Category Archives: activism

Digital porn debate – neither heat nor light

I don’t quite know what I think about porn. I don’t think about it much, don’t watch it (What never? No, hardly ever). So what? What I do and don’t do, what I like and don’t like has no moral weighting when we are talking about societal harm.

This is a basic point that I wish the six speakers at tonight’s “debate” on the prevalence of digital porn had absorbed. (‘THIS HOUSE BELIEVES THAT WE SHOULD ACCEPT DIGITAL PORNOGRAPHY AS AN INEVITABLE PART OF OUR CONTEMPORARY EXPERIENCE’) Anecdotes and confessionality might win titters or applause from the audience, but they doesn’t advance the debate, it doesn’t expose people to (m)any ideas and perspectives that they’d not heard before.

A debate might shed more light than heat, or more heat than light. Or, occasionally, as in tonight’s curiously bloodless affair, not much of either.  I walked at the half-way stage, before people started pitching in from the audience, and had a drink with a good and v. smart friend.

I am not sure what I’d have done to sharpen it. I get the impression that the participants had not been in or to many actual debates, with cut and thrust, argument and counter-argument. They barely acknowledged each other’s points (such as they were), and mostly talked past each other.

Nobody laid out, at least that I heard (my attention drifted intermittently via the 6 five minute spiels) about the teleological (greatest benefit for the greatest number sort of thing) versus deontological (thou shalt/not) ways of slicing philosophical and ethical questions.

Nobody (and this is a point my good friend made in the pub afterwards) asked “why is sex any different to whatever else we sell – our time, our creativity, our physical labour”. And if you don’t tackle that one, if you dance around it, you end up with a debate invisibly shaped by Victorian values.

I don’t mind that it was mostly by and about young people (I just about vaguely remember being one of those) and the Effects On Teenagers. But what was quite odd was just how INCREDIBLY heteronormative it was. Not one person talked about porn that didn’t involve both men and women. Very odd.

BTW, am interested in any books that anyone  can recommend about “sex and the internet and ethics”, especially from an intelligent ‘sex-positive’ feminist position (i.e. and one that takes the strongest of the radical abolitionist arguments and deals with them fairly, without ad femininem or straw-womaning).

Update:  Here’s one that goes on the post-Thesis reading list

Virtual Intimacies: Media, Affect and Queer Sociality

Reflections on feminism and women’s liberation

Sue Crockford is a London-based feminist.  Here’s a brief interview with her in which she reflects on how she got involved in the Women’s Liberation movement (via involvement in anti-Vietnam War activity),  what her memories of that time she cherishes, and what feminism means to her. Below, another feminist, Sarah Irving, writes about her reactions to the interview and what we can learn.

Sarah Irving: There are lots of reasons why I think that younger feminists ought to listen to women like Sue Crockford, with her decades of involvement in the movement. Some of them a serious reasons, like tactics and strategies and not reinventing the wheel. At forty (or very close to), I’ve realised in recent years that I’m already old enough to have seen several cycles of activism go round – similar issues and dynamics recurring, people getting enthused and burnt out in depressingly similar and repetitive ways.

Of course, we all need to learn from our own mistakes, and that’s as true of younger activists in their political lives as of anything else. But do we need to keep making the same mistakes, over and over? There’s a difference, I think, that can be drawn between the kinds of personal, emotional screw-ups that everyone probably needs to go through to understand how to function sustainably as an activist in the world, and the movement-level mistakes that can be learnt about, if only we can put aside our pride, and our prejudices against older people, for long enough to do so.

As well as all that serious, important movement-building stuff, I also think that this interview with Sue should be watched by younger activists far and wide because it’s a great reminder that being involved in politics doesn’t all have to be deadly serious. As well as being a long-term, committed feminist and struggler for social justice in other forms, Sue is also a beautiful, flirtatious, sexy, fun, funny person, and that very much comes through in this video. She’s a glorious reminder of the fact that activism is part of life, and that while a lot of life might seem pretty grey and depressing, it should also be shot through with colours and glitter. If we don’t allow for that in our activism, we risk both our own health and sustainability, and being so bloody miserable-looking to other people that we put them off getting involved too.

