1. Defend Jawad, Max and Steve: Ongoing suspensions of trades unionists at London Met

    Just a brief post to highlight what is happening currently at London Met University. On the 7th Feb the UNISON branch chair, Max Watson, and the union-supported and newly-elected staff governor, Jawad Botmeh, were suspended from their jobs. This appears to centre around Jawad Botmeh having a criminal conviction.

    The criminal conviction was declared fully at the time of his appointment. It has been highlighted that no policy relating to the employment of people with convictions was made to those appointing to him by HR at the time of his employment, and HR have also had access to records showing this conviction for the five years since he was employed. Jawad is viewed as a hard working colleague by those who work with him. He had contested the conviction, and Amnesty International , UNISON’s National Delegate Conference and MPs (including Jeremy Corbyn) who signed an early-day motion all take the position that he is innocent.

    The suspensions have happened against a background of threatened derecognition of UNISON by the VC. Max Watson describes the disciplinary process as follows:

     'On Thursday last week a “Kangaroo court” summoned me to a hearing that lasted 30 minutes. I had no time to prepare and I had no indication what it was concerning'.

     ’This is not about me or Jawad, in the end. It is about our right, as workers, to organise in the workplace and to elect our own reps. It’s about justice and solidarity for those who put their head above the parapet. It’s about every one of us standing should to shoulder in defence of our jobs and in defence of our right to organise.’

    A third trades unionist, Steve Jeffreys, who oversaw Jawad’s appointment, has now been suspended. He makes the following statement:

     

    "Dear Trade Union Friends,
    I’m writing to let you know that I was suspended on Wednesday by Londonmet after a 45 minute investigation into the WLRI because I appointed a former prisoner who had served 13 years imprisonment to a part-time, casual three month maternity cover job in our social justice Institute.
    Did I know that his conviction in 1996 was for conspiracy to blow up the Israeli embassy? Yes. I also knew that he had been refused parole for 6 years because he maintained his innocence, and that Paul Foot and Robert Fisk had campaigned for him. And I saw his CV which included his having completed an OU degree in sociology and an MA in Peace and Reconciliation (with merit), as well has having been prisoners’ rep on equality issues.
    But actually, although this all made him an ideal person to work with us, I felt there was also a basic human rights issues involved. Do we give people a second chance?”

     

    This is another worrying case of what appears to be abuse of disciplinary procedure to target known activists within an educational institution, and I would encourage people to do everything they can to support London Met Unison and UCU branches and the suspended three. You can get to the campaign page here:

    http://www.londonmetunison.org.uk/campaigns/suspension-of-jawad-botmeh-and-max-watson-stop-the-witch-hunt/

    and the campaign blog here: http://goo.gl/FFyiI

    You can also sign a petition here: http://goo.gl/XceXs

    London Met UNISON ask that supporters can help in the following way:

    • Attend the Lobbies (watch this space for news and updates)
    • Send the Vice Chancellor and HR an email using our template
    • Join the Facebook group
    • Submit the model motion to union branches to Defend Jawad and Max (amend to add Steve Jefferys)
    • Send messages of support and solidarity to unison@londonmet.ac.uk : encourage friends, colleagues in other institutions and your community to do the same
    • Donations to support our campaigning – cheques to ‘UNISON London Metropolitan University’ gratefully received,
      Chris Manna, UNISON Treasurer, Room TM 189, London Metropolitan University, 166-220, Holloway rd. N7 8DB
     
  2. Ian Parker resigns from MMU in ongoing purge of free thought in education

    I was sad but not surprised to learn of the resignation of Professor Ian Parker from MMU in an ongoing climate of witch hunts against political activists within educational institutions.

    When I did my degree in the late 90s/early 00s Ian Parker’s ideas had a huge influence on me in terms of how my thinking about Psychology developed. He was a real force for change in Psychology, encouraging the reader to critically unpack the relationship between cultural hegemony and scientific “truth”. He was part of a wave of critical theorists within Psychology who pointed to the inevitable confounding variable of power in the traditional laboratories of knowledge production, developing practice for the use of discourse analysis and critical self-awareness within the field.

