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Let’s be honest about these attacks on immigrants

Following the widely reported sexual assaults in Cologne, Melanie Phillips has implored us to face up to the difficult facts and accept the unpalatable truth; to wit – a reluctance to accept the cultural factor fuelling sexual pathologies is to blame for allowing these outbreaks of sexual violence.

In her article (a non-paywalled version of which can be found here), she draws the conclusion that the influx of Muslim immigrants into Europe is creating a perilous situation for the local women, who are deemed inferior and despised by these Muslim men. As evidence of this, we are told it is Muslim immigrants driving increases in the incidence of rape in Sweden over the previous ten years; hardly surprising considering their culture is so misogynistic, or so Melanie would have it. Attempts to define this fundamentally as a male problem as opposed to a Muslim problem are misguided, and various Swedish studies are cited to support this.

These include a 2002 study by Anne Christine Hjelm for the University of Karlstad, and a 1996 report for the Brottsförebyggande rådet (BRÅ) or Swedish National Crime Council. On top of these we are told that:

Over the past ten years, Sweden has taken in proportionately more Muslim migrants than any other European country. It has developed at the same time an incidence of rape ten times that of other European states.

These firm and definitive conclusions do initially seem to be supported by adequate evidence, and thus Melanie’s argument has a superficial appeal. However, the most strident opinions require the strongest foundations, so it is worth delving a little deeper and examining these in a little more detail.

Starting with the correlation between the increase in Muslim immigration and the incidence of rape, it is true that since 2005 Sweden has seen a dramatic increase in the number of rapes.

However, what Melanie fails to mention is that in 2005 there was a change in the methodology of how rapes were classified and reported. This meant that if a man took advantage of a woman while she was passed out, asleep or intoxicated, this was now considered rape, rather than serious sexual assault as it was previously. It also meant that in circumstances such as gang-rape, where a woman was raped by a number of men, it would now be recorded as multiple instances of rape, rather than a single incident. Marital rape, if carried out numerous times over an extended period, would now be recorded as separate incidents. Since 2005 there have been further changes still, such as the 2008 ruling that digital penetration of the vagina of a woman either sleeping or intoxicated is comparable to intercourse, and is therefore rape.

The BRÅ sociologist Klara Selin had this to say on the increase in rape in Sweden:

“There might also be some increase in actual crime because of societal changes. Due to the internet, for example, it’s much easier these days to meet somebody, just the same evening if you want to. Also, alcohol consumption has increased quite a lot during this period.

“But the major explanation is partly that people go to the police more often, but also the fact that in 2005 there has been reform in the sex crime legislation, which made the legal definition of rape much wider than before.”

As well as this assessment, a 2010 Amnesty International report on rape in Nordic countries states that in 2006, whilst ‘classic’ rape by a stranger who suddenly attacks a woman had decreased, the incidence of rape by a superficial acquaintance had gone up, accounting for approximately 40% of all rapes. Gang-rapes had also seen a marked increase, accounting for 18% of all rapes. In 80% of these cases, the victim knew the perpetrators.

In addition to these, a separate BRÅ study, looking at approximately 90% of all consummated rapes from the years 1995 and 2000, documents the impact of similar legislative changes in 1998:

It does appear to be the case however that a legislative change introduced in 1998 has led to certain offences that would previously have been recorded as sexual coercion or attempted rape, subsequently being recorded as consummated crimes. It is likely that this change may explain some part of the substantial increase in the number of reported rapes over recent years.

It is not possible to exclude the possibility that the dramatic increase in reported rape offences may at least to some extent be the result of an increase in the propensity to report these crimes to the police. On the whole, however, no support was found for interpretations suggesting that this factor, even taken in combination with the effects of the legislative change referred to above, would be sufficient to explain any major part of the increase in the number of reported rapes. Thus it has not been established, but it does not appear unlikely, that the number of rapes committed has in fact increased.

Perhaps a safer strategy would be to look at how the conviction rates changed, as if the incidence of rape was being driven up by the increase in immigrants it would stand to reason there would be a higher rate of convictions. Looking at the data (found here) for 2005-2014, this isn’t the case; there are fluctuations, and some years are higher than others, but the linear and consistent year-on-year increase we would expect to find simply doesn’t exist. Rather, the average is around 190 per year, with variations either side of that.

Bearing these in mind, does Melanie’s conclusion that the tenfold increase in Muslim immigration has caused the tenfold increase in rapes seem fair? It begs the classic question, does correlation equal causation?

Moving onto the Swedish studies, we are presented with some startling statistics regarding immigrants’ predilection for rape; the 2002 study found that:

85 per cent of those sentenced to at least two years in prison for rape were foreign born or second-generation immigrants.

And the earlier 1996 report found that:

immigrants from north Africa were 23 times as likely to commit rape as Swedish men.

Shocking indeed. The first thing to say about both of these statistics is they are not entirely untrue. However, the second thing to say is that they are not particularly reliable, either.

Starting with the 85% statistic; Anne Christine Hjelm looked at 2391 cases brought to the Svea Hovrätt, or Swedish Court of Appeal. Of these 2391 cases, 91 were selected for qualitative analysis, and of these 91, 27 were used to generate the statistics used in the study. What should be noted here is that 27 people is an absolutely minuscule sample size, highly likely to lead to anomalous results and not sufficient enough to provide robust data that can support meaningful conclusions. In Sweden rape carries a mandatory sentence of 24 months; 2005 saw 185 convictions for rape and 31 for aggravated rape, in 2006 there were 197 and 30 respectively (data can be found here). Given this, it is highly probable the data is based upon less than 10% of the convicted rapists in prison. Therefore this headline 85% figure should be taken with a generous pinch of salt.

What that 85% figure actually means is that of the 27 people looked at, 23 – or 85% – were foreign born or the children of immigrants. This can be broken down further still:

Those originating in the Middle East and North Africa stand out, accounting for at least 23% of the rape cases also Africa, excluding North Africa, which accounts for at least 15% of the rape cases. Together the Middle East and Africa account for at least 38% of the rape cases.

If South and Central America (7%) and Asia (7%) are added to the equation, non-European immigrants account for at least 52% of the rape cases. When 22% of rapists are unknown, or confidential, non-Nordic, foreign background, the actual proportion of non-European rapists or rapists or originating in Africa or the Middle East, is probably considerably higher. Only 15% of those convicted perpetrators were of Swedish background.

Looking at the actual numbers:

– 6 are from the Middle East or North Africa (23%)
– 4 are from the rest of Africa (15%)
– 2 are from South and Central America (7%)
– 2 are from Asia (7%)
– 6 (22%) are of unknown foreign background (it should be noted, in a study whose raison d’être is to determine the impact of background on criminality, having this level of ambiguity when the sample group has been chosen so selectively is disappointingly poor practice)
– 4 are from Sweden (15%)
– the remaining 3 (11%) we must assume by default are from Europe, North America or Australasia

(Allowing for some small error margins due to rounding)

So what sort of solid conclusions can be drawn from this data?

The truth is, not really any. Can we draw the kinds of conclusions Melanie has reached – that Sweden’s rape problem lies predominantly with Muslim men of Middle Eastern or North African origin? Not unless we are to also conclude that this problem is actually more of a ‘Western’ society issue – after all, 27% of the rapists in Sweden are from Europe, North America or Australasia, versus just 22% from the Middle East and North Africa. This amply demonstrates the inherent problem with having such a small sample size, and the pitfalls involved in trying to discern anything meaningful from it.

Any conclusions drawn simply aren’t that reliable.

And of course, that’s not even to address the implicit assumption that by ‘Middle Eastern’, we naturally mean Arab and Muslim – when actually, based on the limited information given, it would be equally as valid to assume they were Jewish, or indeed Christian.

Moving onto the 1996 report, we are told that immigrants from North Africa are 23 times more likely to commit rape than Swedish men. This is based on the fact that from 1985-1989 – per thousand people – there are 0.2 Swedes registered for rape, and 4.6 for people from Algeria, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia; or another way of expressing this is to say 0.02% of the Swedish population are rapists, compared to 0.46% of those specified North African countries.

Unlike the Karlstad University study, these figures have not been based upon a selectively sampled group, but rather on the entire populations. This means that from a methodological point of view, its approach is far more rigorous, and as a result its conclusions will be more robust. There have been adjustments made for age, focusing on those 15-45, to ensure that Swedes are not over-represented by the fact that they are much more likely to be children or older. Indeed, unlike the Karlstad University study, which displayed poor practice, the BRÅ report employs pretty much best practice within the scope of the information made available.

However, that’s not to say there are not inherent flaws.

Firstly, and undoubtedly most importantly, the report deals with the number of people registered for particular crimes – not the number of people convicted of those crimes. The number of people registered actually relates to those suspected of a crime by the police, the rationale for this being that – due to the idiosyncracies within Swedish law – those suspected of crimes are recorded in a more specific fashion than those convicted of crimes; for instance a convicted theft is simply recorded as theft, whereas a suspected theft will be recorded as vehicular etc.

Conflating the suspicion of committing a crime with actually being prosecuted for it throws into doubt one of the cornerstones of justice – the presumption of innocence. Saying that immigrants are much more likely to be suspected of committing a crime is not the same as saying they are much more likely to commit crime.

Secondly, there is still a slight problem with the sample size. The report encompasses the entire population of both Swedes and immigrants. For the Swedes this is a total of 2,920,700 people, and for the immigrants from Algeria, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia this is 3,023 people. In others words, there are approximately a thousand times more Swedes than North Africans – which therefore means that when creating a per-thousand figure for these statistics, each individual North African is disproportionately more significant than an individual Swede.

Once again, we can illustrate this by looking at the actual numbers: 0.46% of 3,023 means that there were 14 (suspected) rapists of North African origin. 0.02% of 2,920,700 means there were 584 (suspected) rapists that were indigenous Swedes. To demonstrate how each individual North African becomes disproportionately significant we could round the number of Swedes up to the nearest hundred. Taking 600 suspected rapists amongst a population of 2,920,700 gives a per-thousand figure of 0.205 – almost identical to the original figure of 0.2. However, add the same additional 16 people to the North Africans and it changes things massively: 30 suspected rapists amongst a population of 3,023 gives a per-thousand figure of 9.9 – more than double the original figure, and now suggesting North Africans are 48 times more likely to commit rape than a Swede.

Because the indigenous Swedes are a thousand times more populous, each individual North African becomes a thousand times more significant. Even if we were to add just one additional rapist to the North African statistics, it has a marked impact; now the number of suspected rapists per-thousand figure would be 5, suggesting North Africans are 25 times more likely to commit rape than Swedes. If we consider the impact of an additional Swedish rapist, the result is so infinitesimally small it would not even show up.

Does this completely invalidate the suggestion that there may be a cultural factor involved in sexual violence? Well no; looking at a different minority group, that of immigrants from Taiwan, China and Japan, we can see that there are 2,032 of them, with a non-existent per-thousand figure for rape. Other countries with nobody suspected of rape include Austria, the Soviet Union (recall these figures are from 1985-1989), India, Korea and Thailand. The size of each of these immigrant populations is, respectively; 2,091, 1,233, 2,923, 4,281 and 1,887. If the problem could simply be dismissed as anomalies due to sample size, and assume that every nationality is equally likely to commit rape, then we should see this phenomenon of over-representation replicated for every group or nation.

