How is the housing crisis connected to poor service? And other questions I tried to answer on Twitter today

Another day, another Twitter row.

Today I found myself embroiled in an argument about towels that, as often happens online, got way out of hand very, very quickly. It began (prepare for the least dramatic story of all time) when a woman named Holly tweeted a company called Handy, complaining that her cleaner (a contractor employed by Handy), had ruined her towels by using raw bleach on them. According to Holly the cleaner had then hidden the towels, so that she found them bleach stained and ruined in her bathroom. She did not name the cleaner, and posted a picture of the damaged towels to evidence her complaint. It was an unremarkable exchange of the type I have seen many times (and indeed engaged in myself) online. Increasingly, customers, who are often disempowered in exchanges with commercial companies, make their complaints in public to ensure they will be taken seriously.

It’s understandable — when one can spend hours, over months, (as I have) on the phone to internet providers trying to sort out the broadband connection at one’s elderly grandmothers’ house, to no avail — that people increasingly use public means to resolve consumer disputes. It was only when I threatened to publish an article about how paying for non-existent broadband for eight months had caused my isolated grandmother distress leading to health problems that the issue was finally and swiftly resolved (with an apology call from the P.A to the CEO of a multinational corporation).

Very quickly, Holly’s tweet attracted vitriolic replies from swathes of Twitter users whose profile description read ‘Marxist-Leninist’ or otherwise marked their hard-line leftist positionality. They objected to her tweet on several grounds: that tweeting the company would lead the to cleaner’s dismissal; that Handy is a terrible company that no ethical person would consider using; that hiring a cleaner is immoral in its own right; that we can’t expect high standards from people earning low wages; that a towel can still be used once it has been stained with bleach, so what the fuck is this bitches’ problem anyway?

I was really disturbed by the level of anger towards Holly. It was another example of what Jon Ronson calls ‘public shaming’, in his excellent book So You’ve Been Publically Shamed. Public shaming, as Ronson points out, is a phenomena that has intensified with the advent of the internet and through which individuals are hounded, harassed and humiliated on the basis of single acts, often taken out of context or wilfully misunderstood. As Jonson forensically details, the repercussions of this shaming can have life-ruining consequences — leading to the breakdown of relationships, loss of employment and prolonged low self-esteem. The culture of public shaming, which often serves to bolster the self-esteem of the shamers, who signal their own virtue by condemning someone else, is extremely disturbing to me. It serves to shut down sensible, nuanced debate, acts as a smokescreen that bullies use to justify their behaviour, and stops us from listening with respect to those whose views or behaviours might jar with our own sense of right and wrong. Also disturbing is the extent to which males from both sides of the political spectrum take delight in shaming women.

So that was the first reason I disliked the tone of responses to Holly.

However, I also felt they were entirely unjustified and critically naive. There is no evidence that I have seen that the cleaner Holly used was fired, or received any disciplinary action. We do not know his name, or anything about him other than he is employed by Handy and that he is male — so there is no justification to the claim that Holly making a complaint publically made things worse for the cleaner. To say that you object to a tweet on the basis of a hypothetical firing is bizarre, pedantic and needlessly argumentative in the extreme. Until any firing can be conclusively evidenced, it is simply a straw man. And even if the cleaner were fired, this, surely, would be the decision and responsibility of the company — and if this were the only infraction, dismissal would be an overreaction bordering on illegal, assuming the employee is contracted with Handy on a permanent basis and not self-employed; assuming that the bleach got on the towels by accident and he panicked and hid them.

Presuming Handy does use self-employed staff instead of contracted employees, as is common in the gig economy (it enables companies to operate poor employment practices, acts as a loophole to escape employment rights, and should, in my view, be illegal), is it reasonable to berate Holly for using their services? Only if you believe that structural inequality will be overcome through boycotting, and only if you can also evidence that every single commercial exchange you personally are engaged with does not exploit or oppress workers (good luck with that if you own any products mass produced in the developing world, shop in high street stores, buy your food produce from supermarkets or have ever eaten in a fast food restaurant). By all means, point out the company’s poor practices (if they have them), so that she can make an informed decision. But how does abuse help here? What productive change does directing anger about employment practices at an individual who does not work for the company make?