    Last Autumn Ian Parker was suspended from his post at MMU, with the university alleging gross professional misconduct. The allegations appear to surround e-mails sent by Ian Parker to colleagues in which he questioned the actions of management in terms of workload and appointment procedures. He was a departmental union rep for UCU. Following a disciplinary hearing he was allowed to return to work in December, but he is now apparently at the point where his position is unworkable, and has resigned, stating:

    "The University was making me sick. It was time to get out. My professional work as an academic has been undermined to the point where there is now nothing left to return to in the psychology department. Not only have my conditions of work changed, but the research base I helped to build in the last 27 years at MMU has very rapidly been dismantled.

    What this represents is an indicator of the absolute crisis being brought about in the education system by the conflict between the corporate model being politically imposed under the guise of sustainability, and the universal necessity of freedom of thought and expression for education to be functional.

    In Primary and Secondary schools, academisation is being aggressively pursued, and this will lead to a huge weakening of the checks and balances against internal poor management decision making. With unions castrated by the inevitable changes in conditions and management “freed” from the structure of national governance, there will be little in place to protect students from the inevitably market-led downgrading of provision. The word “freedom” is used a lot in privatisation, but what it refers to is freedom for the powerful few from multiple accountability. In FE the consequences of long term incorporation mean the power of senior management is ever on the rise against increasingly weakened unions, with teaching staff now seemingly sackable at will in relation to student outcomes, with no robust protection for students from drops in standards of provision as a result of the increasingly lean climate of cuts. Our Universities are seeking out injunctions against student displays of protest, and it is the norm for the future of academic departments to rest on market value in terms of research production.

    The encroachment of corporate culture within the education system is happening at every level, with disastrous consequences. It may be mainly Marxists who are specifically being targeted at the moment, but the writing is on the wall for the principles of liberalism and free thought in education if it is allowed to continue. We need a mass movement of students and educators across all levels beyond the scale of anything seen previously if this attack is to be effectively resisted.


     
  3. Depression - blog for depression awareness week

    It was brought to my attention yesterday that this is depression awareness week, so as it is something that has featured a lot in my life personally and professionally I thought I would write about it.

    Depression became a big part of my life in my mid teens, when my dad had a breakdown. It pretty much turned my world upside down, and while a lot of what i experienced was to do with worrying about what I could see happening to people I loved, I also had to deal with a lot of stuff relating to social attitudes. Not anything anyone said to me - I don’t think we ever received anything but kindness or support from people around us, who were mainly family members and their church friends - or implied, but my own issues in feeling uncomfortable about talking to anyone about what was going on, anger at what I imagined people thought based on how depression tends to be viewed. I don’t think I talked to any of my friends about it much if at all at the time. I felt like he was being swallowed up in his own sense of failure.

    When I met Ian, my partner, he was being treated for depression (at the age of 19), though fortunately this has not been a long lasting issue. Since then at least four of my closest friends have gone or are going through some form or other of it, along with lots of people I know less well.

    There is no one cause of depression. I think the simplest and most accurate way to explain it is as a normal human experience (rather than a psychological disturbance as such, which is how it is clinically viewed), but one which can cause a lot of suffering for those who experience it. The stats for reported depression suggests that it is one of the most common mental illnesses:

    It is estimated that 5-10% of the population at any given time is suffering from identifiable depression needing psychiatric or psychosocial intervention. The life-time risk of developing depression is 10-20% in females and slightly less in males.” (WHO, 2004)

    Clearly with any sort of neurotic mental illness (a condition where people are still aware of reality) there are problems with report rates as a definite stat, because there are two issues which impact: firstly, the social stigma surrounding mental illness, and in particular the barriers to admitting an inability to cope. This may be the reason why the figure is slightly higher in women, who tend to seek medical help quicker and have less social pressure not to crack or show emotion. Additionally, there is probably a good deal of self-treatment, including relatively healthy activities such as exercising but also forays into other things such as alcoholism (or other addictions) or eating disorders.