Watching this video, I get the overwhelming sense that although Sue Crockford might have been hard-working, high-expectations kind of comrade in the 70s and 80s, she’d also have been a hell of a lot of fun to work with. And that’s a great set of lessons to learn, for all activists.

Simians Cyborgs and Shell: on corporate propaganda and fallback positions

 The oil major Shell has a blisteringly slick and seductive new advert that extols the virtues of gas as a ‘transition fuel’ (which it isn’t).  As a piece of propaganda, it would make Donna Haraway guffaw with delight.

It’s 80 seconds of ‘Jenna and Cory’ who live together extolling the virtues of hybridity.  They are ‘alternative’ (dyed hair, tattoes, piercings, vegan), living in a twee rural setting, and techno-geeky (there’s drone porn) who are trying to make a “hybrid house” – one of them is “super-nerdy, she takes everything apart”.

They think “in a few decades they might be able to rely solely on solar and wind energy, but we can’t do that right now” (we’ll come back to this). Instead they advocate natural (love that word) gas, because it’s the most “sustainable way to fuel your life”.  The words “climate change” do not, of course, appear.

This is a straightforward reverse-McCarthy, an “innocence by association” gambit, aiming for a halo effect from all the nice crunchy granola things it’s putting on the screen. Readers with long memories might recall the applauding dolphins and sea lions from 1991, when they heard that another oil major, Conoco, was going to use double-hulled oil tankers.

In 80 seconds it ticks a huge number of boxes – woman-as-nature, ecological modernisation and corporate citizenship.  It really renews the  “whole earth catalogue” (Stewart) brand  for the 21st century and appropriating the (false ) notion of “hybrid vigour”.  The ad agency most definitely deserves its fee.

These adverts, in which nature is redeemer and advocate are not new –  Esso had a ‘Tiger in the Tank’ and SSE has a soleful looking orang-utan shilling for it. The use of feminism/female empowerment to sell products goes back (at least) as far as the notorious “march” of actorvists called “Torches of Freedom”  in 1929, organised by Edward Bernays for “Lucky Strike” cigarettes, tying smoking to women’s liberation. We should be taught how to deconstruct advertising in school, of course.  But Berger (1972), Williamson (1978), Goldman and Papson (1996) are not, to our shame and loss, on the primary school curriculum…

Meanwhile, back in 2015, Shell are so confident of the righteousness of their message and  the value of dialogue that….comments on the video are disabled. Perhaps they are learning from the ‘bashtag’ experiences that other corporations have weathered of late. Still, it’s had more thumbs down than thumbs up…

hybridhouse

Shell and other companies’ history

Shell is justifiably proud of its advertising prowess, which dates back to the 1920s and especially the 1930s. As its own website says –

“But the decade saw many advances: great progress in fuel and chemicals research and an explosion of brilliant advertising with themes of power, purity, [emphasis added] reliability, modernity and getting away from it all. Many designs have become classics.” [And some are even National Trust-worthy]

Sadly at the same time Shell supremo Henri Deterling was palling around with Adolph Hitler – the latter speaking at his funeral in 1939.After the war, Shell’s mojo (briefly) deserted it- there’s an hilarious advert of a salad covered in oil.

shell1947
If crimes against aesthetics were all that it was up to, you’d be forgiven for laughing. But as Andy Rowell writes

“In the post-war years, Shell manufactured pesticides and herbicides on a site previously used by the US military to make nerve gas at Rocky Mountain near Denver. By 1960 a game warden from the Colorado Department of Fish and Game had documented abnormal behaviour in the local wildlife, and took his concerns to Shell, who replied: “That’s just the cost of doing business if we are killing a few birds out there. As far as we are concerned, this situation is all right.”

