Small Roots

The greatest challenge I’ve encountered since starting postgraduate study is loneliness. You rejoin the familiar environment where you were part of the family mere months ago, and find yourself an outsider. You are no longer part of a class, griping, laughing, anticipating, working, celebrating together. Much as they are familiar faces, you are also not part of the staff. They are their own group, friends, colleagues, and you are not one of them, nor are you one of their students any longer. In my specific circumstances, through a few quirks of coincidence, I am utterly alone when I am in college.

You’d think, then, that I’d be interested in, perhaps even delighted about an effort on the part of my college to give students a chance to make new friends. Come and connect, they say. Join us in this particular spot, reach out, get to know someone new. There’s just one problem. It’s facilitated by the chaplaincy team.

In my college, the chaplain is a lovely guy. He’s experienced, he’s friendly. He’s also a Catholic priest – while he is employed and paid by my college, from public funds, he is in service to the Roman Catholic church.

What do I know of the Catholic church, just from personal experience?

In the past decade:

  1. I had a choice for my children to either attend one of the local schools, all walking distance from our home. Alternatively, I was free to try and get them a place (hahahaha good luck with that) in a “multi-denominational” school, which would still not be non-religious but hey, at least they teach all the religions, as long as they’re Christian. But by law you can opt out, so we did. In spite of that…
  2. My children have been forced or pressured at various times to attend Catholic rituals, against my express wishes and in at least one instance against their added clearly expressed wishes not to be forced to attend due to their own personal, very deeply held religious convictions.
  3. Catholic representatives were given access to my children without my permission.
  4. Two of my children were subjected to a full day of open, intense Catholic religious indoctrination. One of them surreptitiously texted me, disturbed, describing what was happening (think Jesus Camp style downright sick indoctrination), but the school had not sought my written permission for this off-campus activity, nor did I know where my child had been taken, so I could not fetch them immediately. I was one of a number of parents to complain; when the next child reached this age group, the experience was repeated with no change. At least this time we were prepared and the child in question chose, forewarned, to have the experience simply to get an understanding of the intensity and psychological power of such zealotrous indoctrination techniques.
  5. One of my children was bullied by a teacher for being opted out of religion. The child was forced to sit in class, because this is what the Catholic church does in the publically funded schools they control: they have to let you opt out as it is a constitutional right, but they fail to take any action whatsoever to make your choice practically workable. They refuse to move religion classes to a time of day that will allow for parents to simply drop off or collect a child a little earlier or later. They refuse to provide alternative classes, or allow a child to sit in on another class taking place at the same time. Instead, the child is “opted out” but forced to sit in the class as it is presented, and in many cases not allowed to keep themselves busy with something else. In this case the teacher then proceeded to vilify and smear atheists, and when my child objected she told them to “shut up, you’re not part of this class.”
  6. One of my children considered studying to be a teacher. I had to discourage them, as that would mean having to go to another country to study and definitely to work. The Catholic church is almost wholly in control of publically funded schools, running and controlling these schools with the money collected in taxes from all Irish citizens, not just Catholics. They can and do exclude or discriminate against anyone who is not prepared to at least pretend to be Catholic when it comes to appointing teachers. They also control the overwhelming majority of facilities offering teacher training. This career path is closed to my children in our country, directly due to the Catholic church.

If I ignore my personal experience:

  1. Personal friends have had their children insulted and humiliated for asking not to be forced to attend Catholic rituals. One family is deeply devoted, but in a different sect of Christianity. Still the child had a teacher hiss right in their face: “Just because you don’t pray doesn’t mean you can stop us from praying,” when the teacher was leading a class to church for an unscheduled, spur-of-the-monent mass attendance and the child said they didn’t want to go because they were not Catholic.
  2. A personal friend had marital trouble in the mid 2000’s. When she tried to find out where to obtain marital counselling to try to save her marriage, she was only directed to Catholic-controlled Accord. Believing she would get Catholic-controlled advice, and coming from a family near destroyed by a priest’s response to a cry for help in an abusive situation, she ended up not getting professional help. We lost touch, I have no idea if her marriage survived.
  3. Catholic control of hospitals, and where they are not directly in control, of patterns of thought around childbirth, does damage to women in Ireland way, way beyond the already serious and shocking issues reported in the media. Women I know personally have been traumatised in their pregnancy and during childbirth, as a direct result of Catholic views on women, pregnancy, and childbirth. I believe Savita’s death was directly caused by the Catholic church’s continued influence in women’s health care and medicine in general.
  4. The Catholic church ran slave camps in Ireland until the mid nineties.
  5. Criminals will exist in any organisation. However, the Catholic church as an organisation systematically enabled and assisted criminals in covering up past crimes and in continuing to commit crimes. The organisation then took very cynical steps to put their share of the burden of financial reparation almost completely on the backs of the people who were the victims of their complicitiy in crime.

