Tuesday, 20 July 2021

“Sprechen Sie doch Deutsch!”: The power of language

 It is a strange thing to come back to the place you used to call “home” and start entering conversations that were already happening way back when you left, but that have evolved (or not) in your absence. 

One such conversation I had with a friend sitting on a balcony last week when we were chewing the fat about how Germany is becoming more and more multicultural in a way that goes beyond the sort of immigration us Gen Xers experienced in the 70s and 80s. This is indisputably true following the influx of millions of refugees in 2015 and 2016. I cannot remember seeing that many non-white faces in public places when I lived here as a student. Which is encouraging. And yet, nothing much seems to have changed in terms of attitude of the “natives” of what is necessary to integrate old and new groups of German residents.


One attitude that still seems to prevail is about language. Talking to my friend she emphatically insisted that a condition of integration is that newcomers must learn to speak German. At least some of this attitude is borne from everyday frustration – she works in the medical arena and is at the sharp end of any barriers to communication when it comes to her patients. However, there seems to be some deeper issue there that speaks of power – specifically who has the power to determine which language is spoken in any given context.


Having lived in the UK for so long, this is a conversation that is not entirely unfamiliar. The British, too, have this expectation that everyone must speak English. Indeed, to this very day many British people do not just have this expectation in their own country but also in any other country they happen to visit. The joke that a “Brit abroad's” way of trying to be understood is to speak louder is as old as time and very much a reflection of reality, I fear. However, one thing that Britain did right for at least some of the time (much of this has changed in the last few years) is to acknowledge that there are in fact people speaking different languages living in the UK and that their needs should be catered for. In practice, this has meant that information published by public authorities or the NHS was often published in several languages including those of immigrant communities.


Nevertheless, most of that was an accommodation more than an actual acknowledgment of the fact that a country like the UK these days has more than one national language. And perish the thought that anyone should suggest such an official acknowledgement in today's super-sovereign, Rule Britannia, post-Brexit Britain. UK Twitter would probably collapse.

Similarly, my German friend, who is a good lefty liberal in almost all other ways, did not feel that her expectation was unreasonable. Of course, if you move to a different country, you should aim to learn the local language. And there is something seductive about that argument. Because it is an expectation that at least some of us also have of ourselves. If I, say, moved to Italy for retirement, the first thing I would do is, of course, a language course. But are all people, who insist that foreigners should speak the local language in their country, willing to return the favour when they themselves are the foreigners? The number of solely-English speaking retirees at the Spanish Costas suggests not. 


However, there is also a question even for those of us willing and able about where we put our efforts. Forget Italy! Which language would I aim to learn, if I moved, for example, to South Africa for retirement? The South African Constitution recognises 11 official languages: Sepedi (also known as Sesotho sa Leboa), Sesotho, Setswana, siSwati, Tshivenda, Xitsonga, Afrikaans, English, isiNdebele, isiXhosa and isiZulu. I already speak English, so would I actually bother to learn any of the others? And if so, which one would I choose?


The constitutional protection of these 11 languages is a direct reaction to the Apartheid regime, under which all of South Africa’s official languages were European – Dutch, English, Afrikaans. This was so, of course, because the Dutch and the British were the two main colonising groups that took control of parts of South Africa in 1652 and 1820 respectively before spending several decades fighting each other as well as the native population. So, if we all agree that those who move to another country should learn the local language, why did this not apply to those that colonised Southern Africa? Why was it indeed the native population that was expected to adapt instead? 


The answer surely is because language is an expression of power, in this case of white colonialist power in action, given how very few white South Africans, even today, speak any of the native languages. Which raises interesting questions about the current fear of Europe’s white population with regard to the languages recent immigrant arrivals brought with them. Is it “colonisation” we fear? How Jungian of us to project that kind of shadow…


It gets even more interesting, if I chose to retire in Namibia, which has a similarly checkered history of European "arrivals". While several Portuguese explorers stopped by the country’s West Coast in the 15th and 16thcentury, it was again the Dutch who took control of Walvis Bay in 1793. They were quickly ousted by British settlers in 1805, but neither of them took over much of the country, which is arid and largely consists of desert. It was left to the missionaries to advance real settlements, most prominently those from Britain as well as my own German ancestors who arrived in the country around 1840. The Germans became particularly interested in Namibia during the “Scramble for Africa” in the late 19th Century when seven Western European countries colonised most of Africa. Bismarck established “German South West Africa” as a colony in 1884 on land previously purchased by German merchant Alfred Lüderitz from the Nama chief Josef Frederiks II (which is an interesting observation of the power of language in itself, given that a local Nama chief was probably not born with a name like that. So the fact that it is that name that has survived and made it into a 2021 Wikipedia entry tells us something.


Although the German tenure of power in Namibia was short – neighbouring South Africa launched a military campaign and occupied the German colony in 1915 – the German settlers remained in several parts of Western Namibia, particularly in Lüderitz, Swakopmund and Walvis Bay. Which is where they still are today, more than 100 years later. And guess what language they all speak? That’s right: German! You walk into any shop in Swakopmund as a white person and the shop assistant will immediately speak to you in accent-free German. There are German-only clubs ("Vereine"), German dentists, German guesthouses and German schools specifically for the local German population. Nearly two hundred years after their ancestors first arrived in the country the greatgreatgreatgreatgreatgreatgrandchildren of those original German settlers - African children all of them in outlook and identity - will speak German as their native language. And what's wrong with that?