The fact there is not suggests that there could be a higher risk factor involved with people from certain countries. To dismiss concerns outright is to throw the baby out with the bathwater. However, given that there are some concerns regarding anomalous or disproportionate over-representation we should temper our conclusions and refrain from making them too definitive or absolute.

And here we reach the crux of the matter. The state of the debate as it is today. Echoes of that all-too-familiar refrain “we’re not allowed to talk about immigration!” whilst simultaneously ignoring the fact that it is far more likely that conversations about rape will be sidelined and ignored. It’s probably fair to say that Melanie Phillips could be considered one of the more ‘hawkish’ commentators when it comes to immigration, particularly if it involves Muslims. Though the article purports to express concern for the European women at risk, the nominal premise is swiftly superseded by concerns about the influx of Muslims into Europe, and herein lies the most fundamental problem with it.

After such shocking events, the conversation we need to be having is “what can we do to make women safer?” According to Melanie, the conversation should instead be “what can we do about these immigrants?”

Undoubtedly there are some fair points raised – the scandal of self-censorship applied by misguided authorities, in this instance and previously in Rotherham and such. But regarding this lack of honesty the question that demands answering is not “why have you tried to protect these perpetrators?” but rather “why haven’t you tried to protect these victims?” For ultimately, any discussion that does not put the needs of the victims past, present and (sadly) future first, runs the risk of political point-scoring that is as cheap as it is cynical.

Is Melanie as hawkish on rape as she is on immigration? Does she argue as vehemently in support of women who have been raped as she does against those immigrants suspected of it? Given her excoriation of Muslims for their disproportionate representation in the rape statistics, if we extrapolate this approach, would it not be logical that the demographic responsible for almost all rapes – men – are an equal if not greater target for her ire?

It seems not. Apparently Professor Valerie Hudson’s hypothesis that having a male-dominated sex-ratio is likely to increase the crime rate (of all crime, not simply crimes of a sexual nature) “makes little sense” to Melanie, despite all available evidence showing that men commit crimes at a far higher rate than women. To the third party observer, this hypothesis seems far more sensible and is supported by reams of reliable data in comparison to Melanie’s analysis that it is a ‘Muslim problem’.

Beyond this article, has Melanie expressed a burning desire to ensure the safety of women and introduce measures to try and reduce the incidence of rape?

In her 2002 article “Lies, damn lies, and rape statistics” Melanie suggests that only violent rape is ‘real’ rape, and that it is women’s licentious and wanton behaviour (such as smoking, drinking, carrying condoms and initiating casual sex) that has led to the trivialisation of rape. In her later 2003 article “The rape of justice” she suggests that the “steep rise in the claims of ‘date rape'” are caused by “the dramatic changes in sexual mores” and that women should take more responsibility for what happens to them. According to Melanie, the reason the courts disagree with her is because:

This contravenes the cardinal tenet of extreme feminism – the assumption that men are intrinsically rapists, wife-beaters, child abusers and generally violent individuals, that women are their prey and that society additionally loads the dice against the female sex.

And finally, from the 2010 article “Instead of giving anonymity to men charged with rape we should name their accusers” Melanie bemoans the fact that women are granted anonymity in rape cases. Apparently, whilst the “harsh cross-examination to which they were subjected, which laid bare their sexual history” was previously beyond the pale, “circumstances now are very different. Women’s sexual behaviour has changed beyond recognition. We are in a far less prissy age. Sexual modesty has gone out of the window.” Furthermore:

What has happened over recent years is that, because of the feminist hysteria over rape, the bar above which men have to prove their innocence has been raised, while the bar against women making false allegations has been lowered.

Rape has been redefined from a crime in which someone is forced to have sex against their will to cover a wide variety of non-violent sexual encounters.

So it appears that rather than being a strong advocate for introducing more protection for women, as you might suppose, in fact Melanie would rather see women shoulder more culpability; they initiate casual sex, they drink, they smoke, their sexual mores have changed. Seemingly this kind of lurid behaviour practically invites rape, or – as Melanie would have it – ‘so-called rape’. For according to Melanie the only ‘real’ rape is violent rape, and seemingly the rest can be ascribed to the ‘ultra-feminist agenda’.

Naturally these concerns are put aside when it comes to relating the increase in rapes in Sweden to the increase in immigration; in that case, they all count. But in a stroke of irony, the very things Melanie bemoans are being used to castigate men – changes in the definition of rape, abuse of statistics and the presumption that they are intrinsically predisposed to committing rape – are all things she herself is guilty of when applied to Muslim immigrants.

What is fit for the goose is not so fit for the gander apparently.

This is the mainstream position in a microcosm: we are ‘not allowed’ to talk about immigration (despite it being one of the foremost topics that is regularly discussed in print, on the radio and on television), but discussing rape and trying to make it easier for women to come forward is pandering to the hysterical feminist agenda.

What this indicates is that the agenda belongs to Melanie. The narrative she creates is one based upon the premise that “Muslim immigration is bad and should be stopped”, rather than “rape is bad and should be stopped” – an assertion that can be easily made using the same statistics she refers to. We are told that North Africans are 23 times more likely to commit rape than Swedes, a figure based upon the proportion of people from a country, suspected of committing rape, as a per-thousand figure. We have seen that what this actually means is that 14 people from Algeria, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia were suspected of committing rapes, versus 584 from Sweden. This means that based on the figures for people suspected of committing a crime, rape in Sweden is 42 times more likely to be committed by a Swede. Exact figures for the number of rapes committed between 1985-1989 are not given, but this can be extrapolated from the data and estimated to be 847 in total. That means that Melanie’s area of primary concern – the threat of a rape epidemic by North African immigrants – is based upon just 1.64% of the total number of rapes. By contrast Swedes made up 69% of the total number of rapes.

Though the study does not expressly state it, it would not be an entirely unreasonable assumption to make that men were responsible for 100% of the rapes, yet viewing the situation through the lens of it being a gender problem as opposed to an ethnic one “makes little sense” to Melanie. It seems she has a disproportionate problem with the disproportionate over-representation of different demographics. Either that, or her conclusions were predetermined from the outset, as part of an ideological world view that vilifies Muslims whilst vindicating men.

Anybody concerned with the welfare of women would focus on areas that are going to have the biggest impact, and focusing on the 14 rapes North Africans were suspected of committing is making a mountain out of a molehill. Undoubtedly, the higher risk factor posed by certain nationalities should be considered, but only as part of a broader debate as to how women can be made safer in general – and regardless of recent events in Cologne, the stark truth is that stopping immigration will not prevent women being raped. It may not even reduce it that much.

Ultimately, an honest and accurate conversation needs to happen, in a forum in which difficult discussions can take place without being derailed by hyperbolic polemics intent on hijacking the agenda so that immigration can be discussed, again. Such misuse and misrepresentation of scaremongering statistics creates an overly emotive atmosphere in which rational debate simply can’t take place, and so legislators are forced into making decisions based on what will best placate the masses, rather than what is best for the masses. ‘Hawkish’ anti-immigration commentators such as Melanie Phillips create this atmosphere, and foment these divisions, deliberately engineering an ‘us-vs-them’ mentality to promote their own agenda.

And if we truly want to seek justice for victims, and prevent new victims being created – we should ignore that agenda and promote a different one instead – one that puts the women first and concentrates primarily on how to make them safer.

UKIP being racist

Once again, UKIP have fond themselves embroiled in a racism debate, with Nigel Farage this time leading the line as he defended Kerry Smith using the word Chinky, the crux of his argument being:

Nigel Farage: “If you and your mates were going out for a Chinese, what do you say you’re going for?”

Nick Ferrari: “I honestly would not use the word “Chinky”. Would you?”

Nigel Farage: “No, but a lot of people would.”

Let us firstly make one thing clear: He’s absolutely right.

A lot of people do use the word. All the time.

In fact, there have been several occasions when people have used the word in front of me without thinking twice about it, so oblivious are they to its meaning and effect. In truth, this could simply be considered part of a wider issue in which there appear to be hierarchies of racism, where racism towards black people is officially frowned upon (“Nigger” being unacceptable to the point that it must be truncated to “N-word”), overt racism towards Asians being recognised as ‘a bad thing’ (though “Paki-shop” is still extremely common amongst some people, and the institutional racism towards Muslims that appears to keep certain sections of the media afloat is apparently ok because it doesn’t use bad words). At the bottom of the pile come the Orientals – “Chink”, “Jap”, “Nip”, “Gook” are all officially recognised as racial slurs, and yet somehow they’re seen as ‘not as bad’ as those other ones.

As a typical example of this, there was an incident a few years ago when prime-time Radio 1 DJ Edith Bowman read out a listener’s email in which the inclement weather was described as “A bit Pearl Harbour” . . . as in, “there’s a nasty Nip in the air.” Whilst there was a muted outcry, the fact that it could have even taken place is indicative of the lack of awareness regarding these words. A similar incident involving the “N-word” would be unthinkable; witness the furore over Jeremy Clarkson’s half-uttered mutterings as testament to that. Having listened to the recordings, I’m not entirely sure I can make out whether he says the word or not, but even someone as monumentally stupid as he would not make the mistake of brazenly saying it in all its ‘glory’.

The question that should be asked is why this is? Even within the politically correct spheres of society, this hierarchy remains. The currently accepted terminology ‘BME” stands for ‘Black and Minority Ethnic’. Black is given prominence over other ethnic minorities, though without any apparent reason. As per the 2011 Census, the number of people living in Britain that we would tend to lump wholesale into the group ‘Asian’ (or more accurately, South Asians from the Indian Subcontinent, including those of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi descent) amount to 5.2% of the total population. Black, African, Caribbean or Black British people account for 3.3%. So whilst the obvious initial argument might be that whilst black people are still a minority, they are less of a minority than others – the figures do not bear this out.

Why then is racism towards black people seen by society as wholly unacceptable, but racism towards other minorities has yet to reach that tipping point? Undoubtedly black people were the whipping boys for several decades, and moreover historically they suffered the subjugation and suffering of slavery – so is it some latent sense of guilt? Has British society, magnanimous in its victory, decided to “leave it, they’ve had enough” and turned their attention elsewhere? Perhaps we are simply pioneering ‘Equal Opportunity Racism’?

That large swathes of society and the media seem to have shifted their focus and turned their eyes onto the supposed existential threat posed by Muslims might superficially seem to support this argument. Undoubtedly the Muslims (and therefore all too often by extension anybody with vaguely brown skin whose background originates somewhere east of Greece) are the whipping boys of the day, perhaps with the Eastern Europeans as unwitting sidekicks. Maybe in due course the Orientals will have their day in the ‘limelight’ and it will be the Chinese that are vilified, which seems a more likely proposition if the mainland Chinese continue to emigrate in numbers and the Chinese economy becomes the dominant global force.