I also take issue with the idea that employing paid domestic staff is somehow equivalent to slave labour, immoral in its own right. Almost everybody with any disposable income, to one degree or another, employs people to do things they could do themselves — whether that be taxis to drive us, someone to cut our hair, paint our house, proof read our work, make us our burger or rub the callouses off our feet. The idea that employing someone in the domestic realm is somehow shameful seems to me deeply sexist. Cleaners, nannies and home chefs (jobs which are often subject to the ‘do it yourself’ clarion call) are most likely carrying out work traditionally undertaken by women (how many of those shouting ‘do your own cleaning’, would be as quick to cry that everybody should ‘clean their own gutter’, ‘mend their own shoes’, or ‘fix their own roof’?). So long as the person undertaking the domestic work is being paid a fair wage and is not otherwise exploited, there is no inherent immorality to employing them. Unless you see employing anybody as morally suspect — or unless you think that domestic work is so menial it does not deserve a wage. Indeed, in many developing countries where unemployment is rife it is seen as a duty to employ staff once one has the means to do so, and an act of deep selfishness to carry out jobs for yourself when you might give someone a livelihood by paying them to work for you.

As I pointed out in my tweets, it is patronising bordering on offensive to suggest that low-paid workers should be expected to deliver a poor service. It is one thing if poor service or no service is delivered in protest of low wages (there is no evidence Holly’s cleaner was doing this), it is quite another to suggest that low-wages per se result in poor work. I don’t know what Holly’s cleaner earned, but I worked on minimum wage for more than ten years, and in salaried jobs have been employed on lower than minimum wage (if you work out salary on a per-hour basis) several times. I regularly give my labour for free in writing projects and volunteer work. The quality of my output has nothing to do with how much I am getting paid and everything to do with how fulfilling I find the work, how far I feel supported by my managers, how much other stressors compete for my time. I fully believe in decent wages for everybody (in fact, if it were up to me we would all be given the same base salary regardless of occupation), however, I don’t think that the only reason to do a job well is for money. I don’t think because someone is earning less than me it entitles them to do their job poorly. And I fully stand by my belief that if someone wilfully or accidently damages someone else’s property in the course of his or her work, it is not the responsibility of the person whose property has been damaged to withhold a complaint in case the employing company overreacts. This is why we have employment laws!

Nor do I believe any of the outraged tweeters would have resisted complaining had it been their property ruined during a paid-for service. Are these people telling me they don’t complain when half their meal is missing from a delivery, when a waiter spills wine on their shirt and doesn’t apologise, when a shop worker gives them the wrong change, when they bring home a new pair of jeans to find the zip is broken, or discover a scuff on their box fresh white trainers? No, a towel is not rendered useless by bleach, but nor is a t-shirt rendered useless by a permanent coffee-stain: that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t mind if a barista spilled an ice-latte over my clothes and then lied about it.

We are all disempowered (though not of course to the same degree) by the neoliberal system. Those of us employed by corporations and institutions that erode our rights, and those of us who use the services of companies focussed mercilessly on profit. As I pointed out (to much outrage) in my tweet, the appalling tragedy at Grenfell Tower, a result of the wider housing crisis, deregulation, managed decline and systemic devaluing of the poor, is a smoking monument to a system that puts profit over quality, safety and lives. The erosion of ‘consumer rights’, which include the right to expect decent services and respect from companies you have paid to carry out work for you (as well as the right to not be poisoned by cosmetics, not to be lied to about the ingredients in your food products etc.), is related to the erosion of the rights of tenants to live in safe housing. It is also related to the erosion of workers’ rights. Concern with profit is the driving motive behind the erosion of rights at all levels. Like other rights, consumer rights were hard won — our current consumer rights are a testament to the progressive turn that happened in the UK in the mid-to-late 20th Century (a turn that saw the provision of social housing, the NHS, and the introduction of many workers’ rights). When companies of any size know they can get away with poor, shoddy, unsafe work, with treating their customers badly, with employing people on exploitative contracts to shore up the bottom line, with using hazardous materials, they will usually do it. The neoliberal model that places economic value as the only value is deeply troubling and contributes to insecurity, anxiety and powerless in small as well as large ways.

