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Helpfully unhelpful: The pathology of being too supportive

https://theconversation.com/sublime-design-the-london-underground-map-26240

When I first arrived in London, I needed to find my way across the city to the now former site of the Home Office at St Anne’s Gate.  I didn’t have a clue about how to get there so I asked a member of staff at St Pancras railway station. He helpfully pointed me in the direction of the London Underground.  I was swept along by a torrent of people, all going about their business with a purpose, I however, didn’t have a clue where I was going.  Finding sanctuary in a quiet eddy and desperately looking around I spotted a member of staff across the concourse. Fighting against the current I scrambled to where the member of staff was and implored upon them to rescue me. Thankfully the underground staff had all been briefed, not specifically about me, I should hasten to add, but about how by being super helpful they could increase customer satisfaction, reduce complaints and attract even more customers.  And having explained my dilemma, I was very helpfully led through the ticket barriers, now struggling to hold back the surge, and down the escalator to the platform below. I was told to get on the next train and to get off at St James’ Park. Having arrived at my destination I became confused as to which exit to use and once again found a very helpful staff member who led me part way to the exit, where I spilled out into the sunlight a matter of yards away from my destination.

The following week I once again plunged into the torrent and confident that I knew which underground line to take I allowed myself to be swept along to the barriers and through, and then panic.  Which platform and am I sure that was the right line? Once again, a beacon of hope shone across the dark morass, a member of underground staff. Once again, I was led to the platform in a super helpful way and got on the first train. But this time I didn’t arrive at my destination for some, I have to say, traumatic hours. The problem was the first train was not the train to catch, it was the second that I needed; I will most definitely have to complain about that member of staff being unhelpful.

This pattern of visits to London and assistance rendered by sometimes grumpy but always super helpful members of underground staff continued for some weeks. Often, I would stay in London for a week at a time before returning home outside of the metropolis at the weekend.  During my stays I visited numerous police stations as part of my work and every time I used the underground, I sought out a helpful member of staff to assist me.  Sometimes, if they rather unhelpfully simply pointed me in the right direction, I would set off and then return to them explaining that I didn’t understand their instructions.  Armed with more information I would again purposefully set off and then duly return until the succumbed and rather reluctantly but helpfully led me to the correct platform. 

Then in a fortnight, two things happened. Firstly, the underground staff went on strike and on arriving at the gates of St James’ Park underground station I found the gates closed. There were a couple of members of staff there, but they weren’t very helpful.  ‘What should I’ do I asked, ‘Dunno’, was the reply.  Now that was not very helpful, complaint forthcoming I feel. I didn’t make my appointments that day and the following day had to use taxis to get around.  Much easier to use taxis you might say, yes but not really justifiable in terms of cost, my boss told me when I suggested I would forego using the underground altogether.  After three days the underground opened up again but for some reason there were no staff around to ask for help. I became increasingly anxious and found myself avoiding the underground, using taxis at my own expense, and walking long distances. I was exhausted I can tell you.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/cgpgrey/5050728957/

The next week I ventured into the underground again, I couldn’t avoid it forever.  I found a member of staff and duly asked them, in an almost ritualistic fashion, how to get across London to another underground station near yet another police station.  Instead of pointing me in the right direction, which we all know by now is a rather fruitless, time wasting and unhelpful exercise, or super helpfully taking me to the correct platform, they took me to a rather large underground map on the wall. ‘This is where we are’, the very nice lady said, ‘and this is where you want to be’, she added. She then continued to explain how to use the map, how to follow the signs dotted around the stations, how to look for the signs before entering the platforms so as to work out which platform to be on and how to ensure I get on the correct train. I was nervous following her instructions as I made my way to the platform, but I got to my destination and I made my own way back, with help of the wall map of course.  From that point onwards, I made my way around London on the underground with increased confidence, I wouldn’t say with consummate ease, but confidently. I made mistakes but because I knew how to read the map, I was able to rectify them and if I couldn’t I knew that I could ask. Of course, now that I drive, I use maps, I would probably have been pestering police officers and random members of the public otherwise and we know how the rare the sight of the former are on our streets. Anyway, I don’t think they’ve had the ‘super helpful’ briefing. Lately though I’ve been using my satnav, and sometimes getting into a right pickle. It seems you can’t beat good old-fashioned map reading.

What’s the point of this nonsensical tale? Well the clue is in the title. As educators we need to consider the purpose of what we are doing and how this will add value to students’ learning and knowledge.  We can give students the answers to the essay questions, how to structure a particular essay, what arguments to include, what books and journal articles to read.  We can supply them with reading lists that contain links to the books and journal articles, we can coach them to such an extent that their journey is in fact our journey, just as my journey to the underground platform was the staff member’s journey. We can repeat this many times over so that students are capable of completing that essay, but like me on my journey through the underground, they will need the same coaching for every piece of assessment and whilst they may complete each journey as I did, they have learnt very little and become increasingly disempowered and crippled by our helpfulness and their increasing reliance on it. Our jobs as educators is not to provide answers but to equip students with the tools to find the answers themselves. That process requires a willingness to learn, to discover and to take risks. Super helpfulness should not be an organisational strategy to ensure each part of the journey is easily manoeuvred and completed, it should be about ensuring that people can complete any journey independently and confidently.  Sometimes by appearing to be super helpful we are simply being very unhelpful and disempowering people at the same time.

