like the Jyllands-Posten cartoons from 2005 – funnier, cleverer, lacking the xenophobic undertones and simply better. I don’t know which images were used on the group’s t-shirts, but here are a selection of past favourites.

That last one, I regret to say, refers to what the t-shirts prompted. They were worn, other than for purposes of humour, in response to LSE student union’s actions last year. To quote the NSS’s summary:

In 2012 the LSE Students’ Union effectively made blasphemy an offence following protests from Muslim students about a Jesus and Mo cartoon posted on the LSE Atheist, Secularist and Humanist student group’s Facebook page.

The LSESU passed a motion proposing that ‘Islamophobia is a form of anti-Islamic racism’. The Union resolved “To define Islamophobia as “a form of racism expressed through the hatred or fear of Islam, Muslims, or Islamic culture, and the stereotyping, demonisation or harassment of Muslims, including but not limited to portraying Muslims as barbarians or terrorists, or attacking the Qur’an as a manual of hatred”.

It said it would take a firm stance against all Islamophobic incidents at LSE and conduct internal investigations if and when they occur.

Ostracisation and demonisation of British Muslims is, to be absolutely sure, a serious problem. It is not solved by overly broad proscriptions which silence critique of beliefs and empower the Islamist far right. LSE’s atheists no doubt think similarly, which is why they donned the t-shirts. Here, according to their official statement, is what happened next:

At around noon, we were approached by LSESU Community and Welfare Officer Anneessa Mahmood, Anti-Racism Officer Rayhan Uddin, and Deputy Chief Executive Jarlath O’Hara and several others who identified as LSESU staff.

Without explanation, Anneessa Mahmood started removing material from the stall. When challenged, she claimed that it was “offensive”. In addition, the LSESU staff members demanded that we remove our t-shirts. We were told that should we not comply we would be physically removed from the premises. When we asked for the reason for this request, the LSESU officers stated that several students had complained about our t-shirts. When we asked what rules or regulations we were in breach of, they told us that they did not need to give reasons for removing students, and we would be informed at a later point in time. As we refused to take off our t-shirts or leave without appropriate explanation, we were told that LSE security would be called to physically remove us from the building. We came to the Freshers’ Fair to promote our society to new students. Our ability to do that was heavily curtailed by the actions of the LSESU staff. We especially felt that the abrasive behaviour of the LSESU staff was not aimed at protecting other students from harm, but rather an attempt humiliate us in front of dozens of students.

When the LSE security arrived, we were asked to cover our t-shirts or leave LSE premises. When we asked for the rules and regulations we were in breach of, we were told that the LSE was being consulted about how to proceed. After a period of consultation, Kevin Haynes (LSE Legal and Compliance Team) and Paul Thornbury (LSE Head of Security) explained to us that we were not behaving in an “orderly and responsible manner”, and that the wearing of the t-shirt could be considered “harassment”, as it could “offend others” by creating an “offensive environment”. We asked what exactly was “offensive” about the t-shirts, and how the display of a non-violent and non-racist comic strip could be considered “harassment” of other students. Paul Thornbury told us that it was “clearly deceitful” of us to say that we had not intended to cause offence and that we did not feel that we had behaved inappropriately or harassed other students. This unreasonable behaviour of the LSE and LSESU staff caused us serious distress, particularly the allegations that our motives were to “offend” others.

At the end of this conversation, five security guards started to position themselves around our stall. We felt this was a tactic to intimidate us. We were giving an ultimatum that should we not comply immediately, we would be physically removed from LSE property. We made it clear that we disagreed strongly with this interpretation of the rules, but that we would comply by covering the t-shirts. When we covered our t-shirts with jackets, the head of LSE security told us that “this was not enough”, and that we had to zip up the jackets. When we zipped up the jackets, we were told that this was still not enough, as the word “prophet” was still visible at the top. After that, the head of LSE security told us that as he believed that we might open the jackets again when was going to leave, two security guards were going to stay in the room to monitor our behaviour. These two security guards were following us closely when we went in and out of the room. We felt that this highly unnecessary and geared at intimidating and humiliating us in front of others.

It’s less than encouraging to see this so soon after Reading University’s atheist group was banned, for highly similar (if even less inflammatory) behaviour. Combatting racist harassment of Muslims is a worthy goal, and secularists should support it; it is not a worthy basis to censor and silence critical satire of belief – especially in intimidating, humiliating ways which themselves harass.