Does this mean I think, as some of the outraged tweeters have suggested, that having your towel damaged is in any way equivalent to losing your life or your home in a fire? No. Categorically and absolutely not. And anyone suggesting that I don’t know or care about the housing crisis on the basis of one tweet is woefully misinformed. This is not about equivalency. My whole academic career has involved thinking about how the micro and the macro are related. I am interested in how the seemingly mundane and the spectacular intertwine. For years I have been writing about the ways in which quotidian newspaper, television and stage depictions of council estate residents creates a culture that justifies violence towards the poor. (And how many people listened before the systematic devaluing of council estate residents became painfully clear?) I care about how small instances of disrespect and feelings of disempowerment in our lives are connected to larger structures of power through which systemic violence is enacted.

I have no idea what Holly-with-the-ruined-towel’s salary is, but I can tell you that the basic costs of living leave me with less than £20 in the last week of almost every month (and I am employed in a relatively high-paying profession). People using the services of companies who exploit workers are not uniformly rich, right wing or uncaring. Often they are stuck within a system that leaves them with no other option but the least expensive. Sometimes, the affordable option is the exploitative option. On her timeline, Holly explains that she hired a cleaner as a one-off treat to make her home nice for a visit from her mother. Just as we don’t know whether the cleaner was fired, we don’t know whether Holly or her mother are ill, whether this was a birthday celebration, whether Holly has been working long hours to afford basic expenses and has had to sacrifice a meal to afford a cleaner. We don’t know important contextual information and so we are not in a position to act as judge and jury. It is not the world’s biggest crime that her towel was ruined. It should (this should go without saying) not result in a cleaner losing their livelihood.

But it is not ‘entitled’ to complain about poor service. Indeed, it is one of the only avenues we have to power, one of the only ways we can still enact our hard-won rights — threatening the bottom line is often the only way profit-driven corporations will listen. When you publically shame someone for complaining about poor service, you are not the hero in the story. You are a bully, diverting attention away from the issues you purport to care deeply about, signalling your own virtue instead of actually making a difference; you are showing your own lack of knowledge about the history of struggle for basic rights. If your issue is that someone might get fired for a minor infraction, make a fuss about employment rights. Structural change will not be brought about by attacking individuals every time their actions do not appear to match your politics; listening to others, considering their points of view with respect and care and without abuse (as I hope I have done here), does not mean agreeing with them. You can contest objectionable behaviour without resorting to insults. If what you want is a better, fairer society; less pain and more kindness, then you don’t get it by piling vitriol on someone you don’t know for a single action, taken out of context.

Ok. Goodnight.


But, Andrew Adonis, I don’t want to work hard

Over on Twitter, if you move in academic circles, you’ll almost certainly have seen a whole load of controversy over some tweets that Andrew Adonis (the former Labour politician) sent out about the state of Higher Education. To summarise: He is upset that academics have ‘three months off’ over the summer. He thinks there should be two-year degrees. The University of Oxford rocks.

Most of the replies to Adonis’ tweets pointed out that the ‘three months off’ thing is a fallacy — that during the summer months academics are writing books, applying for grants, undertaking research, assessing, reading, preparing modules, attending and organising conferences, catching up on admin that used to be undertaken by support staff, dealing with admissions and so on. Many pointed out that parliament too breaks for a long summer vacation and that moaning about academics’ June-September workload fell into either the pot-kettle-black or the people-in-glass-houses arena of hypocrisy. The two-year-degree argument was rehashed again.

Yes, it was all quite predictable and dull in many ways, but I found myself riled up by it nonetheless. I take issue with Adonis’ tweets not so much because of their inaccuracy (yes, they are inaccurate, but also, yes, things do slow down in the summer for many of those academics fortunate enough to be employed on decent permanent contracts), but because of the ideology that underpins them: the ideology of ‘hard work’ as a virtue, of ‘productivity’ as necessarily positive.

Here is the tweet that got right on my wick:


I don’t want to live and work in a world where the only important thing is how much you ‘do’; where you are measured by how much you ‘produce’. Nothing is improved in either material or spiritual or creative (or even economic) terms by blind ‘productivity’. You cannot advance knowledge (the cornerstone, surely, of an academic career) by just churning out more and more and more stuff because Andrew Adonis thinks that the point of any job is to do as much as possible, regardless of what actually needs to be done. You do not create a fulfilling, balanced and enjoyable life — let alone society — by working obsessively to the detriment of your family life, social life, and mental and physical health. It is so obvious that I am surprised in even needs saying.