But the truth was different. “By 1956 Shell knew it had a major problem on its hands,” recalled Adam Raphael in the Observer in 1993. “It was the company’s policy to collect all duck and animal carcasses in order to hide them before scheduled visits by inspectors from the Colorado Department of Fish and Game.” “

The 1990s were a particularly bleak time for Shell’s PR folks. They lost the Brent Spar battle, and the execution of 9 Nigerian activists, including author Ken Saro-wiwa presented them with real PR problems  They started talking about sustainable development (Livesey, 2002) and also re-jigged their advertising, and were happy with the results (Victor, 2005).

Renewable outrage

However, Shell’s recent attempt to drill in the Arctic been catastrophic, both financially and in terms of its reputation. Greenpeace has them bricking it – Lego have ended a tie-in deal, and the combination of American kayakers, a giant polar bear stalking their HQ and Emma Thompson are giving them new headaches.

It’s in this context that this advert, advocating natural gas as a transition fuel, must be read. It’s a classic ‘you may not like us, but you need us’ statement.  Further, the claim that renewables might be viable in a few decades is particularly interesting (and audacious).  Costs of renewables are plummeting, and ‘grid parity’ (dangerous term) is approaching.

Shell, and other oil majors, might be wise to be nervous.  And according to the excellent journalist Arthur Neslen, Shell  has been lobbying the EU to undermine its next renewables target. As Goldman and  Papson (1996: 200) observe –

“…in a sense, the advertising provides covering fire so the lobbyists can quietly do their work. The battles are often won in the lobbying trenches, but they cannot be won if public opinion, or more importantly, public opinion amplified by the television media, keeps attention focused on images of environmental degradation.”

Acknowledgement

Thanks to Guy Diercks for bringing this advert to my attention.  While I retain any kudos for this analysis, all libel writs and threatening letters should be directed to him.

Further Reading
Berger, J. (1972) Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin

Robert Goldman and  Stephen Papson (1996) Sign Wars: The Cluttered Landscape of Advertising New York ; London : Guilford Press

Greenberg, J., Kngiht, G. and Westersund, E. (2011) Spinning climate change: Corporate and NGO public relations strategies in Canada and the United States. International Communication Gazette 73, (1-2), pp. 65-82.

Levy, D. Reinecke, J. and Manning, S. (2015) The Political Dynamics of Sustainable Coffee: Contested Value Regimes and the Transformation of Sustainability Journal of Management Studies

Livesey, S. ( 2002) The Discourse of the Middle Ground: Citizen Shell Commits to Sustainable Development Management Communication Quarterly vol. 15 no. 3 313-349. http://mcq.sagepub.com/content/15/3/313

In this study, Foucauldian theory is used to interpret a corporate social report published by the Royal Dutch/Shell Group to reveal the contours of an emerging corporate discourse of sustainability and the knowledge-power dynamics entailed by social reporting. The report could be read simply as a corporate attempt to re-establish discursive regularity and hegemonic control in the wake of challenges by environmentalists and human rights activists. However, the author interprets it in the context of the larger socio-political discursive struggle over environment and social justice and finds that Shell’s “embrace” of the concept of sustainable development has transforming effects on the company and on the notion of sustainability itself. This contradictory and ambiguous result is characteristic of discursive struggle, which is where, according to Foucault, power is played out and social change occurs.

Pulver, S. (2007)  Making Sense of Corporate Environmentalism: An Environmental Contestation Approach to Analyzing the Causes and Consequences of the Climate Change Policy Split in the Oil Industry Organization and Environment 20 (1) pp. 44-83.

Verity, J. (2005) Shell: an advertising success story. Strategic Direction Vol 21 (9), pp. 15-17.

Judith Williamson (1978) Decoding Advertisements: Ideology and Meaning in Advertising. London: Boyars.