Particularly since most of them will also speak at least one second language. But which second language? Again, judging by my own (anecdotal) experience, there is a dominance of other European languages including, in particular, English and Afrikaans. As far as I could tell, not many “SouthWesterners”, as they are still known, speak one of the native Namibian languages well enough to hold a conversation: Oshiwambo, Khoekhoe, Hereo, Kwangali or any of the many Bantu or Khoisan languages that are spoken by a smaller percentage of the population. 

Indeed, even Namibia’s “national language” is English, despite the fact that less than 1% of the population speak it as their native language. This, too, was a political decision taken after independence from South African rule was finally achieved in 1990. It is now the language of government and administration.


Interestingly, though, while South Westerners, maybe understandably, insist on protecting their own heritage through the protection of the German language, the black population is often truly polyglot. The same is true for South Africa. Whenever I travel in that region and speak to people, I try to find out just how many languages everyone speaks. And it never ceases to amaze me that black South Africans or Namibians rarely speak less than four “tribal” languages on top of their own and at least one, often two, colonialist languages. So if I retired down there, which language, if any, would I learn? 

And if I refused to learn any, what would that say about me? Would it be fair for people to claim that I was reluctant to integrate? Would a local doctor treating me for an injury in the Caprivi Strip be justified in her frustration about being unable to communicate with me? Would it be ok if people looked at me funny if I speak German on a bus in Durban because “Why can’t people, who come to live here, just learn Zulu?” Of course not, and we all know why. Because language is power and which language you are allowed or expected to speak in any context determines precisely where on the global food chain you are located. 

So now I am in Germany. And because I still work in English and therefore still think in English, every now and then it happens that I address a shop assistant in a supermarket in English. Often I don’t even notice that it happens. And I do get funny looks sometimes. But mostly, people just assume that I am a tourist and either politely explain that they don’t speak English or, more often, they actually answer me in English. 


On the basis of my conversation with my friend, I imagine that their reaction would likely be different, if I inadvertently defaulted to Turkish, or to Russian, or to Polish or to Zulu. Which tells you all you need to know. So whose responsibility is it to make sure that we can communicate with each other? And what does our answer to this question say about power, about us? 

Thursday, 1 July 2021

Goodbye, and thanks for all the fish!

I moved to the UK for the first time in August 1993. I was fresh from law school in Germany, so fresh, in fact that I had interrupted my professional training ten months before I was due to take my “Second State Exam”, which was viewed through any lens an insane thing to do. My father never grew tired of telling me so. But a job had come up as a lecturer in German law at a UK university and if the people at the German Academic Exchange Services were crazy enough to appoint me, who was I to argue?  

I had always loved the UK – from watching UK TV programmes like “Upstairs, Downstairs” (“Das Haus am Eaton Place”) and “The Profilers” as a kid, to falling hook, line and sinker in love with London, when I visited it for the first time on a school trip at age 16. Like many a youthful obsession with a rather unstable partner, that one didn’t survive four years of “living together”, but my love for the UK remained. 


I loved - love - its crazy sense of humour, the ability of its people not to take themselves too seriously, the fact that you have to know someone quite well to address them by their surname, or that every talk or business meeting starts with a joke or an apology. 

I love that this is truly the only country in the world, where the Harry Potter books could have been written and I love that the audiobooks were read by a guy of Jewish heritage, who is nevertheless seen - in his own words - "as more British than Tweed".

In academia, I was bowled over by the autonomy I was given, even at a young age, to decide my own research agenda, that I was not expected to be beholden to a Professor, like I would have been in Germany, who would publish what I had written in their own name. That I was trusted to teach a bunch of undergraduates what I knew without anyone looking over my shoulder constantly.

 Of course, much of that has changed by now – there is almost no part in academia where it is still “1993” today – but I’m mentioning it to explain what lured me not just into coming here but staying here for all this time. I could have gone back to Germany several times, to pick up a “normal German life”. I would probably be a more well-placed, higher-ranked and better paid woman, if I had. But every time I tried - and there have been several attempts - I found that I had departed further and further from the way of life and mentality of my old country. I had gone native in the UK and I found it increasingly difficult to be German in Germany.

It's not you we want to get rid of

Having said that, I am not German. Through an accident of birth, I have the passport of another country that is now an EU member state but wasn’t when I first tried to cross the UK border. So when the border guard looked at me in my battered old Ford Estate that included all my worldly possessions and asked what my plans were for staying in the UK, and when I replied – proud as anything because this was my first grown-up job – that I was to be a University lecturer, he responded with, “Can I see your work permit, please, Miss”.


“Work permit”? What “work permit”? Nobody had told me I needed a “work permit”. I was in my mid-20s, I knew nothing about immigration control, and the German agency that sent me here knew nothing either, because Germany WAS an EU member state and they did not normally sponsor foreigners for these positions. In fact, I had had to get special dispensation from the German Foreign Office to be even allowed to go. So, nobody had prepared me for that moment at the border when my well-laid plans looked like they would dissolve before my very eyes.

As I could not provide the guard with a satisfactory answer, I was asked to step out of my car and was taken to a small, very grey room where a friendly middle-aged lady offered me a nice cup of tea. I waited for 2.5 hours until the original guard came back and explained that they had agreed to grant me 24 hours leave to remain in the country. During that time I would have to work something out with my employer that allowed to get me some form of documentation that proved my right to live and work here. Absent that documentation, I would have to return to Dover the next day, so that they could put me on a boat back home. And with that he walked me back to my car, opened the driver’s door for me and watched me get in. And as I was getting ready to leave, he gave me what - to him, I’m sure - sounded like an apology. 