In opposition to this, no doubt a devoted enthusiast could make a very long list of good things the Catholic church has done, and continues to do. So why focus on the bad stuff?

Let’s say I tell you that there’s an organisation called, say, The Wonder Bunch (TWB). It has raised funds for victims of natural disasters, has sent representatives to help establish shelters for abused women. It has also raised funds to recruit and train child soldiers, advocates for slavery, and lobbies for any sexual relationship other than heterosexuality to be criminalised as a death penalty offence. Finally I add that they run the local tennis club.

Would you feel it’s ethical to join me for a game of tennis?

Everytime we do attend that game of tennis, everytime we do go to that “Chaplaincy-facilitated event”, everytime we shrug and accept the involvement of the Catholic church in small, “benign” events in everyday life, we allow a small root to grow, to remain, or to strengthen. These small roots individually are likely benign, even good for the immediate community. But each of these small roots supports a big, dark tree with bark like razor wire, and menacing branches with blade-like thorns hanging over others not as lucky as us to be nothing the Catholic church happens to oppose. Teachers or people interested in studying to be teachers who are not heterosexual or who are not Catholic and are not prepared to pretend to be Catholic; anyone in need of routine or critical healthcare; children who should be free to get education without the intertwined religious indoctrination; those traumatised by Catholic-enabled or perpetrated rape, abuse, neglect, and other crimes.

Everytime we’re ok with the small roots, we are siding against all those who have suffered, and strengthen the hand of the Catholic church to continue harming others still.

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We earned our citizenship. We don’t deserve this.

A few years ago I enrolled as a student in a tertiary institution in Ireland. The application form requested my place of birth. I remember hesitating, as my place of birth and my citizenship don’t correspond. I looked for a space on the form where I could add my citizenship. There was none.

Fast forward a few months, when time came for me to register. I was presented with a bill for over €10,000. I had near heart failure: I had not expected any bill at all. I met all the requirements for the fees charged to an Irish citizen, and I also met the requirements for the government grant available to first time students, which would cover my tuition and what’s called a student contribution.

When I contacted the college, the administrator blamed me for the error, as I did not notify them I was an Irish citizen. They had not given me any opportunity to do so, nor did they indicate that I needed to. My citizenship had already been established for the purposes of applying for the grant, and the grant awarding body (SUSI) was in other ways linked to the college through the Central Applications Office (CAO): I had naïvely assumed the fact that I had managed to obtain a SUSI grant, only available to Irish citizens, would give a clue to the CAO as to my citizenship status.

Things were sorted, in the end, and I thought it was just a glitch It wasn’t. Recently I filled in an application for a scholarship. Again I was given a space to fill in my place of birth, with no opportunity or option to indicate citizenship. Remembering the previous buggerup, I discussed it with my husband, and ended up entering: “Irish citizen” in the place of birth box. It’s none of their business where I was born.

Now my daughter is about to start at a university. She worked hard in her Leaving Certificate, and won the points required to gain entry. She carefully examined options, and went through all the required application processes. This week first year students had to register online… except she was notified that because she had indicated a place of birth outside of Ireland, she had to provide evidence that she is a citizen, and also that she has been resident in Ireland for the required number of years before now. Only then would she be able to register. Like I did years ago, she also had met the requirements for a SUSI grant, like before the SUSI office is linked with the CAO, so you’d think they’d be able to somehow put a citizenship verification system in place. But no, that would mean efficiency in a beaurocracy, so perish the thought.

She provided the required evidence by Thursday (she had to wait for a letter from the school), but she is still blocked from registering. This means that all her fellow students are able to peruse their timetables and similar information without which it’s difficult to plan ahead. She can’t provide her part time employer with an idea of what hours she’d be available to work, for instance. It means she is anxious about missing the deadline the university gave for registration. Most of all, it means she is excluded. Highlighted. Different.

