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At our local supermarket check-out this morning one of my neighbours was in front of me in the queue. Shortly after I left I caught up with her and we walked together down the hill, chatting about the weather and recent developments in our small retirement community. When we reached the church she parted company with me saying that she was going to light a candle for a friend and went on to explain how very ill this person was.
As an atheist I regard the idea of lighting a candle in the belief that it might effect a cure or ease someone’s passage into the after-life as somewhat bizarre. But I would not publicly ridicule a person holding that belief or all followers of Roman Catholicism for that and other, to me, futile practices.
Like most Catholics, however, I do condemn some of the behaviours attributed to certain members of their faith in recent times.
Why am I telling you this? Because I am saddened by recent examples of antisemitism and Islamophobia in British political life.
Of course I condemn the heinous actions of some who claim to be followers of Islam. Be-headings, bombings and other terror related activities are evil. I also feel saddened by the way some in Islam treat their womenfolk. That does not mean I hold all followers of that faith in contempt nor to I have a problem with the way some choose to dress.
In the same fashion, I condemn some of the policies of the Israeli government. But I do not have contempt for individual Jews or for the way some Jewish men choose to dress.
In fact, I have a real problem with the whole concept of racism and religious hatred. I’m old enough to remember a time when it seemed to be taken for granted that people of obvious African ancestry were of lesser intelligence than white skinned people. To my shame I believed it for a while.
I now know that we are all the same under the skin. We are all equally capable of attaining the highest level of education and achievement. And we are all equally capable of being foolish and allowing ourselves to be duped by dangerous rhetoric.
For me the definition of racism is any suggestion that one ethnic group is superior, or inferior, to any other. That, of course, includes such notions as that of a “chosen people” or the belief that centuries of residence in a particular land gives an ethnic group the exclusive right to continue to reside there. When the then South African government tried, in the 1960s, to establish that principle, designating certain areas as ‘tribal homelands’, insisting that people of such ethnicity must have a special license, or ‘pass’, in order to travel to, and work in, other parts of South Africa, the majority of the rest of the world condemned the policy, and rightly so.
And yet, if I condemn the military occupation of certain parts of the Holy Land and the forced removal of those until recently occupying those lands in order to accommodate Jews, as I do, I am guilty of antisemitism. I refuse to be so labelled. As I made clear above, I do not associate all Jews with Israel and the unacceptable policies of it’s government. Just as, in the past, I did not condemn all white South Africans because of the policies of their government, only those who actively supported the policy.
It is all very complex and confusing but there is, for me, one over-riding fact in all of this: anthropologists tell us that homo-sapiens first appeared somewhere in the African continent. Since then our ancestors have migrated North, East and West. So, logically, the only ‘ancestral home’ for any and all of us is Africa.
DNA analysis of human remains from the past have shown that Europeans are the descendants of migrants and invaders over many centuries, suggesting that objections to recent arrivals from outside the continent are misplaced.
No-one should be ridiculed for his or her religious beliefs, however bizarre they might seem to you and me. Neither should anyone be prevented, solely because of his or her ethnicity, from living anywhere in the world he or she chooses.
If I was going to light a candle it would be for greater understanding of our shared humanity and less animosity towards those who look different from ourselves.
When I was young, an ‘outing’ meant a day out. A trip to the seaside perhaps, or the zoo. Later it came to mean the practice of revealing the secret sexual orientation of a public figure.
At the UK general election in 1987, I acted as agent to a Liberal Party candidate. There was speculation about the sexual preferences of the Conservative incumbent. Although the man would appear in the constituency at election times with a glamourous female in tow, the rumours persisted. Several of our party workers wanted us to refer to these suggestions in our election literature. I refused, as did the candidate. We argued that what he got up to in his private life did not effect his ability to carry out his duties as a public representative. We would, we believed, win the seat on the strength of our policy proposals. As things turned out, this was not to be.
I used the incident in my novel Transgression, reversing the situation so that the Tory MP, on being faced with possible exposure of his inappropriate behaviour towards women, responds with the threat of exposing his Liberal opponent’s homosexuality: “What do you suppose the good citizens of Topford would make of the idea of having a shirt-lifter for an MP?”.
My book is an exploration of the changes in attitudes to sex and sexual orientation that have occurred over the past 70 years, through the experience of 4 fictional characters, one of them the MP.
A few years later the real MP admitted his homosexuality after having been ‘outed’ by Murdoch’s despicable rag, the ‘News of the World‘. He lost the seat to Labour in the 1997 landslide.
As a footnote to this story, I was given a rare insight into the insensitivity of some older members of the British Conservative party when a Tory Councillor related a story against his local party chairman. This was supposed to have taken place at a party meeting shortly after the 1987 election. The MP had, at the time, a black PA (also gay). Both were present at the meeting. The chairman gave a speech thanking party workers for their efforts, concluding with special thanks to the agent whom, he claimed had ‘worked like a n***er’.
Tell me how changes in the way we view matters of gender, sexuality and race have effected you.
Back when I first started compiling tenders for Engineering contracts, we used to add 10% to cover what we called ‘contingencies’. This was meant to cover all the things you hadn’t thought of, or that might go wrong once you actually had to perform the contract.
By the end of my career I was working on high value defense contracts. In place of the arbitrary 10% contingency, these included a far more scientific analysis of ‘risk’. A database was maintained in which was listed all the things that any member of the team thought could go wrong, along with the estimated cost of dealing with it.
Say the aerodynamic testing of an electronics pod in a wind tunnel showed that it could destabilize the aircraft under certain conditions; what would it cost to redesign the pod? What effect would such a need for redesign have on the contract timetable? That possible outcome would be included in the risk database. Alongside would be the estimated likelihood of this actually happening as a percentage.
Something considered highly likely would have a 90% probability; something that was on the outer fringes of possibility might be assigned 1%. The estimated cost of dealing with the problem would then be multiplied by the probability of it occurring to give the figure to be included in the contract price. The combined total of all these individual ‘cost x probability’ sums would become the ‘Risk Budget’ for the contract.
Things with a high probability combined with a high cost would be considered for mitigation activity. In the example above this might entail creating a computer model to analyze the aerodynamics of the pod. The cost of carrying out this extra work would be funded from the ‘Risk Budget’.
Gamblers apply the same process in assessing the probability of an opponent holding a trump card.
Dilbert creator, Adam Scott has come up with a similar procedure for analyzing the statements of politicians like D Trump. In a blog post on 8th December he applied it to Trump’s suggestion that the US government should ban foreign Muslims from entering the country. He concludes that it is all part of Trump’s strategy to keep his name in front of the electorate. The publicity generated is weighed against the possibility of opprobrium received.
Just as the defense company considers everything that could possibly go wrong, so Trump analyzes the risk to his campaign success of every utterance. He calculates that playing on the fears of citizens will generate more support than he will lose as a result of accusations of racism or sexism.