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Reading University has banned its atheist society. Why? Because they named a pineapple Muhammad

Gillian Gibbons, a teacher from Liverpool who worked in Khartoum, was arrested in 2007 for naming her class teddy bear Muhammad. Authorities detained her in a police cell, and a court sentenced her to fifteen days in prison and deportation. This was a comparatively lenient decree: Gibbons, charged triply with insulting religion, incitement of hatred and public contempt for religious beliefs, might have faced forty lashes for these under Sudanese law.

A year ago as freshers’ fair took place at Reading University, its atheist society sought to raise awareness of blasphemy laws’ global effects, citing the Gibbons case specifically. To pique passing first years’ interest as a conversation-prompter, they wrote the name Muhammad on a post-it note and stuck it to a pineapple, assuming no doubt that this exhibit’s surreal whimsy couldn’t possibly be viewed as aggressive, prejudicial or intolerant. They erred in thinking so: after the best part of a day passed without signs of trouble, a representative of Reading’s student union (who ran the fair) informed them a number of complaints had been received, adding the earnest but Pythonesque instruction, ‘Either the pineapple goes, or you do.’

According to a statement the group made which hit the press:

They seized the pineapple and tried to leave. However, the pineapple was swiftly returned, and shortly was displayed again, with the name Mohammed changed to that of Jesus.

Shortly afterwards, the second RUSU staff member returned and ordered [us] to leave the Freshers’ Fayre. At this point, a group of around five students, some of whom self-identified as Muslim, approached the stall and began to criticise us, asking and telling us to remove the pineapple. Though these students mainly engaged in discussion, one removed the label from the pineapple without our permission.

As the RUSU staff member merely raised his voice and shouted at the [society] president when he attempted to explain our position, we were ultimately forced to leave the venue. However, several other societies at the Fayre offered to continue distributing our leaflets, and we continued to hand out leaflets outside the venue until we were again asked to leave by RUSU staff members, this time accompanied by RUSU security staff.

‘Our Freshers’ Fayre’, the student union commented, ‘is an inclusive event for all students. As the societies [sic] actions were causing upset and distress to a number of individual students and other societies attending we took the decision to ask them to leave.’

Defending the society’s expulsion on grounds of inclusivity seems Orwellian in the extreme. It’s true events can’t and shouldn’t be equally inclusive of women and misogynists, homophobes and queer people, Muslims and the far right’s anti-migrant racism – but this wasn’t an anti-Muslim display. It wasn’t a depiction of Mohammad as a suicide bomber, for example; it wasn’t a placard blaming Sweden’s Muslim populace for its rape statistics; it was a tropical fruit emblazoned with a so called prophet’s name, so as to start discussions about blasphemy and free expression. (The atheist society, when the English Defence League planned a demonstration on their campus earlier this year, soon organised a counter-protest. The EDL themselves were acting in response to the Muslim Society at reading hosting a talk by Abu Usamah at-Thahabi, a supporter of queer and LGBT people’s violent murder. The event was proscribed, but only due to fears of violence; while the Muslim Society’s views on tropical fruit remain unknown, no action against them seems to have been taken.)

Reading’s student union, after this, took disciplinary action against the atheist society, issuing it in spring term this year with an official warning. According to Rory Fenton, president of the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies (who really, seriously need to fix their name), ‘the union then updated their behavioural policy to forbid societies from causing “offence” to other students or even to members of the wider local community. The policy offers no definition of offence, creating in essence a blasphemy ban.’

In order to continue operating under the union’s auspices, the society was asked to sign an agreement to avoid causing offence in future. They declined to do this, quite understandably for a body whose central premise is that other people’s most cherished views are wrong, and have now been disaffiliated. The atheist society, officially speaking, no longer exists – while it still meets and recruits, union officials have now informed committee members they consider it dissolved, removing financial support for the group’s activities, room-booking privileges for events and rights to a table at freshers’ fair. (A few days ago, as autumn term began, members stood outside the premises to advertise.)

The union has, in effect, banned atheist societies – banned anyone, specifically, who won’t abide by a faith’s religious taboos which they don’t practise and who won’t refrain from violating vague ideals of non-offensiveness through benignly blasphemous displays.

This is cause for extreme concern.

What’s more concerning is that judging by events this week in London, it isn’t alone.

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Now I’m taller, harder, stronger, older: celebrating National Poetry Day

The most unusual thing I ever stole, as far as I can think, was a book of poems. There was no previous owner as such – at the age of fourteen, I’d received a copy like every student in my year, and while officialdom demanded these books’ return after two years, I resolved early on never to give mine back.