This kind of thing is pissing me off ever more, the longer I live here as a citizen. Ireland has done a lot for us, and I would not be who, or where I am, without this great little country. Yet I earned my citizenship, and my husband and I earned our children’s citizenship. What did most people do to be Irish? They popped out of the right parents, or in the right place. Other than that they did bugger all to earn the right to call themselves Irish citizens.

Naturalised citizens like myself and my children did so much more. First, in 2005 I met the requirements for residence in Ireland. Sortly after arriving I visited the police station and registered as an immigrant. For years I had to return to the police station at regular intervals to renew my registration, and prove I continued to meet the requirements for staying – a process that sometimes meant hours of waiting (I once waited four hours, before someone thought to tell me the immigration officer wasn’t in). After five years living here I was entitled to apply for citizenship, but for various reasons I didn’t apply until late 2012. The application process involved filling in a form which, as I remember it, was at least 13 pages long. I travelled to Dublin for help from the New Communities Partnership with filling in the application form, because it was well known that if you made even the smallest mistake, your form would simply be sent back to you, and you’d have to start all over again. You could lose the €175 non-refundable application fee. I spent an entire day there getting that form perfect. At one point the consultant realised with horror that I had filled in the form with blue rather than black pen, so I had to re-do the whole. damn. thing.

Once I sent in the application the processing of citizenship applications had been streamlined, and I waited only a few months for my application to be processed. Before the overhaul, people waited years. My application was approved, and I had to fork over nearly €1,000. After that I travelled to Dublin and attended a ceremony where I swore allegiance to the Irish state.

In light of all that, can you understand why I get so angry and upset when we STILL have to jump through hoops, prove ourselves, deal with systems which seem to be designed to discriminate against us and make our lives difficult? Why in the name of all the gods can universities and colleges not ask people to fill in their citizenship rather than place of birth in application forms? Why is this so difficult? Why is it such a hard thing to get that not all Irish citizens were born in Ireland? Why insist on sticking to a system that others and discriminates against and makes life difficult for those who actually sweated blood for the privilege of citizenship, while blithely taking the word of those who claim to have been born in Ireland on both their place of birth, as well as their years of residence in the state?

This whole thing pisses me off tremendously. But I suppose it’s one of those things you just have to live with.

News Media: Where to from here?

In retrospect, we should have seen it coming. Some academics did, with Daniel Boorstin probably at the forefront of this group, predicting much of the modern day news dilemma in his 1961 book The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-events in America. Yet most people were not prepared for the rise of “fake news”, the impact of news as entertainment, the level of sophistication with which audiences are analysed and manipulated, the impact on politics. In light of the last few years’ events, it’s fair to ask: can the news media continue to act as producers of meaning whilst remaining within the structures of formal rules about impartiality?

To answer this question, let’s analyse two news reports. Both are focused on the same event: the Berlin Christmas Market attack that took place on 19 December 2016. The first video is from Sky news, a privately owned news broadcaster. The second video is from the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), a public broadcaster. Both reports were published on 20 December, the day after the attack, and on the surface the two reports seem very similar. However, closer analysis shows many differences in the narrative created.

Events, Media Events, and Pseudo-Events

Boorstin posited that there are:

  • Events – that which happened
  • Media Events – that which would probably have happened, but takes on certain peculiarities because of media presence
  • Pseudo-Events – that which is staged specifically to be reported on, without reporting it would not happen

Was the Berlin Christmas Market attack a media event, or even a pseudo-event? Would Anis Amri have been instructed by a terrorist organisation to carry out the attack if they didn’t know media coverage was guaranteed? If so, how was the nature of the attack affected by the knowledge of the usual style of media coverage? While no more than speculation can be offered to answer these questions, they are worth asking. To what extent is terrorism motivated or affected by the media?

Newsworthiness

Both channels selected to report on this story, and it’s not difficult to understand why. The reports were both compiled by broadcasters targeting residents of the United Kingdom, and English-speaking audiences farther afield. The attack in Berlin was likely of interest to most Europeans and probaby also to Americans and Canadians – the societal group often referred to as “The West”.

The BBC is publically owned, while Sky was founded by magnate Rupert Murdoch, who owns 39% of the company and eleven days before publication of the clips in question was reported to have made a bid for a complete takeover. Murdoch is associated with far right broadcaster Fox News, and tabloid newspapers such as The Sun in the UK. While the UK has rules of impartiality in force for both public and private broadcasters, Sky is viewed as leaning towards conservative values. The Conservative party in the UK was only a few months past a vote to leave the European Union.