“I’m really sorry for this, Miss. It’s not the likes of you we want to keep out. But we have to do our job”.


It is that “apology” that has haunted me and that has determined my entire behaviour as a UK resident since 1993. Because what I heard was not the apology, but the threat that was implicit in it for anyone that did not conform to the standard that the UK applied at the time for the people “it did not want to keep out”. I was not part of that other group because I was whiter, richer and better educated that those people. I had come to perform a highly qualified job for which another country had paid to train me. I was unlikely to become “a burden on the welfare system” anytime soon. Instead, I would probably pay into that system for a few years without taking anything out and then bugger off back “home”, where another country that had not received any of my tax and national insurance payments could deal with my health issues, periods of unemployment, and social care etc. Because that’s what “home” means, isn’t it? It’s the place where they have to take you in when the chips are down. And it was clear to me, in that moment at Dover immigration, that the UK had no intention of ever becoming my “home”.


So, I made provision for that. I got leave to remain in 2003 before I left the country for a one-year trip, even though I did not have to as a – by then – EU citizen, because I didn’t trust the bastards. I had been subjected to enough Kraut-bashing and anti-EU rhetoric by then to have lost any faith in the UK’s commitment to remaining inside the EU for good. 


And after I came back from that trip, I made sure never to leave the country for longer then the two year-period that would invalidate my leave to remain. I kept my name on the electoral roll for every moment of my life here. I hoarded council tax bills and tax statement and payslips and pensions statements and schlepped folders and folders full of them from place to place when I moved – all so that I could prove my entitlement to live here when the time would come that I needed them. And I was absolutely certain, at the very least since the financial crisis in 2007, that that time would come.

Brexit means Brexit

When the votes of the Brexit referendum were counted, Mrs Matron and I were holidaying in the US. That gave us a timezone advantage, meaning that we could actually watch the spectacle as it unfolded, although I do of course use the word “advantage” ironically here. To be honest, I was probably the least shocked by the result from anyone I knew. If anything, I was shocked by their shock. How could they not have noticed what had been happening in their country? 


We lived in Scotland by that time, and one of the reasons for that was that I had felt increasingly uncomfortable about living in the small village in the North West of England, where we had ended up buying a house. That village was two miles south of Burnley, which had come to infamy by electing a BNP councillor. And even though the neighbours remained friendly, I felt an overall change of sentiment in the air. Something had morphed from “it’s not the likes of you we want to get rid of” to “if we have to get rid of you to get rid of the others, then so be it”. 


We moved to Scotland, and all of that changed. Yes, it really is different up here and, no, I’m not imagining that. I’m also not looking at the country through rose-tinted glasses. It has it’s own issues and those issues will need to be named and addressed. But the reason why I am a fervent supporter of Scottish Independence is because that independence would allow me to feel safe again in a country that never felt like it would be just as happy, if I wasn't here. Or maybe feel safe for the first time since I moved to the UK.

When the results of the Brexit vote were confirmed, Mrs Matron was dumbstruck. She just had not been able to believe that her once rational fellow-country people would do something this stupid. There is a photo of us holding our feet into the cold water of the pond in Prospect Park in Brooklyn that day, and I remember us sitting there for hours, just being silent with nothing to say. And I know that the same was probably true for a lot of my academic, middle class “British chums”, most of whom actively apologized to me for what they had not even done when we got back to the UK.


But I refuse to see this vote and the absolutist stance with which the UK subsequently approached negotiations with the EU as merely a response to the existential fears of voters that used to make up the “Red Wall”. The three people I actually met, who admitted to me that they had voted Leave definitely do not fit that demographic.

They include a well-to-do octogenarian from Inverness, who sat next to me during a classical concert in the Usher Hall. He explained that he had done so because he felt that so many of the laws he did not agree with and that affected “normal people”, came from the EU. When I explained to him that many EU laws actually aimed at protecting individuals’ rights, that we would probably not have some of those laws, like consumer protection or workers’ rights, if it were not for the EU, and that the UK government was one of the most active movers and shakers in the European Council when it came to shaping those laws, he said, “Oh! I did not know that. They didn’t tell us about that”.


They include an administrator at Cambridge University, who I taught on our online degree, and who told me at our graduation celebration, knowing full well that I was an EU citizen, that she had voted for this because the EU was undemocratic and decisions needed to be made in Westminster (spoiler alert: where people like me don't get to vote on them). 


And they include the guy, whom I now call charitably “my wife’s brother-in-law”, an engineer with a University degree and a middle-manager salary, who angry claimed - on Christmas Day 2016, no less - that “not only stupid people voted for Brexit” and that he had done so because “we must have control”. 


It was late already when he did that, fortunately. Late enough that after an initial angry outburst by Mrs Matron and the subsequent embarrassed silence that settled over the room, I could check my watch and proclaim “Oh look! Is that the time? We should probably get back to our hotel” (and thank the heavens and my foresight as an introvert that made me persuade Mrs Matron to book a hotel rather than to stay with them in the three-bed house in a Tory-voting Yorkshire constituency). Maybe 
unsurprisingly, I let it be known that I "suffered from a migraine" the next morning. So I did not have to attend the Boxing Day breakfast and we made it back to Scotland without further incident.


That one was particularly painful, though, because it was so close to home. Because he and I had had countless discussions about this in the run up to the referendum, where I had explained to him in painstaking detail what this would mean for people like me. Because he knew that Mrs Matron and I had actually gotten married specifically because we were worried about what would happen if the referendum went the wrong way without us having any legal connection. Because he knew that we were considering leaving the country, if that happened. He voted Leave despite knowing all that, because he believed that I was making things up, blowing them out of proportion, subscribing to “Project Fear”. He voted Leave because he genuinely believed that for people like me “nothing would change”. He still believes that.