If anything, it is somewhat surprising that they have not been targeted for more abuse already, given that many of the arguments regarding illegal immigration can be legitimately applied to a – not insignificant – proportion of the Chinese in the UK. Equally, the accusations applied to other communities – that they are insular and do not integrate – are no less applicable to the Chinese communities. Perhaps the Chinese diaspora have yet to cause the same kinds of negative backlash as other minority communities because they simply have a lower profile; the 2011 Census identifies only 0.7% of the population as Chinese. Perhaps the overall perception of the Chinese is that they are industrious, unobtrusive, and less threatening? Perhaps they are simply lighter skinned and so seem less different?

It is true that Chinese people have not suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous racism to the same degree as black people have in the past, nor to the extent that Asian people currently suffer. It does not manifest itself in the institutional harassment that black people are still widely victim to. It does not manifest itself in the negative headlines and dog-whistle politics we see Muslims subjected to on an almost daily basis. Perhaps then the reason why racism towards Chinese people and Orientals in general is not afforded the same gravitas as racism towards blacks is simply because it has not reached the same levels of severity? Every action creating an equal and opposite reaction and all that? That’s not to say it doesn’t exist of course, but the racism towards Chinese is more casual; it’s the kind of racism that can be slipped into conversation and promote a laugh, rather than an awkward silence. It’s the kind of racism that, by-and-large, Chinese people let slide, because it’s too much of a pain in the arse to keep making a big deal out of it. Perhaps some Chinese people are not bothered by it at all, and maybe this is due to the stoical nature of the Chinese character? Perhaps, beneath that inscrutable exterior, it is the inherent racism within Chinese society that as the Chinese people are (clearly) so very superior, why would they be bothered by such trifling things?

For whatever reason, in terms of volume, in terms of vitriol, racism towards Chinese people has not reached the giddy heights of racism towards black people, and so perhaps that is why it is seen as ‘not as bad’. Maybe, their day has simply yet to come.

Yet the notion that black people were somehow historically singled out for special attention is slightly erroneous; it would be to ignore the dubious yet glorified history of the British Empire. They were not the only race to be enslaved, nor the only culture to be subjugated, though the sheer volume of the African slave trade dwarfs all others. Even if the justification why racism towards black people is considered worse than other is “well, we really were awfully bad to those chaps” then it doesn’t really speak of a lesson well-learned, does it?

Hong Kong, the British colony where my father was born, was taken by force in retribution for the Chinese restricting the British opium trade, itself an act of economic warfare designed to balance out the trade deficit that existed at the time. If not Equal Opportunity Racists, the British were certainly Equal Opportunity Imperialists.

Perhaps then the shift in attitudes came about as a result of the race riots seen in the early 80s? Perhaps when (by-and-large) black people decided they’d had enough and took to the streets to defend themselves against injustice and oppression, this caused a shift in the nation’s consciousness? Perhaps it takes extreme acts of violence to implement that level of change? Large scale action causes a reaction.

Perhaps the ‘scary black man’ trope just resonates with a lot of people, and they’re too scared to offend in case something physical happens to them as a result?

For whatever reason, the hierarchy exists. People are fully aware that the “N-word” is off-limits (except behind closed doors, with like-minded people), “Paki” is widely recognised as offensive, but is still used with alarming frequency. “Chinky” is – apparently – up for debate. So much so, that even an Ofcom ruling on the use of the word in the Vicar of Dibley took the view that “the term was used with a commercial rather than personal connotation” as “the context in which the term “Chinky” was used robbed it of any potential racist connotation.

Which brings us to what is usually the first argument used in support of this – what must inevitably be called the ‘Partridge Defence‘ – which states: “it’s not offensive, it’s a type of food!”

Where do you begin . . . ? I’m surprised I actually have to lower myself to the level of debating this, but I suppose when trying to educate you’ve got to work with what you’ve got.

“Chinky” might be used to describe a type of food, but that is Chinese food, cooked by Chinese people. To try and employ this argument is equivalent to arguing that “going down the Paki-shop” is not offensive, because “how can you insult a shop?” or trying to claim that saying “that Nigger music” would not be offensive because it referred to a musical genre. If you are calling that type of food “Chinky”, then by extension you are calling the people and culture the same thing, these are not discrete concepts. The word “Chinky” is being used in place of the word Chinese as a direct replacement, and so fundamentally there is no distinction drawn between them – it would be no different than if it were used to describe a person as a “Chinky” instead of as Chinese.

And here then is the real sticking point for those trying to make this argument. Whilst Farage may have shifted the debate slightly, to where some people might believe the waters are a little muddier (they’re still pretty crystal clear to a lot of people), we must return to the source of this scandal.

The commotion commenced when tapes emerged of Kerry Smith referring to “that Chinky bird” – not in reference to going out for a type of food, but unequivocally in reference to a person, a Chinese person. Kerry Smith called a Chinese woman a “Chinky”. The initial excuse was that he was dosed up on medication and forgot to moderate his language as a result; obviously this resulted in the widespread piss-taking it deserved, as ordinary (ie non-racist) people do not suddenly drop a veneer of respectability and become racist homophobes merely because they’re on their meds.  To compound the issue, an LBC interview with Mr Smith confirmed he was unapologetic and utterly failed to see how what he’d said was offensive, painting it as that beloved banner of the ignorant, the ubiquitous “telling it how it is.”

So even if you want to try and make the argument that “it’s ok when you’re talking about a type of food” (I wouldn’t recommend it, you make yourself look incredibly stupid), Kerry Smith wasn’t talking about food – he was talking about a person.

The next argument trotted out is usually an appeal to the masses, or argumentum ad populum – which is essentially “but a lot of people say this, so that makes it ok!”

It’s really tempting to invoke Godwin’s Law here, but there are an infinite number of examples of issues that were not just widely supported at the time, but enshrined in law no less. Slavery was deemed perfectly acceptable, women were not allowed to vote, people were put in prison for being poor, girls could marry when they were just 12, homosexuality was illegal.

Just because a lot of people say or do something, that doesn’t mean it’s right.

I’m pretty sure this is something most of us get taught as a kid, and yet for UKIP and its supporters, it seems they still haven’t quite got the hang of this yet. Hence whenever somebody within UKIP says or does something embarrassing, expect squeals of “but just look at all the other parties! They do it too!”

Doing the right thing is not simply conforming with those around you. For the supposed ‘anti-politics’, ‘anti-establishment’ and ‘not like the rest’ party they claim to be, you would think UKIP would know this better than anyone. It seems deep down they talk the talk but are unable to walk the walk.

Of course, this argument has also been employed in relation to popular culture as well: “it’s no different to what was said on the telly” – shows like Only Fools and Horses, or Till Death Do Us Part. Whilst I suppose we should make some allowances for UKIP’s inherently anachronistic nature, it does seem to have passed them by that society has moved on in the last 30 odd years. Perhaps they haven’t progressed past the denial stage yet. Just because something used to be acceptable, it doesn’t mean it still is. Ask a host of 70s Radio DJs and TV presenters about that one. Society moves on, it’s called ‘progress’, it means moving forward. As much as UKIP and its supporters seem to hark after ‘the good old days’ – they’ve been and gone and are left in the past.

The final, and probably most facile argument of all, goes a little something like this:

I don’t get offended when somebody calls me a Brit, Australians don’t get offended if I call them Aussies, Chink and Paki are just abbreviations like Brit and Aussie, and they’re no more offensive 

And if you’ve ever said that, then you’re a cunt.

I can call you that without being offensive, because I’ve just decided based on entirely arbitrary criteria determined by me, that the word cunt isn’t offensive.

And in truth, actually, it isn’t. The word cunt is just a word, it’s simply a combination of letters. Combinations of letters cannot be offensive in any objective sense, because without meaning, significance and context they simply become random abstract things. What makes the word cunt offensive is the associations and history that we’ve attached to it.

Chaucer certainly made liberal use of it in the Canterbury Tales, Shakespeare used it as a play-on-words in Hamlet; it is only in recent times where society has attached such significance that it has risen to become the overlord of obscenities.

So, are “Chink” and “Paki” any more offensive than “Brit” or “Aussie”? In an abstract sense, no, because no word is offensive. But that is to hypothesise that these words can be divorced from their history, the context. Nobody in this country has ever had a brown paper bag containing dog-shit set alight and shoved through a letterbox as a complement to “BRIT GO HOME!!” daubed across their walls. Aussies (in the sense of white, non-indigenous Australians) have not spent their entire lives as second-class citizens perpetually being discriminated against, with Aussie as the abusive term used to denigrate and discriminate against them.

Because what people do not seem to realise is that to understand what racism is, they must firstly put aside egocentric notions of whether they intended to be offensive or not. Racism is in the ear of the beholder, and it is not a series of isolated incidents and abstract words; it is a system of oppression and abuse that takes place over a lifetime. Even if you do not consider somebody to be racially inferior, then I’m afraid that is entirely irrelevant when it comes to using racist terminology. Even if you are not using it in a way intended to be racist or offensive, it’s still irrelevant.

This is not about you. Because you are not the person that is subject to racism.

The person on the receiving end has heard that word before, thousands of times, and the majority of those it has been used as a term of abuse. All too often it has been accompanied with fists and feet; the association is unbreakable, it cannot be undone.

So when a Chinese person hears the word “Chinky” or an Asian hears “Paki” – these are words positively pregnant with significance. They are laden with baggage. They act as reminders of that lifetime of being alienated, ostracised and abused, simply because of their race. It is the racism they have dealt with their entire life bound up in a microcosm. Those few abstract letters represent every beating they have taken, every window that was smashed, every humiliating encounter with a random stranger abusing them on the street.

For me personally, just hearing or reading the word is enough to provoke the fight-or-flight response, so deep are those associations ingrained.

For a British person hearing the word Brit or an Australian being called Aussie – nothing. Because they have no history, significance or context. They simply are abbreviations.

To explain further, and to remind white people that they do not have a monopoly on racism, there is a Chinese term of abuse – gwei lo. Right now (before I tell you what it means or you Google it) it is probably utterly meaningless to you. Even when you find out the meaning (it is normally translated as ‘foreign devil’ and – ironically – is applied to all foreigners regardless of skin colour, because to the Chinese, well, you’re all the same) it probably seems quaint and innocuous. If someone were to call you gwei lo, it’s extremely unlikely that you’d actually take genuine offence and more than likely on finding out what you were being called you’d laugh.

However, imagine you’d grown up as a foreigner in (the Cantonese speaking part of) China. Imagine you’d spent a lifetime of people moving chairs on the train when you sat down. Imagine you’d spent a lifetime of being denied opportunities because of your race. Imagine you’d lived as a second-class citizen, and the soundtrack to that was gwei logwei logwei lo on constant repeat. The word would become a weight around your neck. It would be the tangible reminder of your inferiority. It would be your racial slur. The Chinese you knew might say “oh, but we don’t mean anything by it” and brush it off casually as being used in a friendly, positive manner, but underneath that light-heartedness would be the heavy undercurrent of racism and discrimination.

Equally, imagine a parallel universe in which white people had been enslaved by black, imagine a world in which white people were discriminated against, white people were denied justice, white people were second class citizens. Imagine then the power the word “Honky” might have. In our society, call a white person a “Honky” and they’re liable to laugh at you it is so inconsequential and powerless, but in this topsy-turvy world where white people were subjugated, get called a “Honky” and you might feel the sting that barbed words can bring.