The book was our course anthology, containing over fifty texts to study for exams. No one was expected or supposed to read or write about that many – the book, a mass-produced A4 affair, contained sections of poetry from pre-1914, from ‘other cultures’ and by then-current national writers, from which teachers made selections – and my class must only have read and discussed umpteen. I read each last one though, slipping the slim volume into my bag instead of handing it in at lesson’s end, sneaking home with it to pore over its contents at my leisure. I remember distinctly that when I turned sixteen the month exams were held, each page was thick with spidery teenage script, annotations laced like latticework between text and images, covering it to the last square inch.

How I loved that book. The two years during which it was a course text for me were perhaps the hardest of my life, and certainly those most filled with fear: fear of going outside, fear of harassment, of physical assault, fear of being outed; fear of homeless, fear of self-harm, fear of attempting suicide; fear of failing. Fear of succeeding. The fear I most lucidly remember though, perhaps oddly given its competitors, was of my voice. Public speaking is a widespread fear especially in teenagers, and I still recall my fourteen-year-old self’s efforts not to shake during a speechmaking assignment, but more than that, I loathed my voice. Nasal, stuttering, equipped with vowels to match neither my region nor my social class, it brought me no end of embarrassment and angst. (When a line in Othello called for ‘bastard’ to be read out, my long, southern ‘a’ drenched in self-aware discomfort, I squirmed inwardly.) Somehow, the anthology I half-inched home was an antidote to this.

Humanist platitudes on literature and why to study it are ten-a-penny, mostly involving tawdry clichés: friends found between book covers, world travel from inside one’s bedroom, hot tears shed theatrically reciting A.E. Housman. Like much of humanism, seemingly in all its forms, these are unsalvageably middle class apologies, speaking to those who love English, who rejoice in it, but not who need it; whose education is for leisure not survival. My feeling (and for this I won’t apologise) is that that book of poems saved my life, or at least helped to. When I scoured its innards reading Walcott, Blake, Imtiaz Dharker, I sensed for the first time that my voice could mean something – that it might, one day at any rate, make people stop and listen if I learned to do with it a fraction of what they had; that instead of hampering me, it might grow strong like Sujata Bhatt’s titular tongue. It’s the greatest privilege there is really to have a voice, a powerful engine of hope to think yours might be heard. That shaped as well as saved me: it’s what first impressed on me that I should be a writer, a great part of what made me want to study literature. I know I’m not alone in this.

The anthology remains on my shelf, its contents having stayed with me since first reading them. This being Britain’s National Poetry Day, I’ve wondered which poem from it to share here, but only one was ever a serious contender. Simon Armitage’s ‘Kid’, the title entry from his third collection in 1992, resonates more strongly with me now than ever.

A rare trochaic pentameter, turning traditionally heroic iambs back to front, the poem’s metre suits its subject matter. Years after having flown the Batcave, a jaded adult Robin vilifies his former mentor:

I’m not playing ball boy any longer
Batman, now I’ve doffed that off-the-shoulder
Sherwood-Forest-green and scarlet number
for a pair of jeans and crew-neck jumper;
now I’m taller, harder, stronger, older.

The caped crusader has been found out, myths of familial warmth with Robin scotched, affairs with married women blown open, ditching his ward only to wind up destitute and alone. It’s a bleak, pained monologue, but triumphalist as Robin taunts him finally:

Batman, it makes a marvellous picture:
you without a shadow, stewing over
chicken giblets in the pressure cooker,
next to nothing in the walk-in larder,
punching the palm of your hand all winter,
you baby, now I’m the real boy wonder.

It’s a poem for anyone who’s outgrown a hero, let alone a swathe of them – for all who’ve learnt to mistrust those they were told cared about them, as certainly my teenage self did, beaten, kicked and spat on while teachers stood by. (My former headmaster, whose insistently gendered title is revealing, is one Batman I can’t fail to envision reading Armitage’s lines. Neither of us ever deserved to know the other.) There’s a silver lining in there too, though: a suggestion we emerge taller, harder, stronger, older on anguish and betrayal’s other side. I feel sure personally that I’ve Armitage, his fellow writers and poetry at large to thank for that.

There are other texts from that anthology which merit reading (I wish I had the space to name each one), whole other volumes I could mention just as lovingly. But that stolen book of poems gave me a sense of hope and strength I desperately needed. I’ll never give it back.