I have not spoken to him since that Christmas. I just can’t. Because we mostly only see each other on family occasions, and I know that I will absolutely eviscerate him the next time we meet, and I feel that this is not a fight to the death that should ruin a birthday party or an anniversary or another Christmas. So I have stayed away from all of those occasions for the last five years because he won’t. Because he does not think that he has done anything wrong. It isn’t talked about in the family, because I don’t talk about it. Because I have never made it clear to my in-laws that this is why I’m no longer visiting when I know that he is there too. That bit is on me. But even though they are Remainers and even though they know that I am finding it hard, they have also never made any attempt to raise the issue or to address it. Because I am the one with the problem, aren’t I? I could just bury the hatchet or have it out with him or ignore him.


Which sometimes makes me think, “why”? Why is it that those of us that bear the brunt of this futile, self-harming, xenophobic decision are the ones “with the problem”? And sometimes I wonder, if they would have reacted the same, if I was black and he had made a racist remark? Or Jewish and he was anti-semitic. Or a lesbian, and he was homophobic. Would he still be the one to get invited to all the celebrations regardless - to keep the peace, to not make a fuss - while it would be quietly tolerated that I would decide not to join them? Where is the line here?

There's no place like "home"

Today is the 1st of July 2021. The deadline for the EU Settlement Scheme ran out at midnight last night, so today is also the day when my new life of precarity in the UK starts. When I will hold on even tighter to all the various pieces of paper that prove my right to stay here. Because even though I finally gave in and applied (and was granted) settled status, I still don’t trust the system. Given all that has happened in the last five years, I trust it less than ever. 


And I am actively scared for my future. I am scared that a minor infraction of a UK law will get me deported, as may now be possible. I am scared that a future UK government, swayed by the mob of public opinion, will adopt laws that water down my rights further, its obligations in the Withdrawal Agreement be damned. They are already talking of breaking that agreement for all sorts of reasons now, what is to stop them doing things that affect my rights under it too?


I am scared because nearly all of my pensions provision is in this country, a country that views pensions not as a right but as a “benefit”which is paid at the discretion of HMG. Will I still be entitled to that pension, if I decide to leave the UK for good? Will they cap it at the amount that applies on the date of my retirement without any increases, as they already do for British people living outside the EU? Yes, for now I am protected from that by the WA, but see above.


I will probably never again be comfortable accessing any kind of state benefit in this country, notwithstanding the fact that I have paid national insurance here for nearly 30 years and never "taken out" more than the occasional visit to the GP. Because what history shows is that becoming a “benefit scrounger” is bad enough if you are a UK citizen, but if you are a foreigner, it can get you a ticket back “home”.


I am afraid of what this and future UK governments – unleashed from the restraints of EU law – will do to all of us. I am scared enough of the NHS being destroyed, or of health care being restricted or taken away from me specifically,  that I have made sure, for years now, to keep up my health insurance back in Germany at the cost of over €200 a month. And yes, I am aware of how lucky I am that I can afford to do that and I worry about others, who can’t and who might at some point now be faced with a US style health system that prefers seeing you die in the gutter to burdening your fellow citizens (“tax payers”) with the cost of your illness.


But...“Nothing will change”, my foot!


So, on this first day of July in the fifth year after the referendum, when the last of the protection EU citizens had in the UK have finally been removed, I am also just ten days away from leaving the UK – again - to try my luck back "home". Like all the other times I did this, it’s a trial right now. I’m going “home” to see, if I can still fit in there. If “home” can actually be home again. I’m not optimistic about it. It didn’t work the other times because it always came back to the same thing: that my life, my friends, my work are here and that after thirty years you can’t just “pivot on a Pound coin” and leave all of that behind and go back to a country that has also become very different since you first left. 


So, to anyone that tells people like me that it’s not us, who should be worried, because at least we’re not stuck here, who tells us that we have no reason to complain because at least our EU passports allows us not just to go “home” but to move freely and to find a new home in 26 other EU member states, I want to say that yes, that is of course nice in theory. I’m not dissing that and I’m sorry for your loss. 


But in practice, it is not that easy. Because “home” is more than just the place where you unpack your boxes and put pictures on the wall. So when you tell me that I can just go “home”, the only answer I have is, “I had hoped I was. But obviously I was wrong”.

Live light, travel light!

But here we are.I'm going to give this “going home” thing another try. We’ll see, if it sticks this time. Or if maybe Scotland will become independent some day within the next five years while I still have a legal right to return, and allow me to come “home” for good. I hoping for that. 

For now, goodbye, my British chums. And thanks for all the fish!

Friday, 12 June 2020

Damned If You Do and Damned If You Don't: The Consultancy Racket

Like many academics Matron is forced by the rules of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) to show that her work has “impact”. Academic research, paid for by student fees and the tax payer, is no longer supposed to happen entirely inside the Ivory Tower (if it ever did). And she does not actually have an ideological problem with that in principle. Our work should benefit policymaking in the real world in a positive way. In fact, that is a large part of the reason why she became an academic. 

One way to show impact is through the provision of consultancy services to government agencies, businesses and even civil society organisations. For us lawyers, this usually involves reviewing current legal frameworks, evaluating ongoing organisational activities and priorities, or providing advice on upcoming policy decisions. In theory, consultants should provide an independent outside perspective that informs decision-making. But the practice is often different.