Or perhaps not. Perhaps you might be the kind of character that is not fazed by these things. Perhaps it might be like water off a duck’s back, just as some black people do not rise to “Nigger”, some Asians do not rise to “Paki” and some Chinese do not rise to “Chink” – some people just have thicker skin I guess. That being the case, do we hold them up as shining examples and encourage everyone to be more like them, so that everyone can go around using these words guilt-free, without the imposition of being called racists? Or should we take the view that the right thing to do is moderate our language so as not to cause offence?

Seemingly there are quite a lot of people that believe the former.

According to them, the fault lies not with those people either too ignorant to know the meaning of these words, or too stubborn to accept that they are offensive. Instead, it is the stupid Pakis, the silly Chinks, always looking to find offence when there is none. Why can’t they understand that these words are being used in an entirely innocent, nay positive way?

The mind boggles, it truly does.

So let us conclude by addressing the final argument, though it is not an argument as such. This is the appeal to free speech, the notion that just because some people are offended, that should not infringe on another person’s rights to say whatever they hell they damn well like.

And the answer here is, it doesn’t. Anybody can say whatever they feel like. Saying something racist is not against the law in and of itself. As part of another crime, it can be a factor, such as racially motivated harassment, racially motivated assault, inciting racial hatred etc. But being racist is not against the law, regardless of what these people think.

Indeed, if you use these words, accept they are offensive and racist and use them anyway, because it is your right to express yourself as you see fit, then kudos to you. I can respect somebody who is openly racist and proud. I might disagree with them entirely, but at least they have the courage to stick to their convictions and take ownership and responsibility for what they say.

What you can’t do, is say something racist, and then expect to be protected from being called a racist.

It’s called being an adult. If you say or do something, then be prepared to accept the consequences. If you say racist things then people will call you racist, stop crying about it.

It almost seems in the minds of these people that being called a racist is somehow actually worse than being racially abused. For all of their pontificating about minorities looking to be offended and playing the victim, they do a very strong line in hypocrisy. Seriously, you’re using racial slurs and yet you want to get precious because somebody called you a racist?

And to those people, there’s really only one response: Grow up

Will UKIP make me Richer, or will UKIP make me Poorer?

Forgive him father, for he knows not what he does

In Brave New World, Aldous Huxley portrays a chillingly dystopian vision of a future in which control of the masses is exercised, not in some totalitarian fashion as per George Orwell’s 1984 or Yevgeny Zamayatin’s We, but in the insidious application of psychoactive drugs. People are kept in a Somatose state and conditioned to view unhappiness and malcontent moods as a form of social deviancy that must be eradicated, not through brutality and coercion, but rather through ostracising those unwilling to conform to apathetic acceptance.

In both his recent article and appearance on The Moral Maze, Giles Fraser seems to identify our descent into this dystopian hell, citing the “fascism of the smiley face” associated with the ‘happiness industry’. He rails against the medicalisation of human emotions that are understandable and rational responses to life events, highlighting the need to embrace unhappiness as part of the human condition, without which life would be colourless and dull. Our rush to treat every drop in mood as a medical condition denies us the right to feel sad, or give voice to the pain inside when coping with the cruel circumstances life brings. In the picture he paints, those feeling sad and unhappy are outcasts until willing to succumb to the chemical control mechanism promoted by Big Pharma.

Taken at face value, there is a lot of validity in what he says, and though there has been much reaction to the piece, little of the vitriol is directed at this basic principle. Any sensible person would agree that prescribing strong psychoactive medicine to somebody not in need is a hugely irresponsible and dangerous thing to do, and whilst I have little evidence to support arguments either for or against the notion that we are over-medicating people that are not in need, in principle the possibility (maybe even the likelihood) that it is happening is one that nobody can deny.

However, this is not the issue at stake. The article and radio appearance, however well-intentioned, appeared to illustrate an underlying misconception of what depression truly is, despite several protestations of innocence. The reoccurring theme has been that society demands that we are happy and that everyone is continually bombarded with unrealistic expectations of a picture-perfect life, which if we are not fortunate enough to possess we must replicate through rampant pill-popping. The right to unhappiness is being driven underground by an aspirational culture that believes everyone should be happy, smiling and compliant; just as celebrities on magazine covers have their bodies airbrushed to perfection, our minds are to be touched up and artificially fixed. Just as women are told they should break free from patriarchal and oppressive representations of flawless skin and fatless figures, in his mind Giles believes that people who are sad should throw off the shackles of societal expectation and celebrate the full spectrum of human feeling. Van Gogh, Beethoven and Keats embraced their emotions to bring us insight into what it is to be human. Without the opportunity to feel sad, we cannot appreciate what it means to be happy. Without darkness, there can be no light.

Whilst Giles and his defenders are keen to point out that there is no one sentence in which he equates unhappiness with depression, perhaps for some the more salient point is that he singularly fails to draw a distinction between them also. At no point is there a disclaimer to say sadness and depression are discrete entities, and in both the article and Moral Maze discussion he gives no indication of recognising any difference between them. For those accusing the offended masses of falsely ascribing errant interpretations and reading between the lines, the obvious suggestion is to turn Giles’s challenge on its head and ask them to show where he distinguishes between unhappiness as a natural reaction to life events and depression which can be entirely unrelated to circumstance.

The more that this is pointed out, the more entrenched his position becomes. His timeline is littered with links to pieces about the danger of anti-depressants or in praise and defence of what he has said. However, just as those taking umbrage are accused of missing the point, it appears he and his acolytes are spectacularly guilty of the same. Nobody has denied the inherent dangers associated with these drugs. Indeed all drugs, no matter how innocuous, come with warnings of all manner of side-effects and contra-indications. Powerful psychoactive drugs capable of altering the brain’s biochemistry are something that no-one would take lightly, indeed for many the act of taking them is one of desperation. But at the risk of penning the title for Lance Armstrong’s new book – It’s Not About The Drugs.

Undoubtedly this is where Giles’s focus lies, and in truth he raises important points that are worthy of discussion – but not at the detriment of the other discussion taking place, which he seems determined to dismiss out of hand. The idea that we are too quick to rush into the arms of pharmaceutical solutions and the idea that there are myriad misconceptions about depression are not antagonistic, they are not mutually exclusive, and we do ourselves a disservice to treat them as such.

Many feel that Giles inadvertently revealed a common lack of comprehension regarding depression and that this warrants more than pithy justifications, but as yet these are far from forthcoming. His retort “Twitter at its worst is the hermeneutics of the mob. Interpretation becomes copying via RT. Mimesis and bullying. All very Girardian” has a mildly petulant tone, and brings to mind Jeremiah 9:23 “Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom.”

An unwillingness to engage with those he has offended, coupled with a determination to lay the blame at their feet for (as he sees it) falsely interpreting him, has hints of that deadly sin, Pride. To characterise those he purports to be defending as bullies engaging in a mob mentality verges on hypocrisy, having previously portrayed anti-depressants as a way of denying the disaffected a voice which he himself is now unwilling to hear.

There is however, some good that can come from this, a light at the end of the tunnel. The ongoing outcry is detracting from the message that Giles intended to convey, and causing growing concern amongst those who feel marginalised and misrepresented. There are no gains to be had from perpetuating the impasse, which interferes with both sides’ story. The solution is relatively simple – the discussion can be re-purposed to include each aspect, in which we are free to explore the dangers of drugs being too easily distributed as well as examining how and why society has come to view depression as something it’s not.

One explanation could be the advent of the 3rd incarnation of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM III), published in 1980, that influenced the WHO’s ICD-10 classification of mental disorders, in which the differences between reactive and endogenous depression were set aside. Rather than taking a holistic view that included psychosocial aspects of depression, it was now to be defined purely by symptoms, and there was a widespread shift from classifying conditions as depression rather than anxiety. Now in the UK when depression is diagnosed, the severity is assessed by means of the Patient Health Questionnaire, a self-administered tick-box exercise that formed part of the PRIME-MD diagnostic tool developed in the 90s. Following on from the ICD-10 reclassificarion came the rise in prescribing anti-depressants (though this may well be a case of correlation rather than causation, as this was around the same time SSRIs became widely available), which is analysed in detail by many in the medical profession, conveniently collated and summarised in this paper by AnneMarie Cunningham. This paper neatly illustrates the possibility of taking a nuanced view of the situation that incorporates both sides of the discussion, and it highlights the potentially dangerous impact of restricting how we see depression as simply symptoms to be treated. For ultimately, is it not better to attempt to address the root cause, rather than – as Giles rightly says – reverse engineer a solution?

For here, maybe, lies the crux of the matter. For some people the drugs do work. For some they don’t. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, and pills certainly do not represent some form of cure-all panacea. Equally, for some that may be in the depths of depression, talking therapies might be overwhelmingly intimidating when even the most simple conversational interactions are out of their reach. However, Giles does not seem to recognise or offer any solution beyond accepting these feelings and make-do-and-mend. He is not proposing that for those suffering from depression there are alternatives, he is suggesting that these are simply natural emotions and that suffering is, and always will be, a part of the human condition. An attempt to tackle this is to deny what we are, it is reflective of the narrow and superficial expectations society imposes upon us to be ‘compulsorily happy’.

It is these proclamations that have caused such response and reaction. The widespread inference has been that those seeking help are capitulating to society’s demands and that instead they should be celebrating the gift of life in all its diverse glory. There is no recognition that for people suffering from depression, life is the sort of gift they’d rather return, but are expected to accept it with the grace and gratitude befitting something wonderful. Many religions view those opting for suicide as sinners who will be condemned to hell – but they do not realise that to reach that point, those suffering are already there.

There is an easy solution to this awkward situation – repentance. Whether the original intention was to convey this message or not, nevertheless this has been many peoples’ reading of it, so rather than blame them for their lack of understanding, accept responsibility for an inability to clearly communicate the real message. It would be the easiest thing in the world to say something along the lines of:

“I’m sorry if people interpreted it that way, for that was not my intention. For some people depression is a debilitating disease that consumes their entire essence, leaving them unable to function on even a basic level, which can be completely unrelated to what is happening in their lives. In these instances, nobody should be made to suffer such enduring agony, and it is only right that we explore every avenue when trying to address these problems. I accept that for each person there is an individual solution, but the point I was trying to make is that we increasingly run the risk of seeing drugs as the be-all-and-end-all. I would have thought more carefully about what I was saying if I thought that people felt I was belittling their condition or trying to diminish their experience and for that I can only apologise. Sometimes serendipity can present us with opportunities to grow and learn; for me this episode has highlighted how easy it is to misconstrue and misrepresent what people say and feel, and I am hopeful that we can move the discussion forward to include all points of view”

It really would be that easy Giles. A brief statement acknowledging why people are upset and accepting some culpability for causing such widespread offence. Admission of error is not a humiliation, it is humility. This is an imploration to – even if you do not believe you are at fault – turn the other cheek. For whilst you are absolutely right to make the point that drugs cannot, and never will be, the sole answer – it is crucially important to recognise that for many, the notion that people even remotely understand what they’re going through is often the first step on the road to redemption.