The influence of ownership is clear in the construction of the messages. For example, the BBC’s report opens with the fact that a lorry had, for the second time that year, been used as a weapon. The Sky report mentions the fact nearer the end of the report, with little emphasis, and the caveat “appears to”. This choice can be seen as due to private ownership of the broadcaster. The reporters at Sky are beholden to a business mogul who would in turn want to promote the interests of people he considers friends or business associates, with a lorry a symbol of commerce and trade. Emphasising the use of a lorry as a weapon is undesirable from a business mogul’s perspective: should anyone decide to act on this with access restrictions on heavy goods vehicles, it would have a negative effect on business owners. In contrast, emphasis of the fact that the weapon in the attack was a lorry is desirable from a social interest perspective, and if acted on could have a positive effect on society, by making people safer. This shows a bias towards social interest with the public broadcaster, and bias towards business interests with the private broadcaster.

Preferred Meaning

The decision to report, and the amount of time and effort put into the report, were affected not only by the nature of the event and ownership of the broadcaster, but also by its relevance to the main target market of both channels: residents of the United Kingdom. The message is shaped to tell people what they want to hear, and to tell people what the controllers of the medium want them to hear. A number of creative decisions imbibe the Sky report with an underlying message of how the British citizen’s foray into Germany led to her being in danger, and that danger moreover is linked to Germany’s refugee policy. Just months before, fear of being completely overrun by immigrants and refugees played a major part in the Brexit vote. At the time of the report Article 50 had not yet been triggered, but was rumoured to be due to be triggered early in 2017. The ruling Conservative party therefore would benefit from a continued inflation of the immigrant/refugee fear among UK citizens.

Use of Language

This subtle framing of the narrative as one of troubled Europe is clear throughout Sky’s report. The featured expert points out that Europe had been warned, the reporter then mentions the truck had Polish number plates, and closes with a statement referring to people waiting to hear if terrorists have spilled more blood on Europe’s streets. The word German is used only once in the whole report (“German police say…” at 1:12), while the word Europe is used twice. The only accents heard are British, the only language heard is English. A narrative is created of this being a Europe affair, a threat associated with being part of the continent, with familiar British voices describing the horror of this event in Europe.

The BBC report frames the narrative as a European issue, but with emphasis on humanising the victims. The reporter uses the words Berlin (1x), Germany (1x), Germans (1x), and makes reference to how the country looks to France’s similar experience and sets the same goal – to not let terror disrupt their way of life. In contrast to the Sky report, one eyewitness speaks with a clear German accent and the other with a partial German accent. Furthermore, footage of Germany’s Chancellor is shown, addressing a press conference in German (translated into Australian-accented English), and their Interior Minister also speaking German, the translator in this case having an English accent. A priest is also shown making a statement in German, the reporter explaining his clearly emotional statement. The overall effect is an emphasis on the family aspect of Europe, the ties between the direct victims and the whole world.

Both reports use amateur footage and commentary to create the illusion of real-ness and an insider insight into what happened. However, Sky relied only on British witnesses, while the BBC played audio from a witness with a clear German accent, and footage from another witness who looks as if they could be of middle eastern origin, whose accent is less definitively German. This can again be understood to be an effort on the part of Sky to create rapport with their audience, while the BBC either tries to create a sense of unity with European compatriots, whose emotions in this incident would be easy to identify with; or is attempting to accurately report on the event as an attack on Germans, not UK citizens, and an attack that hurt everyone, including people of middle eastern origin.

Semiotics

It is notable that Sky’s clip used a female reporter, and two female witnesses, while the BBC’s clip used a male reporter and two male witnesses. This could have been a coincidence, but may have been a deliberate choice to create a certain meaning. Women are often considered more vulnerable due to their physiological differences from men. From a patriarchal point of view, their position is close to that of possessions. A threat to them is a challenge to masculinity and a threat to the social group, because of their role in reproduction. The terror of “they’re going to rape our women” is a common theme in far right political thinking, and opting to feature two female witnesses and a female reporter acts as a “dog whistle” to this mindset. In more academic terms, there may be a juxtaposition of British females alarmed and threatened with the devastation of the Berlin attack to evoke a connotation of threat to the self, to “us”, with this threat to a different country.