We are in the grip of many social crises, including, most acutely for those of us who work in HE, a mental health crisis in young people that shows absolutely no signs of abating. The wider social and political climate increasingly places pressure on the population to dance to the tune of neoliberalism, where the only possible measure of a country’s (or indeed a person’s) success is economic. This economic imperative is expressed in moral terms, so that whizzing through a degree in two years, writing four books in decade, or teaching back-to-back classes from September to September with no break appears as if it is an elevated moral choice, rather than a deeply unhealthy drive to appease the masters of the infrastructure under which we all operate. It is no wonder our students are crumbling emotionally when they can only see their own value in the numbers assigned to them — another result of a social and political culture where success is defined in limited and ideological terms and used as a tool by which to understand our self-worth. If we are deducting marks from primary school students SATs because they drew a comma the wrong shape, then we can hardly be surprised when, aged 18, they are preoccupied with achievement and riddled with anxiety and feelings of self-loathing.

I don’t want to work hard in the summer. I want to write slowly and read interesting books. I want to walk my dog and visit my elderly grandmother and volunteer in my community. I want to spend whole afternoons sitting in a chair and thinking about the colour of the sky. I want to have long lunches with my colleagues and hear about their research, and their cats and their children. I want to have time to conceptualise new projects, work on creative pursuits and give real head space to the thesis I have to examine. I want to go to Portugal for my cousin’s wedding and not have to take my laptop. I want to visit friends in London and laugh until my stomach muscles hurt. I want to gather interesting examples of creative and cultural practices to use in my module on street performance next semester.

What would be better, in the world or the country or even in my department, if I went into work every day and taught students so they could finish their degrees slightly quicker (and enter a volatile and uncertain job market at 20 instead of 21)? Why does Andrew Adonis want me to work 60 or 70 or 80 hour weeks all year-long, just for the sake of ‘hard work’? What is the point of my writing another four articles that a maximum of 200 people will read and fewer still will remember, unless they add something of real value to my discipline?

In her book All About Love: New Visions bell hooks reminds us that all social justice movements have had a love ethic at their core. More and more I see the refusal to work hard as a way to choose love: love for ourselves and time to give love to others; a turning away from competition that opens us up to love for our colleagues and our disciplinary communities. Refusing to work hard does not mean we stop working, but it means we cultivate a love for our work that allows us to treat it gently and cautiously, with respect.

Estate: A Reverie, Screening and Discussion

The University of Exeter Drama Department is hosting a free screening of Fugitive Images’ film Estate: A Reverie, please see below for details — and please share with friends and colleagues, especially those in the Devon area, who might be interested.



Estate: A Reverie

A film directed by Andrea Luka Zimmerman, produced by Fugitive Images

Screening and discussion with filmmaker

22nd July 2016

University of Exeter, Drama Department, Alexander Building, TS1

18.00 – 20.00

Samuel House, the final block in Hackney’s Haggerston estate was demolished in autumn 2014, exemplar of a nationwide, even international, shift in the character and fabric of the inner cities. Filmed over seven years, Estate, a Reverie reveals and celebrates the resilience of residents who are profoundly overlooked and stereotyped by media representations and wider social responses. The film asks how we might resist being framed exclusively through class, gender, ability or disability, and even through geography.

Please join us for a screening of the film, followed by a discussion between Fugitive Images’ David Roberts and the University of Exeter’s Katie Beswick, who is currently researching estate arts practices. Refreshments will be provided.

The event is free of charge, but please email if you intend to attend.

Some Thoughts on Brexit

13512110_10157327058795001_3069001105224106860_nI am still working through my reaction to the results of the UK’s Brexit referendum. The overwhelming polemic in the aftermath, coupled with the near-hysteria during the build-up, make calm, rational, nuanced thought difficult. This is not a straightforward problem and there won’t be a straightforward solution. Those of us who voted remain are struggling to imagine a future in an economically insecure, deeply conservative, divided country cut off from our neighbours. Things don’t have to go this way, of course, but it is hard to conceive how we might turn this around and make Britain (if Britain even stays a thing once the Irish and Scottish have had their say) a fair, prosperous, open society.

If there is anything positive to emerge from the results of this is election it is that those of us on opposing sides have had to seriously listen to each other. As emotions cool, I am seeing careful, reasoned debate on social media (even as the mainstream media continues on along predictable lines: reactionary polemic and obsessively shoring-up social divisions: pitting classes and races and generations against one another as though this will help us. It won’t). Many of us on both sides feel that politics has been broken for a long time, that there are too many angry, left out, unheard people in this country and the world beyond it. The status quo wasn’t good enough, and we’d be foolish to return to it, even if a lot of us felt safe in our bubbles. So what do we do?