In the interests of clarity, Giles Fraser should exercise the right to reply

There has been much furore over the Giles Fraser article on depression, or against drug companies, depending on how you read it. The overwhelming reaction has been a queue of people lining up to inform Giles he really doesn’t understand depression if he thinks it is having a shit job or shit home life, many of which have been collated here.

Equally, there have been others that have come out in support of Giles and claim that everyone is missing the point, which is that medicalising normal human emotions is a bad thing. Now undoubtedly this is true, and you’d struggle to find a single person arguing against that, but – to turn the tables for a second – those people are missing the point. Nobody is arguing against the danger of prescribing strong psychoactive drugs to people that are not in need, the reaction has been against a perceived dismissal of depression as a quasi-medical condition, or the attempt to conflate depression with normal human emotions.

Seemingly Giles has been misinterpreted, as the main thrust of his argument was against drug companies, and he did not equate unhappiness with depression. Undoubtedly it was clear that Giles was not purposefully intending to victimise sufferers of depression, and as I have said in a previous post the underlying message that the rush to medicate sets a dangerous precedent is one that few would challenge.

However, having read, re-read, analysed and discussed the article with others that insist the article is not about depression but rather misdiagnosing sadness, I have to confess I am still unable to see where the distinction is drawn. Being a religious man, you would hope to believe that Giles has a benevolent and charitable nature and therefore would not have dreamed of intentionally caused such offence, so it would seem churlish not to take him at his word. However, there is still the rather awkward situation of the article itself.

It starts with a story of a misspent youth and natural adolescent exuberance, that would now (apparently) undoubtedly be medicalised and misdiagnosed as ADHD. Now, at the risk of misinterpreting Giles once again, it appears that he views ADHD as a sort of sham condition that is little more than rampant hormones and growing up:

For, since the mid 80s, society has decided that adolescent trouble-making is some sort of medical condition. We have given it a scientific-sounding classification, ADHD, securing a sense that a messy adolescence is pathological, some sort of chemical imbalance. Thus the scientists are called in to reinforce generally conservative norms of appropriate behaviour.

Perhaps I am putting words in his mouth, or reading this the wrong way, but from where I’m sitting it sounds like he’s dismissing ADHD as essentially “being a teenager”. Now, I don’t know if ADHD is a real condition or not, I’m neither a doctor nor a scientist and as a complete lay-person my opinion on the matter is meaningless and irrelevant. What I do know is there are professionals that believe ADHD is a genuine condition, who are far more skilled and qualified than me to speak on the matter, and therefore in these situations I find it is best to defer to people that know what they are talking about. That’s not to say there is no place for healthy scepticism or that every authority should be accepted in blind faith, and it’s not to dismiss the notion that there are probably countless cases of misdiagnosis. However, Giles appears to take the view that ADHD is not a real thing.

Whether this is open for interpretation is up for debate, however what is absolutely irrefutable is that at no point does Giles accept or recognise that ADHD is a genuine condition that can benefit from medication.

So this sets the tone for the start of the piece; the reader has been primed with an example of how normal behaviour can be medicalised and that any behaviour that does not conform to strict conservative norms is now treated with a pill, regardless of how (in the grand scheme of things) normal and natural it really is. Naughty kids are being turned into a condition and therefore a commodity. There is no real sense of nuance here, the point is not tempered (as it could easily be) by stating that the over-medication of boisterous children that do not actually have the condition is distracting attention and treatment away from those that genuinely need it. It simply makes the point that we are unnecessarily turning normal behaviour into a pathological condition, and that prescribing drugs as the answer has become dangerously out of control.

Moving on Giles then takes the view (and this is probably one of the most contentious parts):

The same thing has happened with depression and drugs like Prozac; though calling it depression is already to classify a particular kind of experience as something quasi-medical, thus leading one to think in terms of medical treatment.

For those people, Giles himself included, that claim there is no attempt to equate sadness with depression, or that Giles clearly states there is a difference between a normal range of human emotions and a genuine medical condition, this becomes problematic:

“The same thing has happened with depression” – the ‘thing’ apparently being that we have taken perfectly normal behaviour and created a pseudo-condition to suit it.

“Though calling it depression is already to classify a particular kind of experience as quasi-medical”. Calling ‘it’ depression? Calling what depression? The subject is clearly still depression, so essentially this can be paraphrased as:

Calling depression “depression” is classifying it as quasi-medical

Which somewhat undermines the view that there is a difference between a genuine medical condition – which does need medication, and a quasi-medical condition – which does not.

He goes on to say:

Sometimes I am just sad. Sometimes pissed off. Sometimes smothered in darkness. But we often lump all these experiences together simply because pharmaceutical companies have developed a certain sort of treatment.

This is probably as close as it comes in terms of Giles explicitly making the distinction between ordinary sadness and depression, but even this stops short of accepting that for many depressed people drugs represent a relief and a reprieve. The phrase “smothered in darkness” seems as though Giles is alluding to his own struggle with depression and how this differs from being sad or pissed off, but fundamentally it just fails to ring true.

I’m sorry Giles, I listen to Radio 4, I’ve heard you speak – no doubt you’re aware of the expression “takes one to know one” – and at the risk of pooh-poohing your experiences, you’ve not been depressed – of this I am certain. Even the idea that depression can be a temporary fugue from which one can recover is indicative of an outsider’s view. Depression is not a phase you go through, it is not something you get over – being a depressive is like being an alcoholic; even those who have not touched a drop in decades still describe themselves as ‘recovering’, and likewise for a depressed person that is not currently feeling rock-bottom, the spectre looms over them still. Listening to your contributions on The Moral Maze you appear to have an obsession with the idea that it is societal pressure placing unrealistic demands on people to be happy, and that this obsession with people being happy is actually marginalising those that are sad and isolating them, thus making the situation worse.

Perhaps, if we are discussing people that are just sad, this is true. But to make such facile points as “the fascism of the smiley face” when talking about people that suffer from a genuine condition, which you seem unable to acknowledge, identify or distinguish as different from being a bit down, then I’m afraid the problem here lies not in the ear of the listener or the eye of the beholder, but in your own inability to articulate yourself in an unambiguous fashion. You say that you are not equating unhappiness with depression, yet everything else that you say and the attitudes you demonstrate belie this.

The article continues:

We have found the solution, now let’s make the problem fit the solution we have available. It’s a form of reverse engineering.

And goes on to say:

Thus we are encouraged to think of our problems in terms of the lucrative solutions to problems we didn’t know we had. In this way, the pharmaceutical companies are responsible for the very conditions they propose to alleviate

Even taken on their own merit, devoid of the context of what follows, these quotes suggest that anti-depressants are a solution to pseudo-problems, and that pharmaceutical companies are guilty of manipulating and then monetising human emotions to suit their own nefarious needs. Far be it from me to defend Big Pharma, but there is no attempt to balance these assertions with the suggestion that for thousands or even millions of people, anti-depressants provide an essential role in their lives that allow them to function or even survive. There is no suggestion that anti-depressants have a positive impact on anyone’s life, nor that there are situations and circumstances where they are appropriate. Giles could have said this, he could have easily paused at this point and clarified his position by saying something along the lines of “Of course, for people suffering from genuine depression, anti-depressants are the answer and have an important role to play”.

But he doesn’t. He doesn’t say it anywhere within the article. There is not even the merest hint of acceptance that – in the right circumstances – anti-depressants can literally be the difference between life and death.

Indeed the article continues, and Giles doubles-down on his stance:

Forget the fact that some people are miserable because they are struggling on zero-hours contracts, or have lost their partner or have been watching the news too much – if we translate misery into some sort of chemical imbalance then someone can make big money out of it. But unhappiness is often a perfectly proper response to the state of the world.

Perhaps it is too subtle, or perhaps swathes of people are just too biased or not intelligent enough to read between the lines and discern the real message, but this does not appear to portray the wider connotations that Giles would like to attribute to what he has said. Had this been preceded with a clear distinction between sadness and depression, had Giles elaborated on his supposed point that sadness and depression are not the same thing, then this could probably stand as one of the least controversial elements. Taken at face value, it’s a fair point – unhappiness often is a perfectly proper response to the state of the world, and in those circumstances prescribing strong psychoactive drugs is undoubtedly dangerous.

However, at no point has Giles shown any indication of understanding that depression has zero correlation with the state of one’s life or circumstance. In fact the opposite appears to be true and he appears unable to see depression and sadness as discrete things that are completely unrelated. The overwhelming impression he gives is of a well-intentioned man that firmly believes pharmaceutical companies are taking advantage of people at their most vulnerable, and locking them into a self-defeating cycle of medication and unrealistic expectations.

At no point does he recognise that for some people, the drugs do work, and have continued to do so for several years. Claiming to question why all the different forms of darkness get turned into a medical condition has the air of revisionism, as the obvious (at least to the majority of readers) interpretation of the article is that depression is not a medical condition, but rather “quasi-medical”.

The final paragraph has been heralded by some as the point the masses are missing, in which Giles makes clear the difference between those who genuinely require chemical help, and those who have it thrust upon them. I have to say, I’m unable to see it (though willing to continue trying). Here it is verbatim:

Yes, there are some for whom happiness can be reclaimed by doing a bit more exercise or being more sociable. This sounds healthier than pills. But for those for whom these are not solutions, let’s not make it worse by insisting upon the compulsory happiness of the smiley face. For, like the drugs, this can be just another way of shutting people up.

The opening line suggest some people that are feeling low can benefit from exercising and socialising. A fair point, many people that are feeling “a bit down in the dumps” probably would benefit from these things. It could however be easily misconstrued – are we taking ‘happiness’ to be the antonym of sadness, or depression? If sadness, then there is little wrong with the statement, but if the message is that depressed people could benefit from getting out more (as some have interpreted it) then not only is it inaccurate, it is ignorant, insensitive and offensive.

“This sounds healthier than pills” – of course it does. Most things would sound healthier than taking pills. If you suffered from high blood pressure then “don’t eat bacon and do some exercise” would sound healthier than “you’ve got to take three of these a day for the rest of your life” – but depending on the circumstances what sounds healthier might be what actually kills you. Again the underlying message still reads as “pills are bad, m’kay”.

“But for those for whom these are not solutions” – ‘these’ being what? From my own reading, and evidently many others, this could be and is being interpreted as meaning exercise and socialising, not taking anti-depressants, an interpretation that is supported by the continuation “let’s not make it worse by insisting on the compulsory happiness of the smiley face. For, like the drugs, this can be just another way of shutting people up.”

Consistently, throughout the article (and in the Moral Maze discussion), the application of anti-depressants is portrayed as a medium of oppression, a manifestation of society’s overbearing desire to sweep unhappiness under the carpet and put on a good show for all those at home. Giles appears to recognise a slow descent into a brave new world in which unhappiness is seen as some form of moral deviancy and societal expectations are placed before the needs of vulnerable people. For some, perhaps this is true – undoubtedly the prescribing of strong psychoactive drugs to a person not in need could be a path into the heart of darkness, a horrific abuse that could result in making things worse.