The BBC report uses similar connotative communication, pointing out that the location of the attack is near a church ruin serving as reminder of the “savagery” of World War Two. This is likely to speak particularly to a well informed viewer with a liberal mindset, who is more likely to be aware of the extent of the bombing endured by German citizens towars the end of the war, and such incidents as the Dresden firestorm. Including this reference, followed directly by a German priest barely able to hold back tears, making reference to France and pleading for life to not be stopped, can equally be seen as a “dog whistle”, but to the liberal mind: the suffering of the ordinary people in World War Two made no distinction with regards to nationality. It was a universal experience. The suffering caused by the Berlin attack, too, is a universal experience. The enemy aims to disrupt or end life as it is, and resisting that goal is a common purpose which should transcend borders and nationalities.

While I believe a bias is clear in Sky’s reporting, I believe a bias is also clear in the BBC’s reporting. Yet an identifiable effort is also made by the BBC to include all facts. Their report does not shy away from naming the nationality of the suspect, and directly addresses the elephant in the room: the contentious feelings around refugees pouring into Europe, and this attack on a country seen as particularly welcoming to them.

Echo Chamber

Viewing the two reports one after the other it is clear that each broadcaster uses deliberate and perhaps in some cases unconscious communication techniques to create a narrative supporting a preferred meaning. It demonstrates the value of gathering information on which to base our understanding of the world beyond our lived experience from more than one source. Even a source that is publically owned and committed to neutrality cannot escape bias in its reporting. If we only ever watch Sky, or only the BBC, we can become unaware of a contradicting opinion. This holds true also if we get our news from a few different sources, but they all hold the same bias. We can live in an illusion of being well informed, while in fact only hearing different sources say the same thing.

Conclusion

Considering the above analysis, is it possible now to answer our original question?I believe we can.

First, with modern sophistication in communication techniques and audience analysis, media has become one of the most powerful tools in history. It should be regulated and controlled to limit the extent to which it can be used to manipulate the masses, with full knowledge that such regulation can never do more than curb its abuse. Sky News is a good example of a privately owned broadcaster at least restrained by regulation: its bias has to be subtle, and there is at least a regulatory body holding them accountable. In contrast, America’s Fox News is an example of a virtually unregulated privately owned broadcaster. Their effect on public opinion and politics, and their virtual immunity from consequences even when their presenters tell outright lies, has been examined extensively. Both Sky News and BBC are bound by legal requirements for neutrality. These rules keep Sky from bias as rampant as seen on America’s Fox News, and provide an additional incentive and standard for the BBC.

In this milieu, where broadcasters are obligated by law to strive for impartiality, news media can indeed continue to act as producers of meaning, and remain within the structures of formal rules about impartiality. I believe, however, that they will fall short of the ideal more often than they don’t. With a public as informed and exposed to media as we are today, it is difficult to avoid connotations and the construction of meaning even when you are actively trying not to. Yet the value of the exercise is not in succeeding, but in trying.

We need the stories of humanity mediated to the point where we can understand the world outside our lived experience. Media has an important role to play, and should be supported through imposed standards encouraging broadcasters to strive for neutrality. The problems of rampant bias and political control must additionally be addressed through a shift in policy to where media literacy is considered as vital a basic skill as reading and mathematics.

 

Ownership and Means of Production

None of us has the ability to know what happens outside our lived experience except through others communicating to us – or reporting – what they have experienced. This is the purest form of news. More often than not, our picture of what exists outside our lived experience is formed through someone communicating to us someone else’s communication about their lived experience. Sounds complicated, but in simple terms, anything you didn’t experience yourself is a story about someone else’s experience, and likely it’s not the person who lived the experience who tells you the story.

With 7 billion+ people living on earth, there is no way you can receive the communication about each and every lived experience. Therefore we have mediators who highlight stories worth telling, which are important for you to know. A friend may decide what gossip they heard is worth sharing over a pint. Through that mediation, through deciding to tell you A but not B, they have already shaped or mediated your view of the world outside your lived experience. Moreover, their own point of view and bias will shape the story they’re telling. If they don’t like John, they may consider the end of John’s romantic relationship to be a consequence of John’s unlikable behaviour. They like Ben, though, so the end of Ben’s romantic relationship may be framed as Ben’s partner being unreasonable.

On a wider scale, professional mediators – journalists – decide on local, national, and international level what stories are worth sharing over a news desk. Time is limited, so journalists have to make a decision on what is relevant and important to know. Should they tell us A or B? On top of that, just like your friend in the pub has a bias, journalists have biases. It is a human condition (which journalists should be aware of and strive to move beyond, but that is another story). Yet an added layer of bias comes into play through the journalist’s superiors, another layer through the organisation employing both: what market is the organisation targeting? The story will be framed to stimulate an emotional response among the target market, and identifying what wil elicit the desired reaction is an increasingly sophisticated science.