Several things strike me in the wake of the result and the debates I’ve had on social media:

  • Backing out of a Brexit has two likely outcomes: a (possibly violent) revolt by those who have voted for leave and who will rightly feel their democratic rights have been trampled; further apathy and mistrust in political processes, leading to a further polarised, divided nation, vulnerable to extremist rhetoric. Neither of these is desirable. The fair thing to do is to honour the referendum result. Although at this stage it seems impossible that leaving the EU will be a good thing, I can’t see how staying under these circumstances is viable either.
  • We have to understand what the leave vote meant, and address the issues it highlights. This was not only, or even primarily, a vote about the European Union. It was a vote about the UK. I firmly believe that we mostly want the same things: secure housing, communities we can feel proud of, an income that allows us to get by, opportunities for fulfilling jobs, stimulating social lives, to feel safe walking down the street, a sense that our lives matter in some greater context. Whatever people’s individual reasons for voting to leave the EU, many of the regions with the strongest ‘leave’ vote are those where austerity cuts and deindustrialisation have hit hardest. Unless politicians start to prioritise people and their needs over rhetoric and ideological game-playing we will continue to foster a deeply divided, angry society.
  • Political debate in this country is a disgrace. Politicians and the press can and do wilfully misrepresent facts, openly mislead and outright lie to the populace with no recourse, no real sanctions, no personal consequences. This means mainstream political discourse is now simply a race to the bottom. We are all worse off when we’re being lied to. We have to lobby our politicians to implement rules and regulations that prohibit outright lies; our politicians and our press should be held to higher standards of proof than academics, because their words have tangible consequences.
  • The shock of leave’s victory for politicians on both sides illustrates what is increasingly clear: our government are not experts in governance, and have little understanding of the realities at play in the world they oversee. The recent resistance doctors and teachers have expressed towards health and education policy only highlights this. In my view, we need a political overhaul that places expertise at the centre of political decision-making. We cannot have career politicians acting as ministers for areas they have no front-line experience of and no qualifications in. How can a man with a BA in Modern History be expected to conduct a complex economic project like planning the budget of a country with one of the world’s largest economies? How can a journalist be expected to sensibly oversee the education system? I have long felt a 7-10 year minimum front-line experience should be a prerequisite for any senior ministerial or cabinet position. I have no idea how we could lobby for or implement such reform but it would, in my view, make a significant and positive difference to the governance of this country.

Whatever our personal feelings about the outcome of this referendum, we do have now have an opportunity to properly start again and remake things, better, stronger, fairer. But it won’t be easy.


On Refugees, Lisa McKenzie and the Problem with Writing

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The problem with writing, like the problem with speaking, is that words are limited. However articulate we are; however learned, there are only so many words, and only so many ways they can be strung together. As academics, we spend torturous hours agonising over our prose. And although we are constantly subject to accusations of obfuscation, the dense and sometimes incomprehensible nature of academic writing comes from our desire for precision. Often, what we are saying is complex, controversial, nuanced and new. We want to make sure that you get it. That there’s no room for miscommunication or misunderstanding. Finding words to express thoughts nobody has had before is hard. It is physical labour and it takes endurance. During the final months of my PhD I lay my head on my desk and sobbed. It was too much – it hurt. Like a woman throwing her head onto the pillow in the late stages of labour and refusing to push, I had almost given up. Except I couldn’t. I’d come this far, failure was not an option.

The problem with academic writing – at least for the writers – is that all that labour is often in vain. If we are lucky, a few hundred people might download our latest article; perhaps a few dozen will even read it. That can be frustrating – especially when we have worked for years to discover and articulate something important and want to share it out in the world where it might make a difference. This is why many academics like to write for a public audience too. Some tweet, some keep blogs, and some academics get a platform in the popular press where they can share their ideas and enliven public debate.