Reflecting on reflection

For some years now students taking the third year Critiquing Criminalistics module on our criminology course at the university have had an assessment relating to a reflective diary. Most educators and those in other professions will be aware of and understand the advantage of reflection and reflective diaries so it is probably not necessary to revisit the well-rehearsed arguments about benefits to learning and personal development.  Each year, I have found that over the course of the module, the students have come to recognise this and have intimated how they have enjoyed reflecting on what they have learnt in the class or how reflecting on personal experiences has been beneficial. And they comment on how they have sought out further information to gain additional knowledge or to put what they have learnt in some form of perspective.  It is of course what we as educators would want and expect from a reflective diary assessment that after all counts towards their marks for the module.

What has surprised me though is how much reviewing these modules has benefited me.  I have learnt from and continue to learn my students. We all recognise or at least should the old saying ‘the more I know, the more I realise I don’t know’ or similar.  My students prove that is the case often with each round of diary entries I review.  The diaries can provide an insight into students lives and thoughts.  For some of them it may be a cathartic release to capture their feelings on paper, for me it is enlightening and provides a greater understanding of some of the challenges they face not only as students but also as predominately young adults in a challenging and at times hostile social and economic environment.  Perhaps what is equally as enlightening is the additional knowledge that students provide about the subject area being discussed and taught. It is almost like sending out my own little army of literature reviewers with a challenge to advance their knowledge and ipso facto, mine.  I am clear that part of the reflection process is about taking what you have learnt further and as this an assessment, demonstrating this additional knowledge with some academic rigor.  And so, I find that in some cases what I have stated in the class (currently online) is challenged and that challenge is supported by academic reading. When I read some of these little gems, I smile but alongside this is the additional work created as I review the journal article they have referenced and then decide whether to revisit my lectures to add in the additional information. Even if I don’t, it all adds to my knowledge and, on reflection as my students are proving, there is plenty of scope to find out more.

Education, education, education: We’ve lost the plot

Some of you might remember Tony Blair’s speech introducing the Labour party’s education manifesto in 2001. In it he proclaimed that education was at the forefront of government policy.  Education is often high on government’s agenda even if it is only to berate previous administrations for failing our youngsters. I have watched with interest the current government’s farcical approach to education and in particular the attainment of qualifications during the first period of Covid lockdown and to some extent even felt sorry for them as they grappled with what were not insignificant problems.  My benevolence, however, has long been drained as I watch the news more recently only to see the same farce emerging.  But what really intrigues me is the conflation of the notion of qualifications and education.  It seems to me the clamber to get children back into school is only right given that they are missing out on education and other social aspects. However, I cannot see how the dealing with the qualifications issue can ignore the fact that the students have not received all of their education.

In a previous blog I have used the analogy of a driving instructor giving lessons to a pupil.  In that blog the point being made was that the education of the pupil was a two-way enterprise.  If the pupil didn’t engage or didn’t turn up for their lessons, then the instructor could not be held responsible for the pupil’s failure in the driving test.  But what of the test itself, what is that designed to achieve? It is not simply to provide a person with a driving licence, what would be the point of that? It is to ensure that the person taking the test can drive to a satisfactory standard that would help ensure the roads were safe for all users. So, the point of the driving lessons is to provide the education in ‘road craft’ and the point of the driving test is to test knowledge and ability in that ‘road craft’ to ensure it meets satisfactory standards.  The driving licence is a form of certificate that states the driver has achieved the knowledge and skills required.

So, what of education?  Surely GCSEs, A levels, BTec and so on are a test of the knowledge and skills acquired.  A degree is the same, is it not?  How then could we reasonably expect students to pass any of these tests if they have lost significant periods of tutorship or teaching?  The suggestion, dumb down the tests in some way by only testing what they have been taught, or as in the case of university students suggestions, be more lenient with the marking.  Now as I understand it, that would be akin to saying to a learner driver that because through no fault of their own, they could not engage in all of their lessons, they will only be tested on their ability to park and not on their ability to carry out an emergency stop as they hadn’t been taught the latter. How ridiculous would that be? Imagine then that the very same driver, who now has a driving licence, goes onto some advanced motoring course.  A course that starts with the premise that they have all the skills tested in a ‘full’ driving test. 

Whilst, I can understand students’ preoccupation with tests and qualifications, I somehow think that government and teaching establishments should be more concerned with education and the knowledge gap. How will they ensure that students have the requisite skills and knowledge? Tony Blair may have said ‘Education, Education, Education’ and subsequent governments might well nod in agreement, but somehow I think they’ve all lost the plot. 

My new year nightmare: finance, political imperatives and a lack of strategy

“Pregnant and homeless” by Ed Yourdon is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0; “Cash” by BlatantWorld.com is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The new year is here.  At its last knockings, the previous year offered hope of some sort of return to normality.  The second new vaccine was on its way, far easier to store and distribute, it offered hope. Unfortunately, the joy of the new year has been somewhat muted as we have witnessed Covid-19 cases rise to new heights. Talks of stricter measures have turned into our new reality, as one minute the government insisted on schools opening then the next a partial U-turn before a forced full-scale retreat. But as we watch all of this unfold, I am reminded of a comment I heard from a radio presenter on the lead up to Christmas. Her view was that there was much to be happy about, we know more about the virus now than we ever did and scientists have developed a vaccine, several vaccines, in record time.  Over the Christmas and new year period I reflected on last year and tried to think about what we have learnt. 