It doesn’t end there, though. Who owns the organisation? Media ownership is concentrated in the hands of a few individuals. What is most important to the board, or the individual owner?

Economic Factors

News production is increasingly aimed at entertainment rather than dispersing accurate information. This entertainment is costly to produce. The entities that invest in the production of entertainment want to minimise their risk, and therefore are reluctant to put money into productions that may not be popular. However, owning everything also minimises risk. There has therefore been an increase in horizontal integration (when a media institution swallows another media institution providing the same kind of media, such as a television production company buying a rival television production company) as well as vertical integration (when a media institution swallows an institution concerned with another link in the chain of getting this kind of content to the audience, such as a television production company buying a satellite television service provider) [for more on both, see the last source linked to].

Power

When an individual owns a range of media outlets, they control the image their audience forms of the world outside their lived experience. If you hear it on the radio, and see it on television, and read it on your newspaper app, why then, it must be true. Everyone is saying the same thing. Yet “everyone” is really just one person, whispering into your ear what they want you to think. The power of the vote of the masses can therefore be wielded by a single person. Both the Brexit vote and the Trump (page 18) vote can be argued to show evidence of mass opinion being shaped by a continuous stream of indoctrination from a range of media outlets owned by one person, or at best a small handful of people. How is it possible for such small numbers to hold such incredible power?

Means

As I mentioned, producing news is expensive. To hold the modern attention you need a slick, professional appearance, and this costs a lot of money. Therefore news is controlled by those who have the means to invest millions in professional news production. What we see, hear, read, and ultimately think can easily be controlled by people who have the money to buy our thoughts.

Consequences

This situation is probably the biggest challenge democracy has ever faced. One way of fighting it is to finance public broadcasters who are required to be neutral. People who turn to news sources that are not in private ownership/not operated for profit, are generally better informed. We also need to finance the arts, and media, to enable those other than the wealthy to get their voices heard. Finally, we should include media literacy in public education, to foster understanding of the danger of getting news only from sources telling you what you want to hear, and understanding of the importance of funding arts and media.

Shoot him with a gun, then invite him to dinner

When our daughter was about six years old, we always joked she was so pretty we’d already have to start saving for a shotgun for when the boys started visiting. One day, she asked me seriously what we would do if a boy showed interest in her when she’s older. I replied we’d invite him to dinner, so Dad and I would be able to assess him and get to know him before he can date our daughter. Her four-year-old brother, who’d half listened but didn’t catch all that, asked her what Mommy would do if a boy wanted to date her. She said: “She’ll shoot him with a gun, then invite him to dinner.”

This is a family classic joke, but it also shows the mindset we were in at the time. Our circumstances led us to reevaluate our life, beliefs, convictions from the foundations up, and the attitudes behind that joke are among the foundations that were rebuilt.

Believing your job is to protect your daughter is to believe she is not able to protect herself. I’m not talking physical protection, I’m talking a kind of oversight of every decision, every relationship, insisting that you have authority and the final say over her movements – as in, she has to ask your permission to go here or there. That sends the message to her that she is incapable. The sad thing about psychology is that being bombarded with the message that you’re incapable can make you incapable. When you are constantly told in myriad little ways that you can’t, you are likely to believe you can’t, therefore you can’t.

Instead, I know my daughter is a capable, intelligent person. She has no curfew and we make no demand that she report her every move to us, because we trust her judgement, and even if her judgement is faulty, she will never learn to improve it unless we give her space to make mistakes. Our one and only demand with our children is that they make sure their mobile phone is charged and on at all times. That way, if we worry, we can contact them, and we often do just to say hi, if we haven’t seen them for a few hours and want to touch base. Our job as parents instead is to be there, whenever they need us, to listen without a breath of judgement ever ever no matter how stupid they may have been. This is critical, because if they fear they may be met with anger, “how could you”, blame, or a rant about how much their actions are now going to inconvenience us, they will keep things to themselves which will do much more harm without our help than with it. We work hard to stay neutral, even at times when we feel shocked or think they may have made a silly mistake. That way we create the best possible chance that when they need us, our children will come to us and ask for help.