On Wednesday, the sociologist Lisa McKenzie, who has carried out ethnographic research in poor working class communities for well over a decade – and who is, herself, a member of the poor working class communities she has studied – published an article about the migrant crisis in the Guardian. It was, I thought, an important, vital piece of writing. It drew on McKenzie’s ethnography and sought to begin a public debate about why people from the some of Britain’s most deprived and under-resourced wards might respond with fear and anger to the thought of refugees arriving in their communities. She wrote of the legitimate and the more troubling fears that the white working class women in the communities she had studied expressed – about access to already-stretched resources and the behaviour of the men they called ‘asylum seekers’, which they found threatening and disrespectful. McKenzie suggested that to uncritically dismiss these women’s fears as ‘racism’ was unhelpful. Indeed, such dismissal of working class experience is perhaps what has led to political apathy in many working-class communities, and the rise of parties like Ukip and the EDL in once-Labour strongholds. (McKenzie wrote a similarly illuminating piece in Discover Society last year.)

However unpleasant it might have been for some readers to hear, there is no denying that McKenzie’s article speaks to a truth about the perceptions of immigration and asylum in many working class communities. I grew up in an area of London that remains one of the poorest parts of the country and the sentiments McKenzie’s subjects articulated (and far more extreme views) are all over the Facebook statuses of my school-mates and in the discussion threads on local community forums. Reading them – especially when they veer into aggressive racism and sexism – often makes my blood boil. I don’t agree with the Britain First posts that litter my newsfeed – but I can’t deny they resonate with many of the people I grew up with. This is what people think, and we have to acknowledge it. We can’t just dismiss these views as bigoted and ‘wrong’. The cuts and austerity measures implemented by this government have overwhelmingly affected the working classes. (Of course, the ‘working class’ includes people of all races and ethnicities. Indeed, it is not only ‘white people’ who express reservations about asylum and economic immigration). And people from the communities most affected by cuts and austerity measures are likely to feel the impact of immigration most keenly. They are likely to be the people most baffled by the government’s willingness to help ‘others’, when it roundly refuses to help them.

In the area where I grew up, racial tension and anger at the politicians whose policies have made it impossible for low and average income earners to live in the city where they were born bubble dangerously through everyday exchanges – surfacing sometimes in violence and racism, sometimes in solidarity. The responses of people to the conditions of their existence are nuanced, complex and cannot be reduced to polemical right/wrong, racist/anti-racist, good/bad narratives.

We can offer up our spare bedrooms all we like, but the reality is that people arriving in this country, traumatised and fleeing war, will be housed in already struggling wards, will mostly be entering the low-wage end of the labour market, will be competing for resources with people who are already struggling to get by. It is not fair, surely, to place refugees in communities that are already struggling for access to resources, and that are likely to greet those refugees with hostility.

Mainstream politics has utterly failed to speak to huge swathes of the population. What McKenzie’s research does is begin to give a voice to those people traditionally denied any kind of public platform. The responses that McKenzie received on Twitter suggest that many people were offended. Not only by the content of her article, but by McKenzie’s refusal to condemn the views of her subjects. I was especially disappointed by the academics who tweeted criticism that she had not detailed the complexity of the intersections between race, class and gender inequality in a 1200 word article. (Surely, it would have been better to read McKenzie’s research and contextualise the article before deriding her analytical methods?)

The continued failure to address the concerns of the poorest and most disadvantaged members of society has led to widespread suspicion and mistrust. That the effects of cuts to public services and the welfare state result in division and prejudice is not a secret – it is the desired end of the ideology of austerity. It doesn’t help any group if we don’t discuss these effects and if we cannot listen to the nuances of each-others’ experience without judgement, with compassion and understanding. The more willing we (‘the liberal left’ or the ‘centre middle’, or the ‘slightly right of centre’ or whatever group you want to think yourself part of now) are to listen to alternative views, the harder it will be for the government to deny that the austerity measures are anything other than ideological. We are a wealthy nation. There is no need for any of the people who live here to go to bed hungry – to die because they are too sick to work. Or else we are in such dire straights that something drastic has to happen to the middle and upper classes too. We can’t have it all ways. It shouldn’t always be the poor who suffer.

Ultimately McKenzie’s article – and my clumsy attempt to think through it here – reminds me again of the difficulty of writing and limits of words. The seduction of polemic, in which the newspapers deal, is that it makes life easy. It lets us choose a side. We can prove that we are right thinking and right if things are straightforward. But things are not straightforward. We live in a world riddled with paradoxes. If academic research is for anything it is to help us think about old problems in new ways. It can throw light on what was once in darkness.