Brexit has just proved to be a complete farce.  Promises of a good deal turn out to be not so good, ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ the politicians said.  And then in desperation, realising that any deal was better than no deal and that the best deal was the one where we were in the European Union they settled on something and thanked the gods that there was far more pressing bad news to hide their incompetence.  So, we are now a ‘sovereign’ nation but poorer to boot and whilst we think we have regained control over our borders, it is only limited to bureaucratic, time consuming form filling, as we beg people to come here to work in our care homes and on the farms for a pittance.  Perhaps the refugees that we have reluctantly accepted might help us out here. Brexit has been delivered but at what cost?  No wonder Stanley wants to take up his opportunity for a French passport.

We are all equal its just that some are far more equal than others. We saw the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and I have a feeling that I wouldn’t be able to do that discussion justice; I’ll leave that to others that are far more capable. It did have a profound impact on me though as a former serving police officer, I would like to think it had an impact on others both retired and serving, but I’m not so sure.  I think that quite often the police are simply a reflection of our society and I’m not willing to bet much on that changing rapidly.  I remember Michael Holding, a former West Indian cricketer, turned commentator, talking about ‘white privilege’ and he provided what I thought at the time was a good example. Now I’m not so sure, this so called ‘white privilege’, isn’t privilege at all, it’s rights. It’s the rights that white people avail themselves of everyday in a democratic society (well that’s what we are supposed to be in anyway) without a second thought.  The problem isn’t that white people have those rights, it’s that Black and ethnic minority individuals don’t, or where they do, the rights are somehow conditional.  I might be wrong in my thinking, but I know one thing, without some very clear leadership from government, institutions and general societal attitudes are unlikely to change sufficiently.  Although footballers and staff take a knee before every match, I fear that the momentum is likely to be lost.  By the way, I’m not holding out much hope on the leadership gambit.

Sticking to the we are all equal theme; the pandemic has shone a spotlight on poverty in this country.  Yes, Mr high and mighty Reece-Mogg, there really are very poor people in this country and they do need a helping hand. The fact that food banks are even required is shameful. The fact that foodbanks rely on charity is an even more shameful indictment of our government. The fact that a senior politician can stand up in the house of commons and accuse a charity of political motives when distributing aid beggar’s belief.  I find it extraordinary that pre pandemic, homeless people were left to their own devices on the streets, reliant on charity and handouts and yet as soon as we went into lockdown, the government found money from somewhere to house them.  What changed? My worry is that when the pandemic is over, the government are going to be more concerned about balancing the books than they are about the pervasive poverty endemic in our nation.

Children returning to school has been a huge issue for government and they rely on evidence that suggests that the best place for children is at school. A headmaster reminded us in an interview on the radio that this ‘online learning’ phrase that trips off the tongue is far easier to talk about than to achieve. What hits home is the huge disparity in opportunity for children to avail themselves of online learning. Poorer families cannot provide the technology required. Poorer families are likely to live in cramped conditions making it impossible for children to concentrate on work as siblings run around trying to keep themselves amused. And let’s not forget the plight of the parents who are more likely to be in jobs that require them to be at work, not home. Then of course there are those children that are vulnerable where school is a safe haven from abuse, whether that’s physical or mental or simply because school is where they will be fed. So, in a sense for many, school is a better place than home, but we really ought to be asking why that is. What does that say about our society? If I were to hazard an educated guess, I’d say its broken. The return of children to school had wider implications. What about the teachers and staff? It seems to me that government have different standards of risk depending on what suits. I’ll come back to this in time but I think the closure of schools owes itself more to the action of teachers in their refusal to turn up to work in an unsafe environment than it does any sensible government strategy.

Sticking to the education theme, the pandemic shone a rather harsh spotlight on higher education too. What became increasingly obvious was that the return of students to campus was purely financially driven.  At least one vice chancellor put his head above the parapet and stated as much.  His university would fail if he did not fill the halls of residence. So here we had a situation where scientific advisors were stating it was folly to open universities and yet universities did so with the backing of government. The reason, we can’t put education on hold and yet how many students take a gap year, before going to university? Putting education on hold doesn’t appear to be that damaging to the individual, but it is very damaging to a morally corrupt educational business model that needs halls of residence to be filled to prop up the system. To make matters worse, students flocked to university only to find that face to face teaching was patchy, the university experience was not what they were promised or envisaged it would be, and more time was spent in isolation and lock down than was healthy.  If education was supposed to be good for their mental health, it had the opposite effect for many.  I don’t think it required a rocket scientist to work out that online teaching was really going to be a default position, so either management and government were very naïve and reckless, or they were somewhat economical with the truth.   Time to revisit higher education, I think.