That last sentence refers to children rather than just our daughter, because that’s the other thing: we treat all three our children exactly the same. The only variations lay in responses to their level of ability and responsibility when they were much younger. Our rule was that the price of freedom is responsibility. So when they were in their pre-teen and early teenage years, moving slowly from the age-appropriate, necessary control we exercised as parents to the greater freedom of approaching adulthood, they earned our blessing to go about unsupervised in return for showing they were responsible enough to do so. The rules were and are no different for our daughter. We stopped treating her differently from her brothers because we want her to go into the world used to equal treatment with the men around her. In this house, we strive to not normalise inequality.

We also consider our children’s sex lives utterly, utterly their own private business. To me especially this is incredibly important. When they decide to first experience it, how, where: all their own business. If one day we were to suspect or accidentally find out they’re having sex in our house, as long as they are respectful and discreet I don’t care. Their rooms are their space, their privacy sacred. I would much rather our kids have sex in such a controlled environment, and use protection, than try desperately not to be normal human beings and then cave in to natural, normal, healthy urges in an uncontrolled, unplanned, unsafe environment. Again, I of course demand respect for the fact that this is my and Micky’s house where they also live: discrection is just good manners. But if by accident we become aware they’re sexually active, it is NONE OF OUR BUSINESS.

The critical ingredient here is openness. We have never treated sex as some taboo subject. It has always been private, but not shameful. Especially as the kids got older, we emphasised that sex is an adult thing you should engage in when you’re ready. It’s like driving: you need some maturity to handle it, because it can have some serious consequences, and necessitates remembering responsibility at a time of high emotion. Virginity is neither a sacred gift to treasure nor a burden to try and get rid of as quickly as possible. It is actually quite a stupid term, if you think of it, because we have no similar term for people who have not experienced fulltime work yet, or haven’t travelled alone yet. Sex is a very similar experience connected with maturing and being able to handle greater responsibility. We emphasised the need to use condoms, and were frank about both the beauty and the possible negative consequences of sex. Those times the kids approached us with sex-related questions, we again worked hard to always respond with zero judgement, with love, acceptance, and assurances that they are okay, this is just an aspect of humanity we learn to manage as we grow.

To those parents who argue that they merely react with disgust and condemnation when finding out their child has engaged in sex before marriage, or at an age the parent deems too young: firstly, how in the name of all the gods do you expect your child to flick a switch in their mind on their wedding day and suddenly do a 180 on years’ indoctrination that their natural urges are disgusting and wrong? Also, who are you to judge when your child is old enough for sex? Age alone cannot be an indicator, and you do not have the right nor the insight into their feelings, thoughts, and emotions to be able to judge on their behalf. You do not own your child, and if they make this decision and regret it, your job is to be there to comfort them and assure them it is just like any other mistake: if you slept with someone and realise it was too soon, you don’t have to sleep with anyone again until you feel ready. They are not going to share these feelings and doubts and regrets with you if they know you’ll explode, so your actions will leave them adrift and without support at the time they need you most.

Where alcohol is concerned, we have been frank with the kids that it’s a great thing to have in moderation, but easy to sneak into addiction. We have also been frank that while nothing excuses crime, and you are never responsible for being a victim of crime, it is a fact that being drunk makes you more vulnerable. You can reduce your vulnerability if you don’t get blackout drunk. Again their use of alcohol is their decision, and the most we do is to share our thoughts and beliefs about it with them. Drugs, too, we have been very frank about the negative consequences, and this is important: we have done our research so that we base our advice on fact.

Finally, this is a big deal: I strive to never, never lie to our kids. I am horrified with these “awww sweet” stories of silly lies parents tell their kids. For instance, I read the funny story the other day of parents who told their kids the car goes faster if you sit quiet and still. Ha ha ha, so funny, except you have taught them not to trust you. More extreme was an acquaintance who went to the ridiculous length of flying her child to Lapland to meet “Santa” when the child started suspecting it’s a myth, to extend the child’s belief a little while, preserve the magic of childhood a little longer. What the actual fuck! How is that child supposed to ever trust what their mother tells them, ever? Because she demonstrated that she will lie and lie and lie if she feels the child believing a certain thing is best for them, even if it is not the truth.

It all comes down to control. Parents must cop on that they do incredible damage if they try to control their children’s lives. Control is necessary when the child is very young, but it is a necessity that should never be extended beyond what is healthy. Like wearing nappies: totally, yes, it is necessary, but keeping a child in nappies when they have reached a stage of being capable of doing without them is harmful. Keeping control when the child is mature enough for responsibility is the same thing.