Naturally, the limits of ‘journalism’ meant that the complexities that characterise McKenzie’s fascinating research were somewhat lost in translation. The nuances of her argument were perhaps clearer to me because I have read much of her published research and her PhD. But it was, nonetheless, an important attempt to disseminate sociological research more widely.

I salute McKenzie’s attempts to give her research a public face, and to use sociology to enliven public debate. I hope more academics are afforded a platform in the mainstream media, so that proper research can triumph over polemic. But I also hope readers realise that writing is hard, that words are limited (especially when there’s a word limit) – and that important research should provoke debate and disagreement.

Thoughts on War Memorial Desecration

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I never wanted the post I recently wrote on the MP child abuse scandal to ignite a debate about the sanctity of war memorials. Child abuse is too important. There are rarely any ethically watertight, black and white issues on which we can all agree. Surely, I thought, if we can rally around anything we can rally around the idea that elected officials should not be allowed to get away with raping and (allegedly) murdering children, without serious public unrest. Being upset about defaced memorials while staying silent about members of our government committing sex crimes against children is like worrying about the colour of your bedspread when your house is on fire. And so I typed furiously, certain in the belief that people would agree.

But perhaps, in hindsight, I shouldn’t have used the defacing of a war memorial as a way into writing about the child abuse scandal. Some commenters have argued that the desecration of memorials can never be right, regardless of the circumstances. On the whole, people seem much more comfortable agreeing that vandalism against war memorials is wrong than they do speaking in any real way about the difficult and disturbing subject of child rape and what we are to do about it.

I don’t agree that it is always ‘wrong’ to vandalise a war memorial, although I understand why people hold that view. Memorials serve a symbolic role – they say something about the values of the society we live in, and how we treat them is a direct response to how we feel about the values they represent. There are, therefore, circumstances in which defacing a memorial is a necessary – or at least a justifiable – symbolic act, despite the fact it is also a disrespectful and most often illegal one.

Obviously it is disrespectful to deface a war memorial. That’s the point. But who are you disrespecting? That is where the issue gets interesting (if difficult), and where a simple narrative of ‘you are spitting on the graves of men and women who fought and died for you’ will not suffice. Almost everyone in this country (indeed, in the world) has someone in their recent ancestry, or even in their life, who has been affected by war. Those decrying the vandalism do not have a monopoly on conscripted grandparents. Thus we must understand that defacing a memorial is not always (ever?) about disrespecting people who have suffered and often died. Defacing a memorial is about disrespecting the state – because war memorials ALSO often serve symbolically to suggest that ‘those who fought did so because they were on the ‘right’ side, and we honour them and respect the values they fought for (which are almost always the values of the state that is in power now).’

Defacing a war memorial is usually (although not always) therefore a symbolic act against the state, which is justified and justifiable on these terms. At the Monument to the Soviet Army in Sofia there is ongoing ‘vandalism’ as artists and activists paint over the memorial to express political allegiances, including support for the Ukrainian Revolution in 2014. I think this example illustrates the symbolic ambiguity of memorials – the tension between a memorial’s role as a site of respect for individuals akin to a headstone, and a memorial’s role in symbolically sanctioning the political actions of the state. It also demonstrates how memorial ‘desecration’ can actually serve as a kind of discussion between warring groups who are unable to find common ground in speech – if one ‘side’ has to clean paint off of a memorial they are forced to physically engage with the views of their opponent (even in the act of removing those views from sight), just as the opponent must physically engage with the symbolic value of the memorial in order to deface it.

A public condemnation of the desecration of a war memorial indicates that there is a general public support for the values of the state. The criticism of the ‘Tory Scum’ graffiti on the Monument to the Women of World War II suggests that the media (and a large proportion of the public) support the Conservative government (hardly a surprise given they have just won a majority vote in a general election), and the (neo)liberal values embodied by that monument. It is of course highly unlikely that the incendiary act of painting graffiti on a war memorial will do anything in the short-term other than shore up already existing political divisions. And as yet we have no idea exactly who painted the graffiti on Saturday, or what their motivations were (I have seen speculation online that it wasn’t painted by the protesters). But the fact remains that war memorials provide a visible and potent canvas for expressing frustrations with politics and the machinations of political power – they are visible sites where we can react and where we can provoke reaction. They are important, fertile and appropriate sites for political intervention. War memorials are the public face for our public values, and they provide a public face for us to change and challenge those values too.

*Image by Getty Images