In many cases, this already becomes apparent during the tender process. Tender documents that speak of "agreed assumptions", that prevent publication without client approval and that subject your work to several rounds of internal consultation do not always absolutely restrict the academic consultant's independence. But they certainly raise red flags. In one recent tender interview for a review of the work of a civil society organisations, we were actually asked what we would do, if the organisation we reviewed did not agree with our recommendations. They may, of course have tried to test our willingness to stand up to internal meddling. But our response made it clear that we would try to resist that and we did not get the job. So maybe not.

Another tender (for the benchmarking of a national statutory framework against an international standard) we lost on price – to a city law firm whose normal billable hourly rate for one of their mid-level solicitors exceeds the daily rate that we had quoted. The work would have been one of those never-ending time sinks, where the actual time we would have spent would undoubtedly have vastly exceeded the days we had actually quoted. The only question here therefore is whether our competitor managed to pitch so low because they would put an intern on the job or because, as one of my potential collaborators put it, “they had skin in the game”.

And then there are the cases when you DO get the job but find out quickly that you are mainly there to add a layer of “independent verification” to conclusions that those who commissioned the project have already agreed on before the request for quotation was even published. A few years ago, a fairly large team at my University was asked to review the "trickle-down impact of legal instruments issued by a large international organisation over a 25-year period. The draft report we prepared went through innumerable rounds of internal consultations and departmental responses before it was finally deemed acceptable. By that point very few of our original conclusions survived unscathed. In fact, we were warned from the beginning that we would not exactly be popular with the organisation’s operational sections. Well, wasn’t that the truth? 

Often, “internal consultations” also provide the consultant with a rather alarming insight into how different parts of government interact. Like the time when the supposedly independent regulator asked for more time to respond to our draft because they were “coordinating their response” with the Ministry that funds them. Or the time we were told to make slight changes to our work “to keep so and so happy”. And we complied. 

Because if you don’t comply, there is a good chance that the report you worked on so hard - and for a fee vastly below your actual market rate - will never be published. Or, as one could observe most recently with regard to the government’s inquiry into the higher rate of BAME deaths from COVID-19, it will be published without your recommendations, which will have mysteriously vanished. Because if the government tells people that there aren’t any of those, then they will never have existed in the first place. The past is alterable. The past never has been altered. We have always been at war with Eastasia.

One problem with the system as it is currently run is that we, as academics, continue to play by those rules. Because we want to do the work. Either because it’s a nice bit of extra income for people who pay the standard 30-50% “but-you-get-to-do-a-job-you-love” salary deduction every month (hello social workers, nurses and teachers etc.). But more often we do it because we actually want our work to change things, to have “impact”. And because we absolutely know that if WE don’t do it, someone else will. And that someone might be even more mercenary or even just more pliable. It may be someone, who is only in it for the money and doesn’t care, or someone who uses their own commercial power to influence government decision-making. Or someone, who really just needs the job and isn’t in the economic position to walk away from it, just because they are asked to make a few changes to their conclusions. 

A few months ago, Matron was asked to work as a sub-contractor on a project for that big social media company, whose name she will not normally utter without swearing. It should have been an easy “you’ve got to be kidding me” response. But she actually thought about it for several days before declining the offer. Because the work would have involved advice on an area of law that, by happy coincidence, fell slap bang in the middle of her current line of research. In an ideal world it would have been a marvellous way to try and implement some of her suggestions in practice using a market-leading provider. How many of us would not be tempted by that possibility? How many of us can resist anything – except that kind of temptation?

But in this case Matron did resist it because she is absolutely certain that that particular client is beyond saving and that her work would have been exploited one way or the other, if not now, then later. What she did instead, for her sins, was to recommend a younger colleague with similar views and ethics, who she knew was in need of work and extra income. A coward’s way out, maybe, but at least one where there is a small chance that the work is done by someone with good intentions thus keeping other wolves, who would be only too happy to do the company’s bidding for a fee, from the door. Was it the right decision to just offload her own guilt onto someone else? Time will tell.

So, what should we do? How do we prevent the exploitation of our expertise for nefarious purposes? The easy answer is: together. Through refusing to give in to demands for changes we don't agree with, by insisting that independent reports are indeed independent and by ensuring that we have a right to publish our work, even if the client decides not to.

In practice, this is unlikely to happen because those who consistently try to defend their own values in that way are unlikely to be in the consultancy business for very long. Consultancy deals do not grow on trees. And the REF impact requirement makes it even harder to say no to the opportunities that do come along.

But maybe more of us should at least lift the cloak and speak out about what it is really like to take part in this racket. Share our experiences. Be vocal about them. Create a frickin hashtag. Whatever works.

And if any of us ever reach the big heights of fame, where our power matches theirs because, if we say something, people will listen, then we should definitely use that power.  Matron herself is nowhere near that pinnacle and the sad truth is that we are all of us replaceable in most cases. But many of us still have reasonably safe jobs, often at a well-regarded universities, with a salary that is maybe half of what we could earn in practice, but that still pays for a decent lifestyle. Everything else is a bonus. Maybe those of us, who are in that lucky position can afford to say no occasionally, remembering what we actually stand for. It's an idea worth thinking about at least.

Wednesday, 10 June 2020

Snakes and Ladders: #blacklivesmatter, Covid-19 and why we must make the best of constitutional moments

Do you feel bad or uncomfortable about us doing this?”