Talking about government advisors, what’s the point in having them? Everything I read suggests that government advisors say one thing and government does something else or dillies and dallies its way into a dead end where it finally admits the advisors are in some way right, hence another eleventh hour lock down. The advisor’s said universities should not go back, they did and is it coincidence it coincided with a rise in Covid-19 cases? Advisors were saying schools shouldn’t go back but the government insisted they should and many did for just one day.  There is a saying about tactics and strategy. Strategy is unlikely to be achieved without tactics but tactics without a strategy are useless. I have yet to understand what the government strategy is, there is however a plethora of disparate (or is that desperate?) tactics . The result though, anguish and suffering to more than is necessary.  Some of the tactics seem to be based on decision regarding who is most at risk.  We hear that term an awful lot.  I watched the prime minister at lunch time, the man who promised us a fantastic Brexit deal, as he explained how important it was that children went back to school.  Children are at very little risk going to school he said and then added, and teachers are not at very much risk or at least at no more risk than they would be normally.  He bumbled and blustered over the latter part; I wonder why?  A few hours later he told us schools would be closed until at least the 15th February. What happened to ‘no risk’? When we talk about risk, there are a number of ways of viewing it.   There is the risk of death, easily understood and most definitely to be avoided, but what seems to be neglected is the risk of serious illness or the risk of ‘long Covid’.  By ordering schools to be opened or that universities resume face to face teaching, the policy seems to have been that as long as you are not at a high risk of death then it is an acceptable risk.  Time for a bit of honesty here.  Does the government and do managers in these organisations really think that a group of people in a room for a number of hours with inadequate ventilation is not a serious risk to the spreading of the disease? Maybe some of the managers could reassure us by doing most of the face to face teaching when we prematurely come out of lock down again.

It seems to me that much is being made, on the news in particular, about the effect a lock down has on mental health, especially children. And I do understand the mental health issues, I can’t help but think though that whilst this is a very valid argument there is the elephant in the room that is either ignored or conveniently understated. The elephant; the fear engendered by the virus, the fear and anguish of those that have had to face the loss of a loved one. Just to put that in perspective that’s over 70,000 people whose families and friends have had to go through firstly the fear and anxiety of a loved one being ill and then the additional fear and anxiety of having lost them. Add to this the fear and anxiety of those that have caught the virus and ended up in hospital coupled with the fear and anxiety of their loved ones. Now add to this the fear and anxiety of those who have to work in conditions where they are at serious risk of catching Covid and the fear and anxiety of their loved ones. And then of course there is the fear and anxiety caused to the general population as the virus spins out of control. Somehow I think a little perspective on mental health during lock down might be needed. Is it any wonder teachers decided that what they were being asked to do was unsafe and unnecessary?

And then I think about all of those parties and gatherings despite restrictions. The shopping trips from tier 4 areas into tier two areas to snap up bargains in the sales. The Christmas and New years eve parties that defy any logic other than pure self-indulgence. Just as we see all of those selfless people that work in organisations that care for others or keep the country running in some capacity, we see a significant number of selfish people who really don’t care about the harm they are causing and seem to be driven by hedonism and a lack of social values. Unfortunately, that accusation can also be aimed at some of the very people that should be setting an example, politicians.

We should of course be happy and full of hope. We have a new vaccine (that’s providing it still works on the mutated virus) and normality is around the corner, give or take a few months and a half decent vaccination strategy (that’s us done for).  A vaccine that was found in an extraordinary time period.  I wonder why a vaccine for Ebola wasn’t found so quickly?  I agree with my colleague @paulaabowles when she says we all must do better but more importantly I think its about time we held government to account, they really must do better.  After the second world war this country saw the birth of the NHS and the welfare state. What we need now is a return to the fundamental values that prompted the birth of those provisions. There are so many pressing needs and we really mustn’t allow them to be forgotten.  A strategy to tackle poverty might just ameliorate a raft of other ills in our society and the cost of tackling it might easily be mitigated by a reduction in demand in the NHS and many other public services.  I can but dream, but my reality envisages a nightmare world driven by finance, political imperatives and a lack of strategy.

Covid -19: An opportunity too good to miss

“Wild Turkey strut” by stevevoght is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

And so, vast swathes of the country have gone into a new lock down (tier 4). We all must have known in hearts that this was coming and those of us that are not in tier 4 will be wondering just when the new lock down will hit us. We can all moan about our ruined Christmas and feel bitterly disappointed about not seeing relatives and friends.  We can blame Boris for this monumental cock up, but we have to face facts, Covid -19 is here and something has to be done to stop the spread of the disease.

I, like so many, am upset that I will not be able to see my family in person this Christmas but over the last few days I began to wonder just how much of a hardship that is.  There was a man on the news the other day that was moaning about the Christmas restrictions, he and his wife had a 15 lb turkey that was now going to waste.  My first thought was, so you’d rather catch Covid you *^&$£” **.  But this morning I thought, aren’t you lucky to have a 15lb turkey and, as my wife and I discussed whether we will be having a roast on Christmas day and the Sunday after, I thought aren’t I lucky too. There are two things that strike me, I’m able to have what food I want on Christmas day and I’m saving a bloody fortune not having to have all the family round or take them out for Christmas dinner and drinks.  The pandemic has some upsides.

But, this is the crux of the matter, how can I sit down to my Christmas lunch knowing that I have money I would have spent sitting in the bank when there are people out there who will be wondering right now, not about the massive turkey, or the family not coming round, or whether to have chicken on Christmas day and Sunday but, whether they can feed themselves and their family tomorrow, let alone Christmas day.  We could of course blame Boris and his government (a very rational decision) but judging by Reece Mogg’s comments the other day, they have little interest.  We could just ignore it, don’t think about it, pretend all is well and on Christmas day raise a glass to our nearest and dearest and those that we are missing.  But as we must face facts that Covid – 19 is here, so must we face facts that people, real people, are starving in this country.  It shouldn’t be like that, but it is.