    Depression is in part biological, in that people who are experiencing depression have chemical differences in the brain. It relates in part to levels of serotonin (a neurochemical which has a knock on effect on lots of other things chemically) activity in the brain, so is in that sense an invisible physical difference between those who experience it and those who do not, and like many other invisible physical differences tends to be misunderstood as a matter of choice (just not choosing to snap out of it). It is likely that people are to some extent genetically predisposed towards depression - born with a genetic combination which does not determine that they will become depressed but maybe makes their vulnerability greater in the right set of circumstances.

    Environmental stressors, including both issues in the home environment, personal relationships, work life etc, but also wider factors such as poverty and discrimination, all increase vulnerability to depression. Depression levels tend to go up at times of economic austerity (and have risen under the coalition). This may be in part down to increased personal failure and hopelessness - it has long been argued that depression is in part a behavioural response to repetitive failure and lack of control (Seligman’s learned helplessness theory) - in a time of high unemployment but may also relate to cuts to support services which could manage depression at a milder level.

    Anti-psychiatrists argue that the medicalised diagnosis of depression is a form of social control: that depression is a result of a failure of our social support systems and structure to provide opportunity and care, and that by diagnosing we point the finger inside the individual in deciding the cause rather than engaging with a wider look outwards at what is going wrong in our society. They also point to the massive international capitalist interests of psychiatric drug companies which do bear some investigation, though there isn’t space to do it here.

    Treatments for depression are controversial. Generally SSRIs (a drug which impacts on serotonin activity) are used these days but there is much debate over their effectiveness: they seem to be most effective for those with moderate to extreme depression, with placebos performing at the same level for mild depression and possible increased risk of suicide in teenagers and young adults. As with any psychiatric drug, there are issues surrounding control (by giving someone a drug you are taking away their involvement in their recovery, to some extent), dependency, side-effects etc. While traditionally depression has also been supported by psychotherapy with a humanistic element (person-centred counseling for example), in recent times Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), a shorter, cheaper therapy which involves a large body of work being undertaken by the client alone, is rising in popularity. Reviews of therapeutic effectiveness suggest that the most important factor in success is how skilled the therapist is rather than the therapy chosen.

    As with most mental illnesses, I think it is really important that we look at the extent to which those suffering feel obliged to take responsibility. The assumption is that mental illnesses are a matter of choice, and this causes real problems in terms of what people have to go through, It puts up barriers which prevent the same level of social support that someone with a clear physical illness can get (though even that is being eroded under the current climate of suspicion over “scrounging” being deliberately stirred by the government and media). Depression may not be visible to the naked human eye, but unless it has been experienced there is no way to really judge how much it distorts judgement and decisions or what it is like living inside it. Like many other social issues, I think one of the first things we should do is look at the extent to which our education system and society teaches children an empathic imagination: the ability to see the world from another’s point of view rather than a shallow process of uninformed judgement.




     
  4. Goodbye abstinence ed (for now)

    In the last hour the hated Dorries girls only abstinence sex education bill has been dropped for debate (for now). It wasn’t a serious contender for any kind of legislation but for many, the issue that educating girls only on the benefits of sexual abstinence was even being discussed at this level is deeply troubling.

    A lot of the bill rested on Dorries usual style of unfalsifiable anecdata. Sex education is not aimed at encouraging underage sex, and children and young people are of course given information about relationships - not enough about sexual violence in my opinion, though that’s a different matter - with not a banana in sight. 