“I do. But I’d also feel bad and uncomfortable if we didn’t do this. So it’s six and two threes.”*

A little list

Those, who follow Matron may remember that she has been quite vocal over the last ten weeks of lockdown about idiots, who risk their own lives and others’ by doing stupid things in public that risk transmission of a deadly virus in the middle of a pandemic. Testosterone laden jocks that just can’t live without their daily regimen of pull-ups on the outdoor gym equipment in the local park. Couples with small children that, by keeping a safe distance from each other, take up so much public space that they can't distance themselves from anyone else. Joggers, usually male, who see this as an opportunity to shave a few more seconds off their all-time record and who see "other people" as nothing more than inconsiderate obstacles on their road to fame. Those two girls, who hardly look up from their mobile phones when they force other pedestrians into the path of oncoming traffic while their dog's leash creates a deadly tripwire across the pavement. Dominic effing Cummings testing his effing eyesight. They’d none of them be missed and Matron very definitely has them on a list.

And then there are those other, more ideologically motivated idiots, who think that this whole lockdown thing is at best a government-sponsored hoax and at worst an infringement of their human right to get a haircut. Matron is of course not the first to point out the irony that many of those that come out on the streets in protest (whether with or without an assault rifle) to proclaim that “the country needs to get back to work” are not necessarily talking about their own “right” to work, but about the “right” of others to provide to them the services they feel entitled to receive. Anyone for patriotically picked strawberries? Don't worry! Waitrose has your back.

But having said all that, this pandemic and the related lockdown does, of course, have an undeniable economic impact on many people that we will only be able to appreciate in its full effect when government subsidies like furlough schemes, mortgage payment holidays and tenancy eviction bans run out. It is by now a truism that the virus affects all of us but does not affect us all in the same way. And eventually a balance will have to be struck between the harm it causes to individual and public health and the individual and societal harm we will suffer from an extended lockdown. Matron gets that. And yet…

Stay home, save lives, protect... sorry, what was the other one?

The new infection numbers in the UK remain high, the daily death rate seems to have plateaued (for now) at an unhealthy 100-200 a day on a seven day average, and the infamous “R” number remains stubbornly around the “1” mark, meaning that we will likely be living this new normal for quite a while longer. With the official UK death toll having reached more than 40,000 and the excess death toll now exceeding 60,000, this is no time for complacency. The longer this drags on, the more damage it will cause. To our health, our economies and our democracies. Which is why Matron has been stubbornly on the side of those, who have urged caution about relaxing the lockdown and who insisted that opening up too early would likely prolong the agony and cause repeated relapses. Being shut in the house for months was not fun. Having to go back inside after you were allowed to play outside for a bit is unlikely to do anything for anyone's mental health.

The mettle of our pasture

So why then did Matron ultimately decide to throw caution to the wind last weekend and join the local Black Lives Matter protest?** There is a lot to be criticised about that decision and many have indeed shown their disdain for those, who have taken similar decisions because they felt that, on balance, the harm of contracting and possibly spreading the virus does not measure up against the harm caused to them and their fellow humans by structural inequality, discrimination and oppression.  People on “the left” have been accused of “changing the coronavirus narrative overnight” to suit their social justice warrior agenda, while others have argued that this is a fallacy because a clear cost/benefit analysis would undoubtedly show that the number of black lives that will be saved by the protests is below the number that those protests will risk by further spreading the infection. This could be particularly important, some also say, in the light of the empirical fact that the UK BAME Covid-19 death rate is more than twice that of white people.

However, from what Matron can observe from her own safe and secure, remote-working, lily-white, middle class vantage point, this may be the wrong way to look at it, at least when you see it through the eyes of someone, who has likely already been subject to continued exposure to the disease throughout the entirety of the lockdown because their badly paid job has suddenly been elevated to "key worker" glory, and who may consequently not feel that joining a protest will add much to the risk that they have already been expected to take. That higher BAME death rate may of course have its origin in genetics. But not a few have argued that it is much more likely that socio-economic factors and existing systemic inequality played a much more significant role in causing it (if only we could have an inquiry designed to find out more about this. Oh. Wait…!).

So, if you and yours are already dying from Covid-19 because you are deemed essential for keeping the wheels of capitalism turning, you may have a different perception of the risk you take by protesting against the very system that already kills you in greater numbers than your white peers.

But that does not apply to Matron, of course, who has spent the last ten weeks safely locked down in her cosy flat in a posh suburb of one of the UK’s major cities. So why were we there, placards in hand and with a drawn look of persistent health anxiety on our faces? "Is this really the time?" some of her mates will ask her? "Can’t this wait until we managed to get a handle on this pandemic?"

If not now, when then?

It's a seductive argument. After all, white supremacy, police brutality and systemic (economic and political) inequality have been around for longer than any of us. They're probably going to be good for a few more weeks or months. Why not wait with all the protesting until we can do so safely?

Well the first counter-argument to that is that if you want to be a good ally to a community that fights oppression but of which you yourself are not a member, it is not your call to make when to schedule the revolution. So even if it is scheduled for 4am tomorrow morning, you drag your weary body out of bed and you show up.

But the more important argument is that we are currently living through what is known in the trade as “a constitutional moment”. One of those rare moments in time, when something so exceptional has happened that it shakes even average people out of the inertia bubble they usually inhabit. A moment where real change is actually a possibility.

Both the anger that has erupted following the death of George Floyd and the bravery of people, who currently grant us real-time access to their own lives and personal experiences despite the risk to their lives and livelihoods, is not something that can just be bottled and saved until a more convenient time. Because there is a good chance that by that time the attention of those who need to see that anger and that courage will once again have been diverted to other matters. It is now that hashtags like #unMUTEny or #BlackintheIvory show us what it is really like to live in the average Western democracy as a black man, woman, actor, scientist, student, nurse, doctor, bus driver etc. And it is now that this insight will hopefully motivate us to take action.