So my wife and I have decided that we will work out how much extra we would have spent this Christmas, by going out, by going to parties, by catering for family and we will spend that money on food and give it to a food bank. It won’t be very much in the greater scheme of things, but it will be something.  I’m not writing this blog to say how marvellous we are, far from it, but rather to challenge all of you to do the same.  Even a little extra in your shopping before Christmas is going to make a huge difference.  Let’s turn this Christmas into one we can remember for the right reasons and turn the Covid- 19 pandemic into an opportunity that we seized for the good.

Please see below for a list of local and national organisations helping families this Christmas and throughout the year:

AmplifiedNN Community Group
AmplifiedNN Festive Family Fundraiser

End Child Poverty

Fareshare

Northamptonshire Food Poverty Network

Restore: Northampton

The Trussell Trust

Reality and the fairy tale world of policy and procedures

https://pixabay.com/photos/once-upon-a-time-writer-author-719174/

In the concept of managerialism, we see that both policy and procedures form part of the techniques employed to enhance productivity and cultural changes. These changes use a ‘calculative and rationalistic knowledge base’ which appears both ‘universalistic’, and [at first sight] ‘seems entirely good sense’ (Gilling, 2014:82).

However, this knowledge base is far from universalistic and to the ‘street level bureaucrat’ (Lipsky, 1980) often falls little short of complete naivety.  Lipsky (2010) provides a valuable insight into how individuals in public service adapt unworkable policies and procedures as the idealistic meets the reality of overstretched resources and ever demanding and needy consumers of services.

Whilst both working in and studying the police as an organisation subjected to and adopting managerialist policies, I witnessed the nonsensical notions of measuring activities and the subjugation of professionalism to management ideals (Hallam, 2009).  Perhaps, there could be no better example than the measurement of the length of time a call handler spent dealing with a call. This derived from the need to answer calls within a target time period. It all made sense until you begin to take into account reality – the lack of resources and the nature of calls which demanded that on some occasions operators ought to spend far longer on the phone to deal with more protracted matters, such as someone in crises who really needed help and a comforting voice whilst someone was on their way.  The result of the measurements was often counterproductive, officers being sent to incidents that amounted to little more than a waste of time, ‘My Jimmy is missing and I haven’t seen him for three days’ – when the officers turn up, Jimmy turns out to be a cat or, officers being sent to locations where information regarding the incident is scant because little time has been spent on the phone to get sufficient details.  In the clinical world of the policy maker, there are ideal call takers, those that have knowledge about every eventuality, and ideal call makers, those that are precise, unemotional and to the point.  Nothing of course could be further from reality.

Disappointingly, I find little solace in academia.  Policy and procedures abound. Teaching styles are based, not on the nuances of student types but on the ideal student.  The student that has the requisite skills to read and write and think critically. The student that is always engaged and always turns up and above all else, teaching is based on idealistic (see Morse and Lewis for tutorial sizes) small student classes.  Policies that are well meaning such as catering for additional needs, become unworkable in an environment where class sizes and teaching demands outstrip available resources.  Like the call handler, for the lecturer, it becomes impossible to cater for those that need more attention and time. And like the call handler, lecturers are subjected to managerialist idealistic measurements of success and failure.  I once heard of a manager that referred to academics as ‘slackademics’, I think is probably just an indication of how far removed from reality managers are. There are two worlds in organisations that provide a service to the public, one is based on reality the other, a fairy tale world of policies and procedures based on the ideal.

References

Gilling, D. (2014) Reforming police governance in England and Wales: managerialisation and the politics of organisational regime Change, Policing and Society, 24 (1): 81-101.

Lipsky, M. (2010) Street-Level Bureaucracy: Dilemmas of the Individual in Public Services. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Misfortune and the Blame Game

Photo by Danita Delimont available at https://dissolve.com/stock-photo/Thousands-king-penguins-are-packed-together-second-royalty-free-image/101-D256-26-913

It seems to be a peculiar past-time in this country to moan and find fault with everything and blame anyone but ourselves for our mishaps and misfortune. 

I was watching a television programme last night about Britain’s bizarre weather conditions in 2020 and what struck me, actually you could have slapped me round the face with a wet kipper, was the behaviour of people in the heatwave of April 2020.  An extraordinary heatwave saw people flocking to parks and to the beach.  Some scenes looked more akin to those pictures we see of seals or penguins on a remote island where there isn’t an inch to move without stumbling over the next incumbent, all staking their claim to a little parcel of land on which they can sunbathe or nest.  ‘Weren’t we supposed to be social distancing and in lockdown’? Of course, we blame the government for lockdown 2 and the tier system.  How unfair it is that we can’t see our loved ones, oh the mental anguish when we miss school, or have to learn online or get made redundant or our business goes belly up.  But flock to the seaside we must, go to the park and mingle is a necessity, rush to the pub and drink and make merry, have parties and raves and forget about social distancing and that awful thing that the government keeps wittering on about.  Let’s blame the police for dishing out fines, its so unfair and let’s even blame the hospitals, that’s where my loved one caught Corona virus.  Yes, the government were to blame for suggesting that we should ‘eat out to help out’, but did we really think it was suddenly fine to plunder food from every outlet that provided a cut-price meal? Like lemmings, people rushed to pack out restaurants and pubs in search of a culinary bargain and many got more than they bargained for. ‘Two for the price of one’ had a new meaning.