Of Monbiot, Manchester and miserable ‘feral’ futures.

Nature as redeemer, nature as escape, nature as the solace for our “gridded, controlled, mannered urban lives.” So far so romantic.
Well, nature is on the road, and she’s gunning for the lot of us. We’ve poked the beast, and now it really is waking up. On a quiet day, you could hear it snoring. Nowadays you can hear it going about its morning ablutions while preparing to unleash a can of whoopass on the species wot woke it up.
Which made the Manchester Literature Festival event I went to all the more weird. Row upon row of staggeringly white (this is Manchester?) people, of a certain level of (cultural) capital – not so many upward omnivores here – sat in rows while downloadGeorge ‘Feral’ Monbiot and Sarah ‘Carhullan Army’ Hall stood at t’podium. Hall read from her latest novel, The Wolf Border, which is about a woman, Rachel, involved in a project to reintroduce wolves to the UK. George does what George does well – some witty observations, confidently delivered with a smile. I first saw him do this at the Schumacher Lectures in, bosh, 1996?, when he alarmed the assembled ‘hippie’ gentry by advocating for land rights in the FIRST world. (They were underwhelmed, given the tacit deal with the Schumacher Lectures is that rich people get to be telescopically philanthropic, not locally so. But I digress).  He did not epater la bourgeoisie on this occasion however, but advocated the roaming of the four-legged beasts, especially ones that might contest the ‘white plague’ (sheep, not TB). And deer. [What do you call Bambi with his eyes poked out? No eye-deer. What do you call Bambi with his eyes poked out and his legs chopped off? Still no eye-deer. I’m digressing again, aren’t I?]

This is all well and good, but as the host alluded to, there are slightly bigger fish (well, planets) to fry. So, uncharacteristically, I stuck up my hand and asked this.
“On climate change. We’ve been warned since 1988 by the scientists and some politicians. We’ve done nothing. We WILL do nothing. So we are going to get acidified oceans, seven metres of sea level rise and four degrees plus of warming. Given that, to be provocative, what does it matter if we re-introduce this species or that. “Mother Nature” will introduce – and eliminate – species over the next hundred years as she sees fit.” 
George’s answer was in two parts. I will try to report each fairly, and then editorialise.
1) You mustn’t say that we will do nothing, that we are doomed, because that is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The species is hugely altruistic, it’s just a few (percentage) who are screwing it up.

2) Ecosystems with lots of biodiversity (and apex predators etc) are more resilient to shocks.

George – if you’re reading this and I’ve been unfair, lemme know. Ditto if anyone who was there is reading this…

What I wanted to say in response, but obviously didn’t.

1) The “you mustn’t say we’re doomed because that means people will give up” argument is beginning to get on my tits. I think it can and should only be made by people who have done a thorough job of studying WHY our response has been so poor (it’s not ALL Exxon’s fault) and – this is the crucial bit – have some clearly-stated suggestions about HOW TO DO THINGS DIFFERENTLY ‘GOING FORWARD’. George may have these, but he didn’t say them on Sunday (fair enough – folks were coming to hear him talk about wolves and rhinos, not social movement strategy).
We don’t say “you shouldn’t tell people with lung cancer that they have lung cancer because then they’ll get upset.” We expect to treat ourselves/each other as adults, who can read a Keeling Curve, read the emissions trajectories and understand the concept of climate sensitivity, and do some pretty rudimentary guesstimating.
ALSO, it’s not my ‘doom’ that is killing the species’ chance of seeing the 22nd century in reasonable shape. It’s capitalism, technological hubris, consumerism, population, the failure of social movements to cope with neo-Gramscian passive revolution strategies, and good old fashioned inertia baked into ‘the System’ (, “man”).

2) Hmm, that’s

a) curiously anthropocentric and

b) kinda misses the point about the shocks to the System. The second half of the 21st Century is (probably, okay, probably) going to make the first half of the 20th look like a picnic. This or that species of wolf is not going to mean there isn’t starvation, plague, war and all of that zombie apocalypse stuff. Wishful/magical/totemic thinking to think otherwise, no?

