2016: Things So Far

Things I’ve been up to so far this year (mostly for Dwight Hall, who are wonderful and pay me to write things)

‘Surviving Self-Help Month’: How to get through January.

‘Flint’s Troubled Water’: Some reflections and resources on the ongoing crisis in Flint, Michigan.

‘Magee Interviews: Jim Ehrman, Love 146’: Interview with the Executive Director of Love 146, an international human rights organisation working to end child trafficking and exploitation through aftercare & prevention.

‘Magee Interviews: Bonita Grubbs, Christian Community Action’: Interview with the Executive Director of Christian Community Action, an ecumenical social service organisation that expresses faithful witness by providing help, housing and hope to those who are poor in New Haven.

‘Nourish New Haven on WNHH Radio, New Haven Independent’: Interview with Betsy Kim of ‘Law, Life & Culture’ about food justice, sustainability and the conference I co-coordinated on those topics.

Forgive my continued ‘not posting anything original here’ stasis. I can make no promises that it will improve any time soon.


Recent Reflections

It’s been an embarrassingly long time since I last posted, but (perhaps foolishly) I have not been idle. Behold, multiple social justice musings for my current fellowship.

‘Free Speech: Getting Our Rights Wrong’ (addressing recent ‘free speech’ debates and racial injustice on Yale campus)

‘How to: Burn for Justice Without Burning out’ (collected community advice on how to look after yourself when you’re feeling the burden/can’t get out of your Messiah Complex)

‘Someone is Wrong on the Internet: My response matters’ (A little self-reflection after the flood of SJW responses post Paris, Beirut, & Baghdad)

Dying Cats & Single Issue Activism (Applying this article by Helen Lewis to the need for truly intersectional activism)

Assisting the Dying

Last Friday, the United Kingdom witnessed another defeat of an ‘Assisted Dying’ Bill, this time in the House of Commons. The cries of dismay from the ‘pro’ corner were predictable – this was a cruel denial of the right to self-determination, another classic case of religious people imposing their beliefs on others, and a sentence of serious suffering on those at the end of life. In wanting to propose a response to these accusations, I find myself in a tricky position: while I shudder at the way the media has used the case studies of real, suffering people to provoke morbid fascination with this debate, I am also reluctant to detach the existential argument from its context, since our socio-ethical positions do not come from nothing. Our choices do not exist in a vacuum.

But still – my response will reference no case studies. For every story of someone falsely diagnosed but then went on to several more years of health, or who died peacefully, with their family able to cherish those final months, there is another story of horrific suffering and decay and abandonment in a filthy hospital bed. Instead, consider the following question: why is it that we have got to the point where it seems preferable (or at least more realistic) that the latter group should end their lives, rather than working to grace them with the experience of the former?

The expression ‘assisted dying’ is a helpful entry point. An ideology of self-determination – or, as a ‘pro’ friend of mine put it, a belief in ‘sovereignty of the self’ – is a rather ironic basis for supporting something which, even in name, implies dependence on another. There are some things we just cannot do alone – and for the most vulnerable amongst us, this can include ending our lives. But assisted dying is a warped version of the sacred relationship of neighbour love – the extension of help is an end to your life, rather than the improvement of it. Regardless of one’s belief or not in a God-ordained moral system, our choices do not exist in a vacuum. They not only impact others around us, but also reflect our understanding of relational responsibility. When it comes to cases of people seeking medical options which would end their life, this goes both ways. Not only do we have a responsibility to care for those enduring terrible sickness or disability, but we must also learn to see the goodness in being dependent on another when we have nothing to offer them. This is a Good not only for ourselves, in that it mirrors our relationship to God, but also a Good for the person on whom we depend. It is good for humans to be ‘burdened’ by another human’s needs. In fact, it is precisely the kind of burden we should seek.

And this leads us to a second warped ‘Good’ made manifest in Assisted Dying legislation: the sacred act of self-sacrifice. If the guiding societal principle at hand is that your death would be of greater benefit to the people you love than your continued existence, it is little wonder that a driving motivator behind end-of-life wishes is to ‘unburden’ family members and friends. And perhaps that should disturb us most of all; that the very act we are called to embody as disciples of Christ might be prescribed to the weak so as not to inconvenience the strong.

Perhaps I am expressing a religious value as the basis for my argument here, but it is no more ideologically driven than a belief in ‘sovereignty of the self’. The irreligious and religious alike hold ‘sacred’ values, and both should be heard in the law-making forum. However, these ideological positions must come into conversation with practical consequences – consequences which can, in turn, shape ideological positions, perhaps with alarming outcomes. For example: while I am ideologically opposed to abortion, I know that, practically, it is very dangerous to make it entirely illegal, and so wouldn’t support that kind of legislation. Those who are ‘pro’ assisted dying must think carefully about a similar tension. Perhaps self-determination appeals, and has its logical end in being allowed to choose when to end your own life. But what is the practical result? What is at risk?

The case of ‘assisted dying’ is a rare instance in which slippery slope arguments are helpful – even essential. We have the example of countries where it has been made legal, and watched the rapid shift in the relationship between doctors and patients. The impact it has had in European countries is particularly alarming. It is no wonder, then, that the overwhelming majority of British doctors (see the BMA) are against its legalization. Nor is it surprising that major disability and mental health campaigners have spoken out against it: as someone who suffers from depression and related mental health difficulties, I know what it is like to feel that things are hopeless, that your life isn’t ‘worth’ living, and that people close to you find you a nuisance or don’t care for you – and I am young and physically healthy. The belief that humans who have just found out that they might not have long to live, or seem incurably depressed, or who are watching their family struggle to arrange care for them in their old age are able to make a sound, personal judgment about whether or not to end their lives is a rather naïve position to take. The need for a doctor to establish a ‘voluntary, clear, settled and informed wish’ to die sounds far more straightforward than it is. Human choices are messy, and are at best only ‘informed’ by their own perception of the past and present, with little to no knowledge of the future, short-term or long.