None of this of course is a new phenomenon; the virus might be, the behaviour is not.  We speed along the road and when caught by the police ask them if they haven’t got anything better to do than stop us.  We complain about the NHS but carry on drinking lots, eating rubbish and failing to exercise.  Our illness in the morning is due to the bad kebab, not the large amount of alcohol we consumed.  We moan about our rubbish grades, somehow expecting that the parties, the staying in bed all day, the failure to attend, the work commitments and all the other hubris will get us an A grade or at least a B.  It’s the way the lecturers teach, not our lack of commitment, that’s the problem here, ‘oh and I’m paying for this rubbish’.  In football, we blame the referee for not giving a foul or for giving a foul when we are convinced it wasn’t one and yet watch players carry on diving all over the place rolling around as if they’ve been scythed down by the grim reaper and then chewed up by Jaws before being magically revived by the miraculous sponge.  More at home with an Equity Card, players constantly seek to bamboozle the referee, it’s no wonder they sometimes get it wrong.  We moan about the stampede at the start of the shop sales, not that that’s been a problem this year, well not yet anyway, but we are part of the stampede, shoving and trampling over others to get to the much reduced bargain.  We lament the demise of the high street, watching the tumbleweed blow past as we scuttle away to our laptops, pads and phones to do a bit more online shopping only rushing out in droves (social distancing ignored) to take advantage of the demise of yet another retail outlet.

Whilst ministers are trying to hammer out a Brexit deal, posturing and moaning about the intransigence of the other side, they probably secretly hope that there will be no deal.  That way we can blame the Europeans and the Europeans can blame us. But are we not to blame for this monstrosity; we voted for it?  We live in a democracy and are rightly proud of it and yet Trump like we are quick to point out that we personally didn’t vote for that bit that we don’t like, and the vote was probably rigged anyway.  Having realised our error, we still voted in the government that said it would get it done and we didn’t care about the price.  Let’s hope that a return to the troubles in Ireland doesn’t become a reality, but if it does, it’ll no doubt be the fault of the Irish. Our sense of history only stretches back to when we saved the world from the Nazis.

We need to look to ourselves and our own action and behaviour before we start blaming everyone and everything around us.  Yes, misfortune does fall on some of us and sometimes it isn’t our fault but like it or not, many of the problems are caused by us and we compound the problems by blaming others.  If we fail to grip the notion that we have responsibility, then history will judge us as a nation that moaned about everything and did nothing but cause calamitous problems for ourselves and the rest of the world.

Intolerance, frustration and stupidity

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-6883579/

‘Stupid is, as stupid does’ a phrase that many people will recall from that brilliant film Forrest Gump, although as I understand the phrase was originally coined in the 19th century. I will return to the phrase a little later but my starting point for this blog is my colleague @jesjames50’s self-declared blog rant and an ensuing WhatsApp (other media are available) conversation resulting in a declaration that ‘maybe we are becoming less tolerant’.

So, I ask myself this, what do we mean by tolerant or intolerant and more importantly what behaviours should we tolerate?  To some extent my thoughts were driven by two excellent papers (Thomson, 1971, 1985) set as reading for assessment questions for our first-year criminology students. The papers describe ethical dilemmas and take us through a moral maze where the answers, which are so seemingly obvious, are inevitably not so. 

As a starting point I would like you to imagine that you frequent a public house in the countryside at weekends (I know that its not possible at the moment, but remember that sense of normality). You frequently witness another regular John drinking two to three pints of beer and then leave, getting into his car and driving home. John does not think he is incapable of driving home safely.  John may or may not be over the proscribed limit (drink driving), but probably is. Would you be able to make some excuse for him, would you tolerate the behaviour?

Let us imagine that John had a lot to drink on one night and being sensible had a friend drive him and his car home. The next morning, he wakes up and drives to work and is over the proscribed limit, but thinks he’s fine to drive. Would you be able to make some excuse for him, would you tolerate the behaviour?

Of course, the behaviour becomes absolutely intolerable if he has a collision and kills someone, I think we would all agree on that.  Or even if he simply injures someone, I think we would say we cannot tolerate this behaviour.  Of course, our intolerance becomes even greater if we know or are in somehow related to the person killed or injured.  Were we to know that John was on the road and we or someone we know was also driving on the same road, would we not be fearful of the consequences of John’s actions? The chances of us coming across John are probably quite slim but nonetheless, the question still applies. Would we tolerate what he is doing and continue with our own journey regardless?

Now imagine that John’s wife Jane is driving a car (might as well keep the problems in one family) and Jane through a moment of inattention, speeds in a residential street and knocks over a child, killing them.  Can we make excuses for Jane?  How tolerant would you be if the child were related to you? Inattention, we’ve all been there, how many times have you driven along a road, suddenly aware of your speed but unsure as to what the speed limit is?  How often have you driven that all familiar journey and at its end you are unable to recall the journey?

The law of course is very clear in both the case of John and Jane. Driving whilst over the proscribed limit is a serious offence and will lead to a ban from driving, penalty points and a fine or even imprisonment. Death by dangerous driving through drink or drugs will lead to a prison sentence. Driving without due care and attention will lead to a fine and penalty points, death by careless driving is likely to result in a prison sentence.

So I ask this, what is the difference between the above and people’s behaviours during the Covid-19 pandemic?