Sarah Hall’s answer I can’t categorise so clearly (I’m sexist man only paying attention to men? Maybe. Or just getting old? Or both). She seemed to be saying, with the example of the 2005 floods in Carlisle, that the cities will be affected, and it’s only when that happens that we will do something.

Worth reading on this “back to Nature” malarkey

  • EM Forster’s short story “The Machine Stops
  • Kingfisher Lives by the late Julian Rathbone, denied the Booker Prize – because one of the judges, the wife of then Prime Minister Harold Wilson, could cope with the incest, murder, cannibalism, but not the (in context) dropping of the C-bomb.
  • Paul Theroux The Mosquito Coast
  • And of course all the feminist sci-fi/spec fiction writers – Marge Piercy (Woman on the Edge of Time, Body of Glass), Barbara Kingsolver, Ursula Le Guin, Octavia Butler.  And I STILL haven’t read Carolyn ‘The Death of Nature’ Merchant. #lazy

PS Thanks to CG for the ticket!!

Terrible meetings? Here’s a nesta reasonable ideas…

According to the American humourist Dave BarryMeetings are an addictive, highly self-indulgent activity that corporations and other large organizations habitually engage in only because they cannot masturbate.” (As in, meetings aren’t just ego-potlaches, they’re also for the recycling of anxiety and responsibility).
While meetings might be full of wankers, they’re surprisingly joyless experiences. “Nesta”, a UK think tank, thinks it has some ideas on “Meaningful meetings: how can meetings be made better?

meetingslonelyThey sort of do, but the paper, as it states is “part of a larger research programme” and couldn’t/is not intended to stand on its own.
The author, Geoff “Connexity” Mulgan explains that we have “old formats and new tools”, ponders on “why so many meetings?” and then offers advice on “linking meeting format and purposes” (see Barry above) and gives some recommendations;

  • The ends and means of meetings need to be visible
  • Meetings need active facilitation and orchestration
  • The best meetings are often multi-platform, and use visualisation as well as talk and paper

Good meetings make the most of their participants – and rein in the extroverts, and the most opinionated and powerful

“one recent psychology study found that three factors were significantly correlated with the collective intelligence of a group: the average social perceptiveness of the group members (using a test also used to measure autism, that involves judging feelings from photographs of people’s eyes); relatively equal turn taking in conversation; and the percentage of women in a group (which partly reflects their greater social perceptiveness).” [Woolley, A. W., et al. (2010) Evidence for a Collective Intelligence Factor in the Performance of Human Groups. ‘Science.’ 330(6004): 686-688.]

    • Good meetings begin and end with a deliberate division of labour
    • Good meetings benefit from a conducive physical environment that heightens attention
    • Good meetings apply ‘Meeting Maths’: balancing time, scale, knowledge and breadth
    • Good meetings are cumulative – part of a longer process
    • Some of the best meetings don’t happen (or why you shouldn’t hold unnecessary meetings)

Mulgan then goes on to give succinct explanations of flipped conferences (send in youtubes of your presentations first, then turn up and engage), world cafe , dynamic facilitation, open space technology, the revolutionary thinking method (no, I am not making this up) , De Bono Six Thinking Hats, Sytegrity (see above for RTM), buurtzorg, holocracy governance meetings and agile.
As he drily observes
“There is relatively little evidence about when these work and when these don’t, and an odd feature of innovation in this field is that new models quickly crystallise as highly prescriptive methods, with little feedback to help them improve, or create hybrids, and very little formal testing or evidence.”