    If we are going to look at this purely from the point of view of effectiveness, there is no strong evidence to suggest abstinence education leads to less teenage sex. What it is linked to is less informed teenage sex, higher rates of pregnancy, stds etc. Some have argued that abstinence education adds to the appeal for many teenagers by giving sex the edge of temptation rather than the more rational route of choice.

    Dorries wants to remove the pressure put on teenage girls to have sex. There are a few issues here - she is framing female sexuality as a passive response, something which is done to you, rather than something which you do. However, it is difficult to deny that whatever the pressures are relating to sex for young people (of any gender), girls are in this country socialised into viewing their sexual worth (erotic capital as it was described last year) as a big part of their identity and this has a knock on effect for self-esteem. I think for many teenage girls, the pressure of looking the part, to be desired, vastly over-eclipses the pressure to have sex itself. You only need to read the latest badly spelt twitter hashtag to find out that young people today love to shame a slut as much as anyone. It is probably fair to say that for young women there is quite a bit of conflicting information from all aspects of society, including the peer group, about whether they should be having sex or not. Abstinence education just adds to the mix - it doesn’t empower girls to make choices about their sexual activity, it just reinforces the tired old madonna/whore binary.

    I think that in her own way, Dorries is right to worry about the pressures faced by young people, and certainly right that for young women their induction into a sexualised adulthood can be a tough experience. However, this sexualised adulthood ready-prepared for them, these pressures, have got nothing to do with sitting in a musky science lab listening to Mr Jenkins talking about the dangers of chlamydia, and everything to do with the messages from that adult world. Which is what feminists look at, and if she is that worried, she should join us.

     
  5. Norway and an analysis of cultural racism

    Keep thinking about those aerial shots of that little wooded island, almost the same shape as a heart, and the reporter explaining that the sea was being searched as it was likely that the children were shot at as they tried to swim for safety.

    Much like any other big event these days, there is information overload. Thousands of different tweets, blogs, newspaper articles, television and radio, mainly all trying to respond in the way we all do when senseless acts of violence take place, by crafting some sort of sense from it, trying to decide what exactly the lesson is that we will assert “must be learnt”. We don’t seem to have got to the stage of a complex psychological examination of motives (although I have seen a statement that a deviance from morality was evident rather than mental health issues - the classic mad/bad debate ready to be examined again). So, while it is difficult to speculate with any certainty about the killer himself, it is still possible to look at the psychology and social realities of the wider world he inhabited and the world which reacted to his terrible acts.

    I have found myself following two main strands of thought. Firstly, wondering what the initial responses tell us about how post 9/11 the social media primes us to interpret these events, which is being explored at length in many interesting ways elsewhere. There was the shambolic initial coverage in which it was assumed it had to be the hand of Islamic fundamentalists (ironically) - an initial clarion call which is now only echoing in scattered far right conspiracy theories. It has been diluted, in places, to the claim that Anders Behring Breivik’s actions were actually somehow brought about by the state - he was a desperate man, driven to lashing out blindly by socialists who would not listen to his grave concerns about immigration. Tasteless thoughts to be springing up so freshly after the bloodshed of so many socialist young people but the speed reflects the digital age and the thoughts dominant strands of thinking in the current culture of the right wing press. Taken at a surface level, it is a startlingly liberal account of how terrorism evolves (liberal if you ignore the meta-politics) for writers who would not normally reflect on, for example, the role of Western aggression in the formation of Islamic terrorists. Of course, Norway is not a mirror image of the world of fundamentalist Islam - walking around your town seeing people of a different colour to you apparently living in comfort is hardly an equivalent formative experience to watching your whole village being bombed out of their homes, although on both sides a singular account (either that the West makes Islamic terrorists or that immigration makes far-right terrorists) would be simplistic.