However, it completely fails to recognise the liberating effect that these drugs can have. For someone suffering from depression, exercising and socialising might be a distant dream, but with the benefit of anti-depressants they might be enabled to do these things; they might have the energy to get out of bed and keep going, they might have the courage to step outside the front door.

As I have already stated, the idea that we run the risk of misdiagnosing people that are feeling sad as being depressed is uncontroversial, and the opinion that dishing out drugs indiscriminately is dangerous is one that no sensible person could take issue with. However, this is not the bone of contention – the overwhelming response has been a reaction to the implication that depression is little more than a natural response to life events. Perhaps this is a misinterpretation and perhaps the reaction is peculiar – but with Giles displaying such a lack of clarity it is hardly surprising. Indeed, for many depressives, his response and that of others will serve as a reminder of that all-too-common accusation “oh, you’re so sensitive – I didn’t mean it like that!”

If we are to take Giles at his word and take his protestations at face value, then superficially it seems the article was not intended to cause the offence that it has – and I’m sure that it certainly wasn’t intended to be overtly offensive. Nevertheless the justifications seem trite and hollow. For a man who recognises the difference between sadness and depression he is spectacularly poor at communicating this – the distinction between the two is notably absent in his treatment of the subject and he seems fixated on the idea that ‘happy pills’ serve only the profits of pharmaceutical companies.

The brief assertion “did not equate unhappiness with depression” does little to dispel the obvious conclusion that Giles cannot recognise the difference between feeling shit about life and feeling depressed. For all involved, a more comprehensive response may serve in the best interest and help continue to bring this thorny issue to a wider audience.

For Giles Fraser, ignorance truly is bliss

In his recent article Giles Fraser allows a valid underlying point to be undermined by his profound lack of understanding of depression. It would be malevolent to want him to address this lack of understanding, as it would necessitate him actually suffering from depression to really grasp the peculiarities of the disease, but it serves as an exemplary illustration of many commonly held misconceptions. Indeed, never has the adage “ignorance is bliss” been more apt.

His fundamental viewpoint that the rush to medicate sets a dangerous tone and in some cases can be counter-productive is one that I have some sympathy for, but the manner in which he has phrased his argument speaks volumes about the disconnect between an outsider’s perspective on depression and the reality for the person living with it.

Within the article he takes the view that unhappiness can be a rational response to misery-inducing situations, which is undoubtedly true – there are endless scenarios in which a melancholic mood is natural and to be expected – the loss of a loved one, the break-up of a marriage, even the nagging fear that you are not liked nor respected by your peers. However, these have no relevance to depression; it does not conform to Behaviourist notions of stimulus-response in which exogenous factors play a determinant role and, with enough time, can be put to one side and forgotten about.

Depression is an entirely different beast – one which circumvents rationality altogether and cares not for who you are nor the situation you are in. You could be famous, successful, have the perfect family or the world at your feet, and yet if your brain happens to be so inclined then all of these things are little more than minor distractions to the all-encompassing narrative of your life, which is a rather repetitive and one-dimensional story of inadequacy and self-loathing.

For this is the hallmark of depression; not feeling low, or feeling down – which as Giles points out can be perfectly rational responses – but an unrelenting self-hatred that wilfully inflicts emotional damage on a daily basis.

Imagine if you can your worst enemy – the person you hate most in the world, a person you find intolerable and insufferable, a person whose very existence is enough to make you curse humanity for giving life to this awful being. Imagine that they are allowed to follow you around 24 hours a day – and not only that, they are able to enter your thoughts directly, so that try as you might it is impossible to ignore them. Now imagine that somehow they have managed to tap into your subconscious and accessed all of your darkest fears, your most vulnerable weaknesses, your most stubborn insecurities – imagine they are able to review every humiliating event in your life, or reproduce every embarrassing incident in high definition, tap into every train of thought that involves self-doubt and magnify this beyond recognition. Imagine what it is like to be bullied inside your own head by somebody who knows exactly how to hurt you, and delights in continually doing so. There is no escape, there is no refuge, there is only the pain of being endlessly bombarded by shame, guilt and disgust – because that awful human being that you believe doesn’t deserve the gift of life, is you.

It is often said that depression is a selfish illness – which is not strictly true. It does not make you selfish – what it can do is make you self-obsessed, or possibly self-absorbed. Given the chance, many depressives can actually be wonderfully empathetic, as they can relate to the pain of others and welcome the opportunity to escape from themselves for a while. But, as sure as night follows day, it is not long before they are on their own again – and with solitude comes introspection. The author Matt Haig has made some beautifully succinct summaries of what is like to be depressed on Twitter, such as:

Depression isn’t a murder in an Agatha Christie novel. It often doesn’t have a cause or a motive any more than cancer does. It just IS.


Those who think depressives are self-absorbed, set your leg on fire and see how self-absorbed you are in the next ten minutes. Pain = self.

Which are far more eloquent than I will ever manage. It is not that depressives do not care about anybody else, far from it, but they cannot escape the overwhelming noise coming from within their heads that is constantly barracking their every move and thought. Depressives are the literal opposite of narcissists, and even though the label egocentric might be slightly more accurate – even this fails to recognise the curious dichotomy between the intensity of negative feelings towards one’s self and the lack of self-worth, whilst simultaneously placing yourself at the centre of everything and everyone.

The paranoia that often accompanies depression is little more than a projection of feelings onto others; depressives are unable to see past their own bias and so it follows logically that if they are the wretched scum they believe themselves to be, then surely everyone else must be of a similar opinion? Even when friends and family, anxious to reassure, surround a depressive with love and comfort and praise, it rings hollow in their ears and appears superficial and false; how could they possibly mean such pleasantries when the subject is so clearly undeserving? In this sense they are egocentric, because they are unable to recognise or accept the opinions of others as being any way true representations of reality. People that speak of the kindness, charm or wit you display “don’t know the real me” or are just themselves being generous and kind and have not yet woken up to the reality of what a terrible human being you truly are.

All too often the paranoia can create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Depressives can frequently be hyper-sensitive and incredibly attuned to very minor aspects of other people’s paralanguage, and given their natural inclination to believe the worst about themselves, something that could be completely unrelated – such as the person being tired, having a bad day at work, or feeling distracted because they have issues in their own life – can be misinterpreted, over-analysed and then packaged as evidence of rejection. For anyone that has spent a lot of time around a depressive, they will know that it can be hard work, it can result in constantly walking on eggshells and wondering if something innocuous you said is now being turned into a stick to beat themselves with. For many people, trying to understand or reason why is too great an obstacle, and so by projecting these feelings onto others, the depressive ultimately manages to make it all come true – eventually the people around them really are trying to get away, they do feel awkward and uncomfortable and they are making excuses not to be subjected to such intense emotional brooding.

The egocentrism of depression manifests itself in believing that everyone else hates you as much as you hate yourself, in believing that everyone else is as aware of your every utterance and has analysed it as much as you to reveal every faux pax. It is the inability to escape from a constant internal dialogue in which the narrator delights in pointing out your every flaw, or gleefully celebrating every awkward moment, every humiliating incident. In truth it is no wonder that depressives become self-conscious and self-absorbed – if you were constantly bombarded with negative commentary on everything you did then no doubt you would have a similar response.

Hopefully at this stage Giles, you are recognising that appeals to rationality are a lost cause – for let us be frank: depression is a mental illness. One that may not always present itself in such an extreme fashion as say psychosis or schizophrenia, but a mental illness nonetheless. Rationality has almost no place in a discussion about depression.

Having said that, one might argue that depression is a rational response to a stimulus, in that if you had a friend or acquaintance that was as savagely vitriolic and mean-spirited about you as you are about yourself, then hating that person would be a perfectly rational response. If this were the case, you would undoubtedly exclude that person from your life and vow never to have anything to do with them again. Sadly for all the depressives out there the bully will not be banished and until the relationship can be reconciled the torment will carry on. Self-loathing may make logical sense given a depressive’s propensity to be truly horrible to themselves, but that abstract knowledge does not make it any easier to deal with.

It is at this stage that I would like to agree with Giles, for I believe that the immediate response to this should not be to medicate. To me it smacks of an unwillingness to properly engage with the person’s needs and deal with the situation they are in. That’s not to say that drugs do not have their place – undoubtedly they do, and in many cases I’m sure that depression is the result of a chemical imbalance within the person’s brain that can be addressed through the wonders of modern medicine. However, I think that these should be prescribed after a little more consideration and an attempt to deal with the problem in a less invasive manner. For me the first course of action should always be some form of counselling, whether of the common-or-garden variety or something like cognitive behaviour therapy that tries to address negative thought patterns and encourage the depressive to break out of the cycle of self-loathing. I do not blame GPs, they do not have the time (nor possibly the expertise) to be able to diagnose and understand a person’s condition, so they do what they know best which is offer an immediate solution that might help. Frequently that immediate solution is pharmaceutical.

I personally have only had one experience with anti-depressants, and it was not a good one. At the age of eighteen, feeling helpless and lost, I went to my GP and asked them what could be done. Despite my natural aversion to resolving the situation using drugs, at the time I felt so powerless to exert any control over my emotions that I was willing to try just about anything. I was prescribed Seroxat, a drug later found to cause increased rates of suicide. Whilst it did not make me feel suicidal as such, it stripped me of all emotions and left me an apathetic husk – for instance whilst I would not have stepped in front of a bus, if I was crossing the road and a bus was coming, I probably wouldn’t have bothered to get out of the way. I realise that’s a rather confusing way of explaining it, but it was a rather confusing time. The moniker ‘happy-pills’ is not an accurate description, as (in my experience) they do not make you happy – what they do is make you numb. They are like an emotional anaesthetic that dull the pain and allow you to function at a basic level; you can make it out of bed, you can brush your teeth, you can go to work – you can pretend to be ‘normal’.

For this is one of the most prevalent misconceptions about depression; that the person is somehow just being self-indulgent and all they need to do is “pull themselves together” and get up and go. These people live a privileged existence to believe it is as easy as that, for pulling yourself together after you’ve spent a lifetime pulling yourself apart is easier said than done. If you don’t believe this, drop a cup on the floor and see how easy it is to smash, then collect all the pieces and see how long it takes to put them back together. One incident, one trigger is enough to send a depressive into a negative cycle, but in my personal experience there has never been a single incident that suddenly made me think “you know what, I feel good about myself now”. It is probably that my brain is wired to have a predilection for negativity; for instance I often have – apropos of nothing – recollection of random memories from throughout my lifetime in which I’ve said or done something embarrassing that causes deep feelings of shame. I never suddenly remember that funny thing I said that made everyone laugh, or the intelligent thing that made everyone think – I remember the awful thing I said that makes me cringe. The idea that it’s just a matter of being a bit more stoical and soldiering on merely indicates the lack of understanding. Depression not only robs you of any zest for life, it can also literally rob you of the energy you need to survive on an everyday basis. Getting out of bed, washing, eating can all become insurmountable tasks that you just aren’t capable of. I once went eight days without eating and I didn’t even notice, because depression is all-consuming and subjugates everything else in your life, it is not a foolish thing you can just put to one side and forget about; it is everything, it is relentless, it is forever.