The discussion surrounding British colonial history - to take just one example - matters now, not because black people are speaking about it. They have always spoken about it. It matters because for what is likely to be a very brief moment in time, white people are likely to listen. And having the other person listen is important when you’re trying to have a conversation.

Snakes and ladders

Constitutional moments focus the mind and facilitate change at speed rather than through small, incremental, trickle down moves. On the game of Snakes and Ladders that is our political system, they allow us to move from place 29 to place 84 in one fell swoop (before we likely slide down a few more places when the backlash comes and we next step on the head of a snake).

To wit: it has taken Bristol Council until 2018 to agree that the plaque on Edward Colston’s statue should include mention of his slave-trading activities. It then took over two year to do exactly nothing to follow up on that agreement because a final wording could not be agreed. After the protestors' decision last weekend to donate the statue to the newly established Bristol Underwater History Museum, it took London a mere two further days to remove the statue of slave owner Robert Milligan from its position at West India Quay. Which means that, oftentimes, these things only happen during constitutional moments when acute pressure is applied. And to apply acute pressure, you need the numbers, in a very visible way. Even in the times of Covid. 

Constitutional moments are not moments to be wasted and they are not moments that can be scheduled, delayed or conserved for later. Some of the constitutional moments Matron has experienced in her own lifetime include the Chernobyl disaster (which led to moves in many countries to divest from nuclear power), the fall of the Berlin Wall (which ultimately led to the end of the cold war), the Stonewall Riots and the AIDS crisis (both of which sparked big movements and led to better rights protection of LGBTQ+ people), the Snowden revelations (which caused a review of the laws governing government surveillance in many countries) and the accusations against Harvey Weinstein (which started the #metoo movement).

None of the issues that led to these constitutional moments were invisible to the naked eye before the respective events occurred. In all cases we knew or had an inkling of what was happening or we were aware of the risks. We just didn't really want to know. But if we had to make a decision today of what our response to those constitutional moments should have been, would we really trade the improvements that have come from them and the progress we managed to make as a result for a safe few weeks, if there had been a pandemic at the time? 

So when our BAME friends and neighbours tell us that the brutalisation of their community is a pandemic that has raged for centuries (mostly wilfully ignored by us “dear white people”) and that the time to act is now - because for this very very short moment in time, people might actually be willing to do something about it - should we not respect that view and adjust our own cost-benefit analysis accordingly?

As someone, who enjoys white privilege, Matron has undoubtedly committed many micro and maybe even macro aggressions against BAME friends and colleagues in her life. At the very least she has benefitted from her whiteness in innumerable ways. To become aware of and unlearn that is her responsibility going forward. 

But right now, at this particular constitutional moment, there is work to be done by all of us. And even though protesting in the middle of a pandemic is not the only way to bring about change, it is one way. And it is the way that has been chosen by those most affected. And that’s ultimately what matters.

Actual conversation with Mrs Matron on the way to last week's Black Lives Matter protest. 

** It should be noted at this point that Matron is much more of a coward than this post suggests and that the protest she and Mrs Matron joined was in fact billed as "socially distanced" and was mostly true to that promise, because it took place in a massive field just outside the city centre with next to no police presence. Had it turned into something like London or Seattle, she would most likely have chickened out, dropped her sign and run. So this piece is not primarily about making people feel guilty for not joining protests. It is about making people, who did join despite the Covid-19 risk, feel less guilty.

Monday, 1 June 2020

Of battles won and battles yet to come

Today is the first day of what would usually be Pride month, a month of joy and celebration of battles won as well as a reminder of battles yet to be fought. Given the current situation, many of us probably don’t feel much like celebrating. But while we watch the news about race riots in the US, and while we have such clear evidence of the fact that the battles yet to be fought concern not just our own community, but other communities that are faced with their own forms of oppression, it might do us good to remember that rights and freedoms are rarely won entirely peacefully and that the road to LGBTQ+ “liberation” also started with a riot.

The Stonewall uprising in June 1969 was a reaction by members of the LGBTQ+ community against a police raid that began at the Stonewall Inn, a gay pub in Greenwich Village, New York. But while that raid was the spark that caused the explosion, it is clear that the fire had been smouldering for a long time, caused by the enduring persecution of LGBTQ+ people by the police and other state bodies. 

In the same way, it is clear that while the current riots were sparked by yet another senseless killing of a black man by a police force that seems to think itself immune (maybe rightly so) from any repercussions for its actions, it is the word “another” that makes all the difference. The murder of George Floyd is not the first incident of this kind and we all know that it is unlikely to be the last. Racism is systemic in our societies in the same way that homophobia, misogyny, ableism, colonialism and the class divide are. We are all part of it as we live our lives in blissful ignorance of the many ways in which we benefit from existing inequalities. This is the case even where we face our own form of oppression because we are queer, or disabled or women or immigrants or poor. And every time we #alllivesmatter someone else’s struggle - as we are often wont to do because we, too, suffer in our own way - we are essentially playing into the hands of those that divide and conquer all of us for their own benefit. 