Of course, I write with a sigh of relief – assisted dying is still illegal in the United Kingdom. But this doesn’t mean that this piece isn’t also accompanied by a warning. Self-examination is required. If we are determined not to allow the most vulnerable amongst us carry the burden of the strong, and if our position against assisted dying is born out of a desire to prosper life rather than just prolong it, we have work to do. We need to protect our National Health Service, ensuring that one’s wealth is not a barrier to quality pain management and care. We need to make it easier for people without disposable income to care for elderly relatives at home. We need to invest in whole person care, not just numbing pain with drugs and leaving people alone in hospital beds. We need better understanding of and treatment for those struggling with mental illness. And we need to examine ourselves, and our attitude towards those who don’t appear to have things to ‘offer’ society. How are we measuring their worth? How are we measuring ours?

Islamic Extremism and the Guardian’s Sin of Avoidance

I’m back at home after my summer working for Theos Think Tank, but managed to sneak in one last blog post before they could be rid of me. So here it is: my take on the Guardian’s recent coverage of radical Islam.

…and while you’re just hanging about here, why not read the piece I wrote after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, on some similar themes?

and one I wrote on killing ISIS?

I can’t think of any more shameless self-promotion that would fit here, so I’ll leave you with that for now.

London Rush Hour: The Cycling Edition

My three-month fling with London commuting is coming to an end this week. For my money, (or, indeed, lack of it) out of all the options available, cycling wins. The pros are immediately obvious: takes half the commuting time (quite literally: it takes me half an hour to cycle a distance that takes an hour on the tube), it costs a fraction of the amount (bike shops will even pump up your tires for free) and it means you don’t spend your entire day just being shunted between different kinds of sad boxes – from tube to office to tube with only a pitiful few minutes of fresh air at lunchtime when you venture outside to then stand pathetically in the self-service line at Tesco. The levels of smug on offer are also unbeatable – better for you, better for the planet, and nothing says ‘look how functional I am’ quite like turning up to work in Lycra.

The bus comes a close second, because it’s cheap, it’s fun to sit on the top deck no matter how old/misanthropic you are, and you may get a seat. It is not, however, recommended if you actually have to *get* anywhere, or have a false sense of the importance of your own time. I am not going to touch on the subject of the tube again, because it is too upsetting. If you want to read my opinion on it, you can click here.

The many merits of cycling aside, I do have some words of caution (obviously). I spent two months this summer cycling to work on a bicycle as old as my parents’ marriage and in considerably worse condition, and as such I have some strongly worded observations about cycling etiquette which are presented here (in their censored version):

I begin by addressing the true menace of London rush hour: fully Lycra-ed up middle class men hitting their mid-life ‘I fantasise about being Chris Froome’ crisis in spectacular fashion. I don’t mean to make this about gender and class, but I can’t help it. Rude, passive-aggressive and regularly acting in contradiction with the Highway Code, my life has more regularly been endangered by men attempting to race up the cycle lane than actual 4-wheeled traffic.

An aspiring member of this particular social set has pointed out to me that this is because cycling is starting to replace golf as the sophisticated man’s leisure of choice. This is a good example of the general sin of confusing ‘explanation’ with ‘valid excuse’. I know my bike is slower than yours. I know my muscles are smaller than yours. I know my legs are hairier than yours (yes, really!) but if a sign says ‘narrow cycle lane, do not overtake’ and then you try to overtake but I don’t move out of your way fast enough and you get stuck behind a bus, the fault lies entirely with you, and I am frankly delighted at the result. And your muttered sexism only makes it that much more excellent.

Oh, and if there is an enormous queue of cyclists waiting at a traffic light, you do not get to examine the crowd, determine that you should be at the top of the cycling food chain and then battle your way through everyone. Especially if it turns out that you aren’t actually the Tour De France competitor you fancy yourself to be, and you end up slowing down the grumpy tiny female with bike which is older than her.

On a similar note: when you get to a traffic light just as the lights change to red, put your feet down. This bizarre habit of twitching your pedals while awkwardly itching forward so that you don’t have to entirely brake makes it look like your bike needs a wee. This doesn’t actually have any particularly negative effect on me, except that it’s really annoying to look at and I’d like you to stop it please.

And now I turn to everyone else.

‘Casual’ cyclists: By this I mean a very specific couple of categories: people who cycle with no helmet, earphones in, and often one fewer hand on their handles than should be, and people who seem to have confused ‘Southwark rush-hour’ with ‘an ideal place to go on a genteel bike ride with a friend’. Nononononononononono.

I was precisely a combination of these two people when I lived in Cambridge. But Cambridge is a city designed for idiots on bicycles. If fear of death-by-London-double-decker isn’t enough to shake you out of this aberrant behaviour, natural selection will do its job and the rest of us will just have to avoid you as much as possible. This kind of stupidity transcends gender, class and race, and there seems to be very little cure, other than near-death experience.

Pedestrians: As noted above, there is no actual law against being a moron, and there is no law in the UK against jay walking. I approve of this: it means that the police force doesn’t get to waste time disciplining people who don’t wait for the ‘walk’ sign (America, take note). On the other hand (and this is addressed to the residents of Peckham in particular) the 100 metres on either side of a pedestrian crossing doesn’t *actually* count as such, and every time you wander into the road without even turning your head to check for oncoming traffic and you survive, Darwin turns in his grave. Can’t you let the man rest in peace?