Freedom of speech, anti-abortion protestors and women: rights and limits

On Tuesday 11 September, I’m taking part in a debate organised by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service on “freedom of speech, anti-abortion protestors and women: rights and limits“. The event is chaired by David Allen Green and the other participants are Ann Furedi of BPAS, Max Wind-Cowie of Demos and Andrea Minichiello Williams of Christian Concern and the Christian Legal Centre.

I’m hoping for a thoughtful and mutually helpful discussion between pro-choice and pro-life positions on how we can reconcile an essential conflict between two rights: the right of women to privacy in their medical care, and the right to freedom of speech for those who oppose abortion. Each speaker will make their opening remarks, followed by questions from the floor.

Attendance is free. For more details and to register, please visit the BPAS website – and if you can make it, I look forward to seeing you there.

Why I am a feminist

Last weekend, I took part in my first ever feminist direct action when I attended the counter-protest to the SPUC anti-abortion vigil in Bath. If you’d asked me whether I was a feminist ten years ago, you’d probably have got very strange and hesitant answer out of me: I wasn’t anti-feminist, but I wasn’t sure that I was one, either. In my early 20s, my main contact with feminism as a political movement came through university, where I was studying English literature. Continue reading

A shrug of complaint

In 2002, I joined a Stop The War march in Sheffield. I didn’t enjoy my time as a protestor very much: I was a pushing a buggy, my baby started crying, there was some chanting, we shuffled around the city centre perimeter, and then I peeled off glumly to finish my shopping, feeling slightly embarrassed.

It wasn’t a moving moment of communal resistance. It was a tired shrug of complaint directed at some ministers who weren’t even looking. It rained a bit, and later on there was a war because there was always going to be a war anyway. So that was a good use of an afternoon.

It’s the Iraq war that feels like the biggest disgrace and disappointment of the Labour government. I hate the PFIs, and the patronising and ignorant populism, and the student fees, and the ruinous way that business and banking interests were whored to. Those things have all been depressing and awful and deceitfully introduced, obviously, but they mostly haven’t involved actually killing people on purpose. It doesn’t matter when the Labour party shunts out Brown, or who ultimately replaces him: I don’t want to vote for them until they’ve purged every person who ushered that bloody war through parliament.

That doesn’t matter very much where I live, because it’s a solidly Lib Dem area with an MP I won’t hate myself for electing. But you can’t build hopes and dreams on the Lib Dems. They’re political stodge: acceptable and wholesome enough, but a bit depressing when you’re looking at a whole plateful. Better, though, than the Tories – whose prospective government promises to continue everything grim about the current one while unapologetically rewarding the rich for being, um, rich. So I want the Tories to lose, Labour don’t deserve to win, and the Lib Dems fill me with limb-deadening ennui. Election 2010 will be an early night for me, I guess.

© Sarah Ditum, 2010

Jack you off

“Should the NHS allow gipsies to jump the queue?” asked the Mail on its website, with little yes and no buttons below ready to receive your vote. It’s not just the bizarro spelling of gypsy that feels wrong: the question is bristling with the assumption that “gipsies” are indeed allowed to “jump the queue”. It could have been designed to elicit outrage and loathing, especially when you take it in conjunction with the picture they kindly supplied to illustrate the concept of “queue jumping ‘gipsy'”.

Now, if you’d been primed by prolonged exposure to similar scare stories, then your immediate response might be to leap, mouse-finger twitching, to the defence of “your NHS” and click a resounding “no”.

On the other hand, if you’d been primed by prolonged exposure to similar scare stories, your immediate response might be to realise that whoever phrased the question is out to play you and leap, mouse-finger twitching, to the defence of neutral survey phrasing and click a resounding “yes”. Word about the poll spread through Twitter, and concerned psychologist Sam Hutton pushed an email campaign: the poll was tracking at 90% plus in favour of queue-jumping gypsies before the Mail pulled it.

But, suggested usually-brilliant Pete Robinson, maybe everyone was being a bit stupid:

Popjustice status 1

Polljacking can look pretty petty. But then, online polls are pretty petty: lonely questions drifting on the internet, asked for editorial rather than information. The Mail’s gypsy question was phrased with a “right” answer heavily implicit in the question, inviting readers to enter a self-propogating loop of outrage and excluding any response that veered more to nuance and less to racism. It’s certainly a bit uncomfortable to take a poll which has already been rigged by selecting an especially vindictive question, and accusing people of rigging it by, um, voting on it.

In the end, the Mail has been deprived of the opportunity to cull a chubby little percentage from a biased poll in support of a biased editorial line. (They can’t go to press with the claim that such-and-such a proportion of readers back this campaign, at least.) Maybe a few Mail readers clocked a bar chart trending way off their expectations and reflected, briefly, on whether everything was alright with the question being asked. Fleetingly, a few people might have felt a little tremble in their solid sense of being the silent majority.

It’s nice to have helped ruin a specious imitation of democracy like the Mail’s poll. It would be nicer still if concerned psychologists and distressed liberals could form some kind of polljacking alliance to shake down every one of them that goes up.