    Secondly, I have been thinking about what (if at all) this does to illuminate the reality of the far right these days -again something which is being given a lot of consideration, although in a lot of places, at least in the mainstream press, this has been mainly in terms of whether or not there really is a secret international far-right organisation of “knights”. Hopefully it is sensible to discount the sleeper cell theory (as much as it has occasionally played on my mind, ridiculously, possibly as a consequence of the culture of fear, combined with a few surprisingly hateful comments I have experienced in the past year as a consequence of being more politically vocal - I suppose it has at least given me a taste of what life must be like for your more paranoid EDL member).

    There do seem to be a handful of more disturbed people in the far right posting things about heroism and/or conspiracy theories regarding a white muslim carrying out the violence and then framing the racists - and really, when you read what some of the extremists say it is terrifying, in part because we seem to live in a time where fascists have learnt all the rules in tastefully covering up rampant hatred, where you get website rationalisations of the very “secular” EDL juxtaposed seemingly without any ironic intent alongside photographs of young members consumed with animalistic rage roaring at the camera. What, I have found myself wondering, does this mean - is the country covered with hotspots of hidden brutal planning, where only the odd socially inept outcast leaks out the real beliefs (Griffin telling BNP members that it is necessary to campaign for voluntary repatriation to get public sympathy springs to mind)? Or is it the case that most of the far right are actually right wingers with a love of militant displays and deeply prejudiced beliefs but no real thirst for wide scale combat? Probably there are as many different interpretations of what the various far right groups stand for as there are members.

    So, while there were definitely international links with various far-right organisations, and certainly groups like the EDL will be pumping out statements of condolence to reflect the genuine horror of many members whilst playing down any hint of support in their lunatic fringes (exclamations about why anyone would think the EDL are involved when the children were white spring to mind), it would be naive to think that watered down versions of far right thinking are not everywhere. Times of international tension and economic crisis are inevitably catalysts for extremism. Racism has mutated to fit with the times, and seems to have become acceptable across swathes of polite society (if it ever wasn’t?) so long as it is linked to culture and religion without (generally) the biological claims of the past. Traditional racism still exists but these days there seems to be a widespread attitude where a baby of muslim heritage would be considered innocent and equal at birth, only to be corrupted by being raised in a culture of terrorism and fundamentalism. Traditionally the mainstream right have scooped up support by playing on prejudice and fears of this nature (along with scapegoating of various other social “threats” such as the unemployed and the unions) but there is really only so long tired rants about the excesses of Blair and Brown can be wheeled out before they become dated, and the credibility of the current government stands massively undermined by the News International scandal. Right wing working class tories have little interest in sustaining the elites they prop up, and I believe there is a genuine danger that the growing critique of the wealth of bankers and the super-rich combined with neo-liberal attacks on the welfare state may make voters look right to organisations which superficially oppose these whilst retaining the scapegoating element that allows a coherent self without complex re-examination of views in a world where the culture of individualism is stronger than ever and ego is supreme. These organisations almost certainly lack either the robust infrastructure or the intellectual horse-power to massively reorganise society, but this does not make them impotent and utterly discountable.

    The main issue is that there is no obvious solution. The media has been dominated for years by the right wing meaning beliefs about the self in opposition to the other are a normalised pattern of thinking for many, seemingly as organic to the individual as any other long held socialised belief. The new cultural racism is a part of this but it stretches much wider - since becoming more active post-Cameron I have found that in spite of being a very moderate thinker, speaking out about social issues involves crashing into walled up beliefs with little if any impact on anyone who wasn’t already listening. It doesn’t reflect everyone but in huge numbers of cases people don’t want to be challenged or ask questions, they want their beliefs to be available in a simple to understand tabloid form with just enough indignation to convince themselves that they are somehow challenging a status quo or rocking the very establishment they actually form the foundations for. Ironically, whilst the far right accuse education of being some sort of liberal power base where young minds are spoon-fed dirty socialist politics, the reality is that the (laudable) goal of mass achievement has led to a situation in which young people are actually being taught in very singular content-focused ways without the kind of wider understanding necessary for liberal thought to have chance to take root.

    I suppose it is inevitable that there are more questions than answers.