Just to be clear, contracting Covid-19 may or may not kill you, of course we know the risk factors go up dependant on age, ethnicity and general health but even the youngest, healthiest have been killed by this virus. Covid-19 can cause complications, known as long Covid.  Only now are we starting to see its long-term impact on both young and old people alike.  

Now imagine that Michael has been out to the pub the night before and through social contact has contracted Covid but is unaware that he has the disease.  Is it acceptable him to ignore the rules in the morning on social distancing or the wearing of a mask?  What is the difference between him and John driving to work.  What makes this behaviour more acceptable than John’s?

Imagine Bethany has symptoms but thinks that she may or may not have Covid or maybe just a cold.  Should you tolerate her going to work? What if she says she must work to feed her family, can John not use the same excuse? If John’s behaviour is intolerable why should we tolerate this?

If people forget to move out of the way or get too close, what makes this behaviour any different to Jane’s?  Of course, we see the immediate impact of Jane’s inattention whereas the actions of our pedestrians on the street or in a supermarket are unseen except by those close to the person that dies resultant of the inattention.  Should we tolerate this behaviour?

To my colleagues that debated whether they have become less tolerant I say, no you have not. There are behaviours that are acceptable and those that are not, just because this is a new phenomenon does not negate the need for people to adhere to what are acceptable behaviours to protect others.

To those of you that have thought it was a good idea to go to a party or a pub before lockdown or do not think the rules need apply to you. You are worse than John and Jane combined.  It is akin to getting drunk, jumping in your cars and racing the wrong way down a busy motorway. ‘Stupid is as stupid does’ and oh boy, some people really are stupid.

References

Thomson, Judith Jarvis, (1971), ‘A Defense of Abortion,’ Philosophy & Public Affairs, 1, 1: 47-66

Thomson, Judith Jarvis, (1985), ‘The Trolley Problem,’ The Yale Law Journal, 94, 6 : 1395-1415,

The power of the written word: fact, fiction and reality

“‘LONG LIVE FREEDOM OF SPEECH'” by Newtown grafitti is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The written word is so powerful, crucial to our understanding and yet so easily abused.  So often what gets written is unregulated, even when written in the newspapers.  Whilst the press is supposedly regulated independently, we have to question how much regulation actually occurs. Freedom of the press is extremely important, so is free speech but I do wonder where we draw the line. Is freedom of speech more important than regulating damaging vitriolic hyperbole and rhetoric? Is freedom of speech more important than truth?

We only have to read some of the sensationalist headlines in some newspapers to realise that the truth is less important than the story.  What we read in papers is about what sells not about reality. The stories probably tell us more about the writer and the editor than anything else. We more often than not know nothing about the circumstances or individuals that are being written about. Stories are told from the viewpoint of others that purport to be there, or are an ‘expert’ in a particular field. The stories are just that, stories, they may represent one person’s reality but not another’s. Juicy parts are highlighted, the dull and boring downplayed.  Whilst this can be aimed at newspapers, can the same not be said about other forms of media?

A few weeks ago, I was paging through LinkedIn on my phone catching up with the updates I had missed. Why I have LinkedIn I don’t really know.  I think its because a long time ago when I was about to go job hunting someone told me it was a good idea. Anyway, I digress, what caught my eye was a number of people congratulating Rachel Swann on becoming the next Chief Constable of Derbyshire.  I recognised her from the news, remember the story when the dam was about to burst?

It wasn’t the fact that she’d been promoted that caught my eye, it was the fact that someone had written that she should ignore the trolls on Twitter. I had a quick look to see what they were on about. To say they were vitriolic is an understatement. But all of the comments based her ability to do the job on her looks and her sexuality.  I thought to myself at the time, how do you get away with this? I doubt that any of those people that wrote those comments have any idea about her capabilities. Unkind, rude and I dare say hurtful comments, made that are totally unregulated. The comments say more about the writers than they do about Rachel Swann. You don’t get to the position of Assistant Chief Constable let alone Chief Constable without having displayed extraordinary qualities.

And then I think about Twitter and the nonsense that people are allowed to write on this medium. President Trump is a prime example.  There isn’t a day that goes by without him writing some vitriolic nonsense about someone or some nation.  Barack Obama used to be in his sights and now it’s Joe Biden. I know nothing about any of them, but if I follow the Trump twit feed, they are incompetent fools and disaster looms if Biden is elected as president.  As I said before, sometimes what is written says more about the writer than anyone else.

I’m conscious that I’m writing this for a blog and many that read it don’t know me.  Blogs are no different to other media outlets.  If I am to criticise others for what they have written, then I ought to be careful about what I write and how.  I have strong views and passionately believe in free speech, but I do not believe that the privilege I have been given allows me to be hurtful to others. My views are my views and sometimes I think readers get a little glimpse of the real me, the chances are they have a better idea about me than what I am writing about.  I write with a purpose and often from the heart, but I try not to be unkind nor stretch the truth or tell outright lies. I value my credibility and if I believe that people know more about me than the story, I owe it to myself to try to be true to my values. I just wish sometimes that when people write for the newspapers, post comments on Twitter or write blogs that they thought about what they are writing and indulged in a bit of self-reflection. Maybe they don’t because they wont like what they see.