Narrative and Stories

The film When Harry met Sally is famous for That Orgasm Scene, where Meg Ryan’s Sally proves to Billy Crystal’s Harry that women can fake it, by faking it right there in a restaurant. I remember the film for something much quieter, but to my mind a much more profound message. The film is interspersed with different couples filmed in the same setting, what looked like an old-fashioned sitting room with couch. Their stories are mildly interesting, but not gripping, and in some cases a little boring. Then we see this wonderful story told of a developing relationship between two people, the ups, the downs, the close call, then finally the elation of them making it, kissing, getting together. As the camera zooms out of the kissing scene, a voiceover begins of this couple describing what we just witnessed, and the scene fades to them sitting on the same old-fashioned couch, telling us the story of how they met. It sounds just as plain, mildly interesting, borderline boring as the other stories we’d been told by couples on that couch.

The profound lesson that stuck with me from this romantic comedy was that people’s boring lives can be deeply interesting if you just listen in the right way, or, there is a story behind every face you see. As I progress in my media studies, I realise this lesson can be inverted: the most exciting stories can be boring if you don’t tell them right.

Media organisations have long ago discovered this lesson. Facts are boring, even quite dramatic and exciting facts. You have to use the same techniques used in storytelling to keep your audience gripped.

It’s one thing to say: “Today the USA dropped a big bomb in Syria.” People may pay attention for a few seconds. It’s another altogether to create a story, with a gripping opening declaration,  footage of an authority figure reading a carefully crafted statement, followed by an excited summary punctuated with impressive footage of explosions and missiles launching: “We just dropped a big, beautiful bomb”, framing the event as “we” to drag in your audience as participants in this elated story of not only sticking it to the people “we” bombed, but also to every enemy “we” have across the world.

The video clip (up to 2:08) is a beautiful example of modern news framing: you have a narrator telling the story of how America got the upper hand, showed the world who’s boss. His facial expression and tone of voice brims with elation: bombing Syria is a wonderful thing! Footage edited together to show the story the narrator is telling, literally creating a fiction surrounding the event that makes it sound heroic.

Footage shown during the narration is completely unrelated to the event. It is told from one point of view only – the triumphant American aggressor’s – and is almost wholly fabricated: virtually nothing was known at the time other than that this bomb was dropped in Syria, allegedly to destroy a tunnel network.

In this way, news becomes something other than news. It is no longer intended to inform us of events, instead, it is entertainment and indoctrination. Fox News especially has created a fictional world in which real people live, and which has real consequences for everyone.

Semiotics 101

Semiotics, the science of signs, is considered to have two fathers: Ferdinand de Saussure, and Charles Peirce. The former was a Swiss linguist whose contribution to the discipline was published after his death. Two of his former students, Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye, used notes take in his classes to put together Course in General Linguistics, published in 1916. The work was groundbreaking for its innovative and original approach.

My experience of semiotics so far is that it is the most complicated simple idea I have ever had to come to grips with. Saussure’s foundational idea is the easiest to explain: a message (any communication) consists of a signifier, and a signified. The signifier is a sign representing a concept. So the word “donkey”, which you read on the screen, is a sign. It represents a concept in your mind – and it is that concept that is called a signified.

Independent of Saussure, another great mind in the USA was working to explain signs. Charles Sanders Peirce explained it as a triad: a sign, an object, and the interpretation of the sign. His terminology is representamen, object, and interpretant. Taking the example of a donkey, you have the word written on the screen – donkey – which is the representamen. Then there is the actual animal braying in a field somewhere: the object. Finally, there is the concept that arises in your mind when reading the word.

Of course, signs or representamens go so much farther than words written on a page. Everything is a sign, whether the originator of the sign meant it as a sign or not. Signs are originated by humans, animals, nature. Complicating matters even more, our interpretants differ. Sheep to a child born and raised in a city means something very different from the same word to a child living on a farm, who has a sense of touch, smell, sound to add to the representamen in their mind.

Both these founding fathers’ work is explained in very simple terms here, but Peirce’s theory especially is like a deep pool. My explanation here touched no more than the surface, but his concepts go far enough to provide material for lifelong study.

Great minds such as Roland Barthes, Stuart Hall, Jean Killbourne and more expanded and built on the original ideas first bound and comprehensively described by Saussure and Peirce. Their work launched a fascinating, culturally critical new school of thought.