This is one of the curious idiosyncrasies of depression, the sufferer believes that this is their fate and ever will be. Unlike other illnesses, having depression does not seem like a temporary inconvenience that makes you feel awful but you know you will recover from, it feels permanent. From the depths of despair it often seems as though there is no way out and that this is your lot till the day that you die. Of course, this is not true, there are means and ways of escaping and I agree that drugs should not be the sole recourse, but in many cases drugs do have their part to play and are the best option. Undoubtedly prescribing strong pharmaceuticals to deal with a natural reaction to life events is using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, but to dismiss depression as simply feeling sad is to miss the point entirely.

Ultimately each case must be taken on its individual merit and each person must be treated as an individual, with an appropriate course of action taken that suits their needs and condition. The rush to label negative emotions as depression does smack of quackery and runs the risk of a quasi-medical classification, but to extrapolate that to the extent that Giles has and assume that depression is – in essence – a made up condition or an exaggeration is hazardous in the extreme. Though there have been cases of drugs causing strong reactions to the extent of promoting suicide, the notion that they should be done away with altogether runs the risk of kicking the crutch from underneath countless sufferers who rely on these drugs to get them through the day. Whilst in principle it is sound to question the ubiquity of prescribing drugs as the only solution, to truly find better solutions we need to start with understanding what depression really is, and in that respect the people we should be speaking to are the experts – the sufferers – not casual commenters who cannot comprehend even the basic traits nor distinguish between feeling sad and feeling depressed.

Whilst the drugs may be viewed as a way of “shutting people up” ( a view I disagree with, as I feel their purpose is more to quieten the internal voice of doubt and self-hatred), I believe a more damaging way of silencing these people is to strip them of their voice and discredit their condition by seeing it as little more than a response to a shit job or home life. The idea that drugs are prescribed because society is unwilling to accept deviations from the norm belittles the suffering and angst of millions of people, and reveals a woeful ignorance about the debilitating effect depression has on people’s lives.

If it’s not about the oil, could it be about the gas?

For many people the instinctive, even reflex, response to the Western intervention in Libya has been “it’s all about the oil”. However, in a recent article the well-respected Middle East commentator Professor Juan Cole dismissed these assumptions, saying:

That is daft. Libya was already integrated into the international oil markets, and had done billions of deals with BP, ENI, etc., etc. None of those companies would have wanted to endanger their contracts by getting rid of the ruler who had signed them.

And goes on to say:

An economic argument for imperialism is fine if it makes sense, but this one does not, and there is no good evidence for it (that Qaddafi was erratic is not enough), and is therefore just a conspiracy theory.

This should give anyone promoting the oil-motive theory pause for thought, as Professor Cole’s credentials are well established. However, I found this troubling, as for me the party-line rationale for intervention in Libya does not really seem that convincing. For his part, Professor Cole accepts this at face value, writing:

those who question whether there were US interests in Libya seem to me a little blind. The US has an interest in there not being massacres of people for merely exercising their right to free assembly

But to me this is incongruous with historical events, and it also begs the question of why we are willing to get involved in Libya, when atrocities of a similar nature (if not, perhaps, of the same scale) are happening across the region in Syria, Bahrain and Yemen. In generalised terms it is probably fair to say that the profit-motive usually takes precedence over humanitarian concerns, hence our willingness to turn a blind eye to the repressive regimes that are ‘on our side’. This brings us back to Professor Cole’s point – Libya has well established relations with a number of Western-based corporations and has a fully-functioning oil industry capable of supplying a bit more than a million barrels of oil per day, of which around 85% is said to go to European markets. If we were to look a little closer at how this market is divided, then it is estimated (Reuters) that 32% goes to Italy, 14% to Germany, 10% to France, 10% to China and 5% to the USA.

So on the surface it does seem entirely self-defeating for the NATO countries and the USA to become involved in Libya. However, it’s worth bearing in mind that these are the statistics for fully-functioning oil-fields that are already producing. If we are to start with the hypothesis that there is an underlying profit-motive, then the sensible course of action is to follow the money.

Since Libya came in from the cold it has held a series of auctions for Exploration and Production Sharing Agreements (EPSA) to open up new areas for development.

The first of these took place on the 30th of January 2005 and this first round heavily favoured US firms, with Occidental Petroleum, ChevronTexaco, and Amerada Hess winning interests in 11 of the 15 permits. This apparent favouritism was not replicated in the second round, which saw contracts awarded to:

  • Eight Asian companies: Nippon Oil Corp., Mitsubishi Corp., Japan Petroleum Exploration Co. Ltd. (Japex), Inpex Corp., and Teikoku Oil Co. Ltd. (OGJ, Oct. 10, 2005, Newsletter); PT Pertamina; Chinese Petroleum Corp.
  • Six European companies: Total ASA, Norsk Hydro AS, Statoil ASA, BG Group PLC, Eni North Africa, and OAO Tatneft.
  • Three Indian companies: Oil India Ltd., Indian Oil Corp. Ltd., and ONGC Videsh Ltd.
  • Turkish Petroleum Overseas Co. Ltd.
  • ExxonMobil Libya Ltd.

The third round, according to reports saw the Russian firms Tatneft and Gazprom make significant advances, with Barrows Company declaring them ‘the big winners’, and then in the fourth round you again have Gazprom winning a fair proportion of the contracts.

Gazprom’s consolidation of the gas market, at a time when Europe is already concerned about the security of its supply – having seen the disputes with the Ukraine and the knock-on effect they had – further compounded by its deal with ENI, and then buyout, has raised the stakes in the volatile global energy market.

This reflects a growing concern, which has been seen over the last few years that Gazprom (and therefore – by proxy – the Russian government) has been ‘winning the pipeline war‘. This concern can be seen further in the leaked diplomatic cables concerning the relationship between Italy and Russia, ENI and Gazprom, and Berlusconi and Putin:




And the answer they got in return may not have pleased them either:

XXXXXXXXXXXX told us during a February 4 lunch that his Embassy and his Foreign Ministry often only learn of conversations between PM Berlusconi and PM Putin after the fact, and with little detail or background.

On major issues, it seems that Russian-Italian economic relations are directed by PMs who have a direct line to each other as well as control over some of the largest assets of their respective economies.

our contact himself acknowledged — “it seems that everything that happens at the lower levels is just for show.”

Russia has been trying to corner the market in Libya for some time, offering to buy “all of Libya’s gas” as far back as 2008, which some analysts have speculated is an attempt to form an ‘OPEC of gas’:

“It fits with their strategy of, if not forming a gas OPEC by discussion, then doing it by just cornering all the resources,” he said. “Hydrocarbons is where they want to be, and having as much of it as possible.”

So it is no surprise that with the stakes so high, what to do about the Russian influence on energy security has been the subject of UK Parliamentary publications. Whilst not directly about the situation in Libya, this at least shows considerable angst at an administrative level:

The received energy policy view is that gas is a fuel that raises significant energy security concerns. This view has gained considerable traction as a result of declining gas reserves within the European Union and the impact of the Gazprom-Ukraine gas disputes.

The Gazprom-Ukraine disputes in 2006 and 2009 [9] where Europe, caught in the middle, had suffered supply cut offs raised serious energy security concerns in respect of Russian gas supplies.

In this context with the prospect of 84% of European gas coming from external sources by 2030 there were serious concerns for European energy security [12] . Gas as a major fuel source raised hard energy security concerns; scarcity concerns and consequent price concerns. Indeed Ungerer referred to gas as the ‘Achilles heel of European energy security’.

The second major difficulty for the Russian government and Gazprom is their current pipeline strategy. If we have gas to gas competition in Europe it is imperative that Russian gas is delivered as cheaply as possible into the European market if market share is to be maintained. This requires not only some form of efficiency focused liberalisation at home but an entirely different external pipeline strategy.

There is now a compelling commercial logic coming into place which is pushing Gazprom and the Russian government in the direction of liberalisation and the creation of an effective rule of law system in the energy sector.

Some might argue that there are other motives behind the Libyan operation, and that recent developments regarding both the souring of diplomatic relations between the US and Libya and the strong bargaining by Libya to change the oil contracts, reducing the share received by foreign companies from 30-40% to now less than 20% may have instigated moves against the regime. However, this does have the touch of Machiavellian scheming about it, not to mention the aforementioned conspiracy theory.

However, I do not think the worry over Russia’s influence in the energy sector has been overstated here, and I believe it to be a reasonable hypothesis that in the ongoing economic and geo-political battle for dominance, the Libyan intervention would not be considered a bridge too far.

Intervention in Libya might go some way towards redressing the balance and shifting the tables in our favour. Already since the NATO operation began we’ve seen the ENI-Gazprom deal postponed, and the rebels have made their position fairly clear:

“We don’t have a problem with Western countries like Italians, French and U.K. companies,” Abdeljalil Mayouf, a spokesman for the Libyan rebel oil company Agoco, was quoted by Reuters as saying. “But we may have some political issues with Russia, China and Brazil.”

So – if it’s not about the oil, could it be about the gas?

Never contradict. Never explain. Never apologise.

Recent events have seemingly reinforced the dichotomy between those on the left and the right of the political divide, with huge numbers of people adamant rioters should ‘loose [sic] all benefits’ and the government – having previously praised the role of social media as “a powerful tool in the hands of citizens, not a means of repression. It belongs to the people who’ve had enough of corruption” now seriously considering ‘turning it off’ – despite many people, including several local police forces, describing how it has actually played a beneficial role.

This swing to the right seen both across government and amongst the people is often accompanied by the denouncing of anyone with the temerity to question why it has happened as apologists for the miscreants robbing and looting. For some, any attempt to explain or understand why it has happened is tantamount to condoning the violence and criminality, any contradiction of the official party line (mindless thuggery) is to be heralded as exactly the kind of permissive behaviour leading to these troubles in the first place.

For these commentators, the answer is very simple – in the case of Melanie Phillips it can be said ‘with certainty’ that the blame lies with “the liberal intelligentsia”, obviously “the Labour government” and being the Daily Mail, it wouldn’t be complete – nor indeed right – if we didn’t also blame “single mothers”. Evidently Muslims and immigrants had the night off, or rather perhaps they were doing some moonlighting for Kevin Myers.

But it isn’t just the usual right wing tub-thumpers occupying the realm of “string ’em up and throw away the key” – the Prime Minister himself has rolled out similar rhetoric – calling the riots “criminality pure and simple” and going on to say “The young people stealing flat screen televisions and burning shops that was not about politics or protest, it was about theft.” Furthermore – lest we suspect that the root cause is social deprivation “This is not about poverty, it’s about culture” – making sure (once again) to blame it on the collapse of the traditional family – “In too many cases, the parents of these children – if they are still around – don’t care where their children are or who they are with, let alone what they are doing”. Finally he concludes “we need a criminal justice system that scores a clear and heavy line between right and wrong”.

All strong stuff, sending out the ‘tough on crime’ message loud and clear – and whilst you’d be hard pressed to find anyone that actually believes the rioters and looters had any kind of political agenda or that their door-to-door escapades were some form of guerilla campaigning on a platform of extreme-free-market consumerism – the underlying subtext in the Prime Minister’s speech, that this is completely unconnected with politics, might raise a few eyebrows. Not least when compared with his infamous ‘hug a hoodie‘ speech which had a very different message. Indeed the more cynical may even be tempted to label his change in stance a ‘U-turn’ given the rampant contradictions.