A grand day out

https://letterboxd.com/film/a-grand-day-out/

Have you noticed how the news is reported these days in respect of Covid-19? Gone are the individualised and personalised stories of the casualties of this awful virus. Gone are the stories of individual and collective heroism of ordinary, actually extraordinary, people.  Gone is the mention of the R rate and the discussion around it. Gone are those pictures of the people that died.  No longer the headline, Covid- 19 is reduced to the middle order and consists predominately of the number of cases and the number of deaths. We watch these figures rise on a daily basis and we hear discussion about local lockdowns and areas with high incidents. We hear confusing stories about lockdown and then no lock down and then lockdown or is it partial lockdown and where exactly does it apply? We hear about areas that have high incidents where no action is being taken, well not yet anyway. And companies that remain open despite outbreaks only to be forced to close, let’s be honest, because of media scrutiny. We hear more from Nicola Sturgeon the first minister of Scotland than we do from our own prime minister.

We are sucked into a world of tourism, safe corridors and safe countries, lists and the plight of the aviation industry. We hear tourists moaning about self-isolation (I constantly scream at the tv you made that choice you ****). We are sucked into the debacle around schools and qualifications and returning to school. And we are told by Boris that we should all go back to work, back to the office. We hear of tourists returning on flights having contracted Covid-19 and passengers not wearing masks on flights. At the same time, we are told by bosses in the aviation industry that the industry is doomed unless something is done about it, this self-isolation malarkey really isn’t good for business. Once again, I shout at the tv (I don’t suppose you’ll be getting on one of those cattle trucks in a hurry you ***). Do I sound angry, I guess I am?

When the virus first struck, whenever that was, we all probably didn’t take it that seriously, serious but you know, not that serious. Then there was the lockdown, now that was serious, and it hit home how serious it was. Then we watched the tv and that reinforced how serious it was and if you weren’t a little concerned for yourself, your friends and your loved ones then you really weren’t in touch with reality. And then the economic costs started to rack up and that became really serious. And then, the government decided that since the NHS hadn’t been overwhelmed it was now permissible to open things up. And then, the government decided that it would pass the responsibility for the management of Covid to local authorities. And somewhere along the line, the responsibility for ensuring my safety, and yours became that of business. As long as businesses could assure us that they were Covid safe then we could go back to work and go shopping and eat out. In fact, you could eat out for 50% less in some places aided by a government scheme. A scheme to get businesses back on their feet which of course involved packing people in. Just how Covid secure are these places, well you take your chance, but you can feel assured.

I decided to venture out with my wife to get ourselves a new mattress.  The old one has had its day, we meet in the middle of the bed every night, whether we want to or not, the only solution, to try to sleep as close to the edge as you can and if possible somehow cling on. Time for a new mattress.  I’m not sure about these new-fangled mattresses (you know, the ones that come in a box and then pop out never to be returned to the box) and so rather than shopping on line we went to a store.  We entered the store, masked up as is required, to be greeted by an assistant who pointed to the hand sanitiser. “oh, that bottle doesn’t work”, she says, “try the other but you’ll have to hit it quite hard”. Oh well, at least she’s wearing a face shield and I notice the other assistants are doing the same, except that theirs are up, a bit like a visor really, as they hang about talking to each other. One saunters over to us and after a brief conversation leaves us to look at and try the mattresses. Now that sounds alright doesn’t it, except that not only was his face shield not down, he’d taken it off altogether and thrown it onto the bed. We kept our distance.  So, the markings on the floor suggesting 2 metre distance and the hand sanitiser at the entrance and the issue of face shields to staff are all Covid compliant but in operation, not really. Still we had a grand day out and felt quite assured.

As we hear the clamour to get schools back up and running, we hear about the plight of the school children and as a consequence, the voices and concerns of the teachers are drowned out.  As we hear the concerns of lecturers from their union, the lecturers themselves and even the medical profession, their voices are drowned out.  The only thing that seems to matter now is the economy and business. Those that run it are not on the coal face and will not be putting themselves at risk, but they tell us how we must all do our bit and return to work.  If you wonder how getting children back to school fits in, well parents caring for children at home are not in the office working.

I selected some passages from the government guidelines regarding Covid 19.

“The more people you have interactions with, the more chance the virus has to spread. Therefore, try to limit the number of people you see – especially over short periods of time”


“limit the number of different activities which you partake in succession to reduce the potential chain of transmission”


“group size should be limited to the minimum which allows the activity to take place”

Now isn’t that confusing. We must all get back to work and back to the offices and, yet the government’s own guidelines seem to suggest this should not happen unless absolutely necessary. How exactly does this fit with teaching and class sizes and the number of students that teachers interact with? The same applies to lecturers at university, of course they have the added problem that the students will have come from all over the country and then come together in a Covid -19 cauldron. Pack them all in but you can feel assured that schools and campuses are Covid safe (a bit like those planes returning from foreign climes).

I feel like I am in a socio-economic experiment. An experiment where I see the disadvantaged and weak in our society put at risk for the sake of business. Where the older generation are made to feel dispensable and unimportant.  Where figures are manipulated to downplay the seriousness of the problem. Die on day 29 after infection and you won’t be included in the Covid statistics.  I see an experiment where facts are bent, ignored, and a narrative that subjugates the truth to management and business ideals.  It looks like I’m going to be shouting at the tv for a very long time and I must be honest I really don’t feel very assured.

https://twitter.com/JeffOllerton/status/1301492068125224962/photo/1

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