So, this is definitely worth a read, and perhaps thrusting into the hand of the stale activocrats who run stale meetings (for all the good it will do). As to what’s missing-
Parkinsons Law of triviality
Any sense that the radicalism of the “open space” will be captured, co-opted and used as a marketing gimmick, or just done so cack-handedly that it will empty the terms of meaning (Instead of ‘how not to be bossy‘)
The psychological needs of both the bosses (to be in charge) and the attendees (to be infantilised)

“The rest of us, with less responsibility in our day-to-day lives, are able to regress merely to being a school-child, sat in rows, listening to the Clever Parent at the front. No jobs, no direct-reports, no kids to look after, we can, for the length of the event, just be the docile/obedient Child.
Attempts to turn us into Adults in this setting will be resisted, both by those who wish to be Parents, and by those who want to be Children. Efforts at de-ego-fodderification are, thus, futile.”

I think there is a glancing reference to Jung [can’t find it now], but nothing on the fantastic psycho-analytically informed work of Rosemary Randall – “Collective and Community Group Dynamics… or your meetings needn’t be so appalling”- which someone has helpfully scanned and uploaded onto the interwebs

Other concepts worth exploring

Letter in #Manchester Evening News about broken #climate promises

The Manchester Evening News has a letter today that slams Kate Chappell, the Executive Member for the Environment for a broken promise (she said she would set up a blog, never did so). The letter (written by some Moss Side malcontent) also points out that the so-called and needs-to-be-killed-off “Stakeholder Steering Group” won’t even allow elected members of the Council to view its meetings.
Here’s the letter.
20151017menletter

And here is the text of what I sent, which they’ve not altered;

Thank you for your report on the draft Transport for Greater Manchester report, with its vision of “nightmare scenario” of floods and heat-related deaths by 2040.
Since 2008 various public bodies, including the council, have been producing principles documents, ‘mini-Sterns’, ‘Calls to Action’, Climate Change Action plans, delivery plans, refreshes and pink and polka dot plans. All say action must – and will – be taken to avoid future disaster. If documents full of bureaucratic bluster could save the world, then the upcoming Paris climate meeting would have been cancelled thanks to Manchester’s council.
Two examples of the escalating failure will suffice. In February 2014 the Executive Member for the Environment, Kate Chappell, wrote a letter, on council letterhead, that promised to set up a blog detailing what she was doing, by March. She never did that, or explained why not.
At the last Neighbourhoods Scrutiny Committee meeting Councillor Dan Gillard (chair of the committee) asked if he would be able, as an elected representative of the people of Manchester to attend meetings of the “Stakeholder Steering Group on Climate Change”, which was set up in 2010 to galvanise action. He wasn’t even given the courtesy of a straight answer, yes or no. That’s stakeholder democracy for you! If it weren’t so serious and tragic, it would be funny.

Need a venue for a meeting in #Manchester? Madlab

Madlab is back! The Northern Quarter venue (‘here be hipsters’ say the old maps. The new maps say ‘here be more hipsters’) has been tarted up from industrial grime to post-industrial sleek without losing its essential charm.
They’ve done away with the rickety stairs (bloody health and safety gone … sane), left the exposed beams in the loft, and got rid of a big pillar in the middle of the ground floor (It was load-bearing, but don’t worry, the roof won’t fall in. Probably.)
It’s got, as is obligatory, some exposed brickwork, and some funky zig-zag lighting, and nice big windows so you can hipster-watch (did I mention the Northern Quarter has been hipsterised?)
Most of all, the staff are friendly and keen to help. It’s venues and endeavours like Madlab that make Manchester vibrant and interesting. If you’re planning an event, or you have a group that needs a meeting space, then you should give them a lookIMG_8150_sm. There is already a seriously long list of seriously interesting groups meeting there.

PS there’s a Manchester hackathon happening at MOSI next weekend (24-25th October).

PPS Nope, not paid to do this. I used Madlab as a venue back in the day, attended some other stuff. Glad to see it back. May use it for a January 2016 meeting with the provisional title “what can we learn from 10 years of unrelenting and escalating failure to build a UK climate movement”.  The title needs a little work…