Here is just a sample:

“One of the worst aspects of social injustice that people face is the fear and suffering caused by crime and disorder. In many communities, it’s doing more to wreck the sense of general well-being than just about anything else.”

“Crime, drugs, underage sex – this behaviour is wrong, but simply blaming the kids who get involved in it doesn’t really get us much further.”

“Of course, not everyone who grows up in a deprived neighbourhood turns to crime – just as not everyone who grows up in a rich neighbourhood stays on the straight and narrow. Individuals are responsible for their actions – and every individual has the choice between doing right and doing wrong. But there are connections between circumstances and behaviour.”

“The first thing is to recognise that we’ll never get the answers right unless we understand what’s gone wrong. Understanding the background, the reasons, the causes. It doesn’t mean excusing crime but it will help us tackle it.”

“If the first thing we have to do is understand what’s gone wrong, the second thing is to realise that putting things right is not just about law enforcement.”

“Of course we should never excuse teenage crime, or tolerate the police ignoring it. We need tough sanctions, protection and punishment. And if the phrase ‘social justice’ is to be meaningful, it has to be about justice, as well as compassion and kindness.”

“One of the most important things we can teach our children is a sense of justice. Too many young people have no understanding of consequences – of the idea that actions have effects.”

“If the consequence of stepping over the line should be painful, then staying within the bounds of good behaviour should be pleasant.”

“We sometimes see young people described as “feral”, as if they have turned wild. But no child is ever really feral. No child is beyond recovery, beyond civilisation.”

“Of course we need to be tough on crime and tough on youth offending. But we must also follow the three principles I’ve set out today. Understanding what’s gone wrong in order to put things right. Giving priority to the emotional quality of the work we do with young people. And giving real power to the real experts who can make the biggest difference…”

[emphasis added]

Perhaps it is easier to make these kind of observations from the sidelines, when accountability lies with the opposition, than it is when the buck rests with you? Regardless, the adopted narrative that the rioting and looting has nothing to do with the state of the nation and everything to do with the pernicious criminality of the underclass is more than just another government U-turn, it is a wilful myopia employed to suit a self-serving agenda of denial. For the government, accepting responsibility for your actions – whilst imperative for the common criminals on the street – is not something that should be applied to the political elite. Obviously there is no excuse, no justification for the wanton acts of destruction that were waged against these communities – but to ignore the root causes is to condemn society to suffer the same acts again in the future. Hardline policing, tough sentencing and trite outrage serve only to treat the symptoms of this cultural malaise – to address the underlying cause we are in need of an analysis and diagnosis that goes beyond the superficial and a political class willing to accept culpability for the state of the nation.

Of course, many commentators have already provided this level of analysis – across the political spectrum, from the left to the right – arguing a number of points ranging from the continuing marginalisation of black youths by an institutionally racist police force, to a trickle-down effect of criminality stemming from the example set by politicians and captains of industry. Other commentators have argued the riots were as a result of income inequality or were the logical conclusion of rabid consumerism and, naturally, a large part of the debate has focused upon the austerity measures and how against a backdrop of a rising cost of living and a decrease in real income the latent anger felt by the disenfranchised and disaffected was waiting for an incident to ignite the flames of wrath.

That the death of Mark Duggan is virtually irrelevant goes without saying – whilst it may have acted as a catalyst for the initial troubles, to associate it now with the national outbreak of violence and robbery is verging on disrespectful – his death should be considered separate, worthy in its own right of its own story, and relevant to those truly affected by it, rather than another commodity to be looted.

However, each of these elements should not be considered in isolation – they form a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Like a photomosaic a step back reveals the big picture, and it portrays social injustice – this is the unifying theme, the common thread linking them all, and whilst many of the looters and rioters may not have had a political vision and ideological position, the motivation to take to the streets and smash up their neighbourhoods must have come from somewhere.

The father of Capitalism, Adam Smith has said “Wherever there is great property there is great inequality. For one very rich man there must be at least five hundred poor, and the affluence of the few supposes the indigence of the many. The affluence of the rich excites the indignation of the poor, who are often both driven by want, and prompted by envy, to invade his possessions”. It is easy to assume (as many have done) that these troubles can be blamed solely on unemployed benefit scroungers, yet a cursory glance at the data tells a different story – among the convicted are accounts clerks, lifeguards, estate agents, law students, chefs, electricians, journalists . . . the list goes on.

Yes, undoubtedly the overwhelming majority are unemployed young men, but to attribute everything to this group and rationalise it by saying they are feckless good-for-nothings that we should expect nothing less from is to take an absurdly reductionist view that is of no benefit to anyone. Were it true – as some would have us believe – that this outbreak of violence and thievery could be explained simply by mindless criminality, it begs the rather obvious question of why now? Why has this not been happening on a regular basis? Why are our police forces not overwhelmed by the constant assault of the criminal underclass? If this assessment were accurate – if the reasons for this happening were purely down to the inherent lack of morality and ethics in a criminal minority, then it doesn’t explain the spontaneous eruption we have seen, but should instead manifest itself in a steady stream.

So let us consider Adam Smith’s position – that the great divide in equality and the attendant want and envy is the catalyst. Now, it may be argued that this too has existed since time immemorial, but given the current context this can perhaps provide a more rational explanation.

Recent studies have shown that social mobility is worse in the UK than in other OECD countries. Recent UNICEF reports have shown that for children the UK ranks near the bottom of the table for overall equality and the worst of all the developed countries for child well-being. London has been described as “the most unequal city in the West” and as can be seen here and here the UK as a whole has seen a marked rise in inequality over the past 35 years. At a time of incredible hardship for the majority of people, who have footed the bill for the bankers gambling addiction and are now suffering as a consequence, it is surely galling to see that the very people responsible for this mess are still being rewarded, with bank chiefs pay rising 36% and bankers still getting their bonuses.

If Mr Cameron expects to send the message that actions have consequences and social justice needs to be meaningful, then the time to make that point has been and gone and the opportunity has now been missed. Rather than address the cause of the problems and see them as an opportunity to enact change, the Conservatives have instead embraced the opportunity to employ what Naomi Klein calls ‘disaster capitalism‘ – a kind of economic shock-and-awe – to promote their usual agenda of cuts to public spending and tax breaks for the wealthy. In its fragile state, the nation has stood by dumbly as – having suffered the injury of the global financial crisis, it now suffers the insult of having the politicians rifling through its possessions under the pretence of offering help. Sadly, unlike Mohd Asyraf Haziq it seems that the people – having recovered from the initial shock, are not so forgiving.

At a time when we are constantly being told “we’re all in this together” plans to abolish the 50p tax rate whilst continuing cuts to government spending and pushing privatisation of public services sends out the wrong message and espouses the wrong philosophy. Growth will not come from tax breaks for the rich but rather jobs for the poor, and although the rioters and looters may be unable to articulate their frustrations at their lack of self-determination and opportunity, their message of anger and resentment has been broadcast loud and clear. Do they have a political message, political persuasions even? Unlikely – for who could blame them for being disillusioned in politicians when even under the Labour party income inequality continued to grow? Do they have any hope of representation when all political parties prioritise business over the people? At a time when even those on the right of the political spectrum start to question the validity of the system there is a certain fin de siècle feel emanating from our collective consciousness.

If – as the Prime Minister suggests – the consequences of stepping over the line should be painful and staying within the bounds of good behaviour should be pleasant, then there is surely a huge social injustice being inflicted upon us all if we are to pay the price for the folly of others whilst gaining no reward for being a contributing citizen. Job insecurity, rising household debt and a reduction in real incomes have been our reward, and the culprits’ punishments are yet to materialise – in the face of such flagrant iniquity, is it any wonder the masses decided to revolt?

As despicable as it is, when the rioters boast they’re showing “the rich people we can do what we want” – what is it but a crude aspiration to achieve the same status as those they despise? Rich people have been demonstrating they can do what they want for years, perhaps no more than the present (or certainly never in such a gauche fashion) – so in the culture of today, with its celebration of wealth and fame (without the associated skill or talent) – can we really claim we are without blame in the creation of these amoral, egocentric creatures?

Their incoherent anger, directed at ‘the government’ and ‘rich people’ may not have coalesced into a recognisable argument, but there is an intuitive recognition of hypocrisy and inequality that – whilst it cannot justify their actions, does at least carry enough validity that it should raise questions. This is the society we have created, these are the minds we have cultivated – and if the medium with which they choose to express themselves is setting fire to property and ‘aggressive late night shopping’ – then we should pause to question why rather than simply condemning their actions. Taking responsibility is never easy, but it is vital – and to simply label this “criminality pure and simple” is the coward’s way out.

There have been some that have leapt to accuse any linking the violence with the cuts as guilty of a cynical attempt to make political capital out of the riots – but in a recent study that now looks staggeringly prescient, two economists from Barcelona found that there was a clear positive correlation between fiscal retrenchment and instability and that”Once you cut expenditure by more than 2% of GDP, instability increases rapidly in all dimensions, and especially in terms of riots and demonstrations.” That this was published just a week before the troubles began only serves to highlight the fact that whilst the government was singularly out of touch, there were those that saw it coming. Despite evidence such as this, the unwavering commitment to the austerity agenda still remains, with David Cameron and George Osborne still determined to repeat Theresa May’s mistake, despite warnings from those that should know better.

This is not to say that the cuts are the sole cause of the riots, but without doubt they are a factor – to refute this smacks of political desperation and outright denial. Much of the hand-wringing on the right talks of ‘Broken Britain’ and the collapse of moral fortitude amongst the youth of today, but these platitudes serve only to reinforce their own dull stereotypes about the break up of the family unit and the absence of a father figure. On the BBC’s Any Questions, Harriet Harman made the point that without a future there was little to stop the disenfranchised youth turning to crime. Her fellow guest Peter Hitchens ridiculed this, claiming that nobody kicked in the window of a shop and stole a television because they were worried about their future.

He’s absolutely right.

It was precisely because they were not worried about their future that they felt no apprehension. As an economist, Adam Smith may have assessed this situation in terms of a cost/benefit analysis and come to the conclusion that for many of them – with little material wealth, no prospects of employment and an increased likelihood of having a criminal record – the short-term gains to be had far outweighed the long-term risks. Nevertheless, according to Hitchens these were not riots because “They had no political purpose and no origin in discontent and deprivation”. Political purpose may have been lacking, but discontent and deprivation was in abundance.

The opinion on the right would have us believe that there can be no deeper explanation than the lack of morality (caused by single mothers naturally), and anyone saying any different is obviously condoning the violence. Obviously the solution is for the police to dish out a few beatings, magistrates to hand down harsh sentences – including making entire families homeless for the actions of one person – and for social media to be shut down whenever politicians deem fit. I don’t know about you, but if these things come to pass then I’ve a feeling I’ll be one of the ones rioting in the street – not as a consumer looking for a new telly, but as a citizen fighting for the last tatters of our freedom.

As Benjamin Franklin has said “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”