I am because we are

If there is one truth universally acknowledged, it seems, it is that there is nobody so low in the pecking order of society that they cannot be made to feel better about themselves by being told that they are at least superior to the other guy (or girl). And it is often this idea of superiority, this perceived hierarchy of suffering, that prevents us from joining together to make the changes that are necessary to lift all of us above the water line. We see it in the trans exclusionary debate, where cis women (and lesbians) make an enemy of trans women because the latter allegedly lack “the shared experience" of an oppression that is presented as being specifically, genetically “female”. We see it when women’s experience of sexual and domestic abuse is minimized on account of their economic wealth and is put in competition with the real deprivation suffered by many working class men and boys. And we see it with race, when we white members of the LGBTQ+ community disregard the experience of our POC brothers and sisters while we focus, in our political work, solely on issues that advance our own goals rather than challenge the underlying structural inequality we all face. For whatever reason, it seems to be so much easier to let ourselves be divided than to unite. But selfishness, even of those that are themselves in precarious situations, is a poison that can (and, given half a chance, will) kill us all. 

I protect you, you protect me

The responsibility for resistance is arguably on us not just in the cases where we ourselves are the oppressed, but, more importantly, in the areas where our own interests align with, or ARE, those of the oppressor. It is easy to protest when it concerns a grievance that negatively affects you. It's a much harder thing to do when the situation you protest benefits you personally.

When we look at our own lives, it should be clear that we are all part of this dynamic in one way or another, that we are all privileged and oppressed in our very own ways and that we are all in danger of focusing on the areas of our lives where we suffer rather than those where we are complicit in causing the suffering of others. But if we want to effect real and lasting change, it is important not only to shift our focus in an abstract way, but to ”check our privilege” and to examine our own behaviour. To be a good ally we have to inform ourselves and make ourselves aware of the plight of other “Others” and follow through on that new found knowledge by making changes in our own daily lives.

Because even if we have made strides and inroads with regard to addressing our own oppression, those wins are fragile and liable to being overturned at any point. Because, by definition, none of us will truly be equal until all of us are. Because while the arc of the moral universe may ultimately bend towards justice, it may yet take a few detours along the way. Because if we don’t, THEY will win. 

The centre cannot hold

Many LGBTQ+ people instinctively know this. Matron herself is painfully aware of how quickly things can change just from three different Pride months she was able to experience (which was, in itself, a privilege) in New York between 2015 and 2017. 

In 2015, she and Mrs Matron arrived in New York on the day the US Supreme Court handed down its decision in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalised same-sex marriage in all of the US. Although it was late, she and Mrs Matron headed downtown to the very Stonewall Inn where not 50 years previously that journey had begun and where, on this day, people had already been celebrating for hours. 

The Pride March two days later was maybe the biggest event of collective happiness, Matron has ever experienced. However, with the benefit of hindsight, it now also looks like the last time we were able to ignore so comprehensively the fact that progress is not always linear.

A year later, on 12 June 2016, Omar Mateen, a 29-year-old security guard, killed 49 people and wounded 53 others in a mass shooting inside Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Matron woke up to that news in the same AirBnB in Brooklyn, where a year earlier she had celebrated her second honeymoon. That year, she spent the same weeks in a state of shock. The Pride festivities were, predictably, a much more somber affair, with celebrity hosts reading out the names of the dead and the rainbow colour scheme supplemented by orange bands of those in mourning. A young man, Matron encountered on the High Line, embodied what we all felt as he just sat there with a homemade sign reading “Homophobia Kills”.

It was this realisation, a reminder of what we already knew, that sent the kind of shockwaves through the community that we maybe had not felt since the Admiral Duncan pub in Soho, London was attacked by a bomber in 1999. It is one thing to know, in an abstract way, that you are hated by so many. It is another to have such visceral proof of it.

That, too, is where we can relate to the way so many must feel this week after watching a video where a white police man puts his knee on the windpipe of a black man and rocks his body in full view of the cameras with impunity while that man gasps that he can’t breathe. Just like the attack on the Admiral Duncan was only the third in a series of hate crimes committed by the same man. The first two attacks targeted the black community in Brixton and the Asian community in Brick Lane. What Pulse made us understand, or remember, is that none of us can breathe. We are not safe. Not yet. And maybe never.


And so we came to June 2017, the first Pride month with a US President in charge, who physically embodies all the hate by everyone against everyone and whose sole objective is to divide and conquer us all in the service of a minutely small group of people at the very top. And it made people angry. 
Matron came out more than 30 years ago and in that time has attended many a Pride event. But that Pride March was probably the angriest she has ever seen people be. 

It was also the most political and intersectional Pride March she ever saw, and, noticeably, the March when it became possible again to question not just the ongoing commercialisation of the event but the presence of police and military groups. It was as if Trump had reminded us that neither the big corporates nor the organs of the state had always been our friend and how easy it would be for the tide to turn again.

We're all facing the same storm, but we're not all in the same boat

What we should have remembered even then, of course, was that the big corporates and the police are still not the friend of many others either. 

That we still live in a world where our POC friends do not see themselves in the advertising of all those corporations handing out branded rainbow bracelets and where a black gay man may justifiably be reluctant to cheer a bunch of NYPD officers walking down 5th Avenue in formation accompanied by a marching band. In the happiness over our own "liberation", we did not always notice those things. That's on us.

So today, on the first day of what would usually be Pride month, a month of joy and celebration of battles fought and won, we must also remember that some of the most ardent fighters in those battles past were people from communities that we are still not seeing fully and whose grievances have yet to be addressed. People like Marsha P Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, and Stormé DeLarverie - LGBTQ+ but also POC. People, who have long been ignored by many even for their contributions to the LGBQ+ struggle but who are almost never recognised by their white LGBTQ+ peers as fighters in that other struggle they also face(d). 

Those are only some of the battles yet to be fought but they are also our battles. Or at least they should be.