Monthly Archives: August 2011

Letters to Nadine Dorries masterlist: what our wombs are up to

So many letters to Nadine Dorries! Because of this, the masterlist of letters to Dorries has been moved to its own site:

http://dearnadinedorries.wordpress.com/

You can see the full masterlist of posts here.

Please, please please send more. And don’t forget to send them to Nadine, either.


Write to Nadine Dorries about your uterus

I wrote an open letter to Nadine Dorries about the contents of my uterus. Putting it on the blog is not enough though, so I sent the letter to her.

I think it’s important that Dorries receives these letters. Much of her career is built upon her fixation with other people’s wombs–a quick google using the terms “nadine dorries abortion” will reveal a rich history of attempts to bring in various bills and amendments which will restrict the right to choose what is done with one’s uterus: variants on pre-abortion “counselling”, reducing the time limit, smearing abortion providers. Dorries is fanatical about your uterus. She probably has a photo of it that she kisses goodnight before bed.

Facetiousness aside, it is worrying that a politician is so hell-bent on controlling our wombs. It is worrying that anyone other than the person whose womb it is seeks to control a womb. If Dorries is so fascinated by our uteruses, then let us give her what she wants. Let us tell her all about our wombs. She is not interested in listening to us pointing out the factual inaccuracies in her arguments, nor is she willing to try to prevent abortions by providing better sex education–indeed, Dorries would rather see sex education made worse by bringing in abstinence-only sex education.

So let’s see if she’s so interested in our uteruses when we tell her all about them.

After blogging my letter, two more people wrote stories about their relationships with their uteruses. Harri’s tells a story of being a boy with a uterus; Emelyn’s of a uterus which is refusing to cooperate in her struggle to get pregnant. Both are touching and wonderfully written, and I would love to see more of these. Talking about our uteruses is something we don’t do often enough.

To write to Nadine Dorries, telling her about your uterus, please write to:

Nadine Dorries MP
House of Commons
London
SW1A 0AA

Or email: dorriesn@parliament.uk

If you want to write an open letter to Dorries about your uterus, please send me a link and I will add it to the masterlist.


Dear Nadine Dorries

Dear Nadine Dorries,

I get the feeling you’re quite interested in other women’s uteruses, so I thought I’d tell you a bit about mine.

Today is the first day of my period and at the moment, it’s almost like a golden discharge. By the evening, it will be at its peak and a great red tide will flow from uterus to cunt, punctuated by small black blobs, like some sort of poorly-made anarcho-syndicalist flag. It will then tail off slowly, from red to rusty to brown, to nothing. By Saturday morning, it will be as though my womb were tranquil as the Dead Sea and it had never decided to eject its lining.

I’m telling you about my periods because that’s probably the most interesting thing my uterus has ever done. I don’t think I’ve ever been pregnant, but there was this one time when I missed a pill and my period was a bit more painful and lumpier than usual. So maybe I was a bit pregnant then and it fell out.

I hope, Nadine, that what my uterus does has been of interest to you. I hope that other women might like to tell you a little bit about what their womb have been up to lately. Perhaps that will satisfy your curious fascination with uteruses and provide you with a healthy outlet for your hobby, rather than letting you declare war on women’s choice.

I know you won’t stop at decreasing choice, using patronising faux-concern to protect the poor silly women from the big bad experts in crisis pregnancy. You’ve tried to reduce the abortion time limit several times, using lies and misleading information. You want control over our wombs. You’re obsessed with our wombs.

And that’s why I exercised my right to choose and told you about mine. I hope it makes you feel happy.

Yours, with insincere good wishes,
Stavvers

Update: I’ve decided to make this A Thing and sent this letter to Dorries. I strongly recommend you join me in this endeavour


If PETA treat animals the way they treat humans, I pity the animals

I hold a special hate in my heart for PETA. In their quest for publicity and headlines, they fall to cheap tricks that are generally thought by the advertising industry to be a bit tacky.

Take PETA’s attitude towards women. Women, to PETA, should be naked, silent objects, captioned over and over with the same heading. If they keep their clothes on, they had damn well better rub vegetables all over their semi-clad bodies. Of course, this is only relevant to women with societally-acceptable bodies. Anyone else is told to “LOSE THE BLUBBER: GO VEGETARIAN“.

Then there’s the Holocaust appropriation. PETA found it perfectly acceptable to run photographs of people in the Holocaust and caption it “HOLOCAUST ON YOUR PLATE”. This was an unusually strong dick move on their part, considering that a number of Holocaust survivors and families of Holocaust victims are still alive today, and would be unlikely to be particularly happy to see their ordeal compared to a chicken nugget. This doesn’t stop PETA, of course. One local ad campaign of theirs focused on a grisly murder in Manitoba fairly soon after it happened.

For all of their tastelessness and their implicit misogyny, it surprised me to learn that PETA have only very recently decided to launch a porn site. This site will feature amateur performers and celebrities:

“There will be a lot of girl and boy next door content, but we haven’t ruled out celebrities on the site as well,” said Rajt. “People who are extraordinarily dedicated to helping animals and who are willing to do whatever it takes to draw attention to the suffering they endure.”

Just to make it that bit sexier, the porn will be juxtaposed with images of dead animals. Seriously.

I struggle to think who exactly PETA are targeting this porn website at. If they want to target it at people who want to crack one out over a video of a woman fondling a marrow, why the dead animals? And if they want to raise awareness of animal cruelty, why the porn?

It’s all for the attention, of course:

We try to use absolutely every outlet to stick up for animals … We are careful about what we do and wouldn’t use nudity or some of our flashier tactics if we didn’t know they worked.

And here’s the problem: in their quest for attention, PETA have been shamelessly exploiting humans. They have been feeding the notion that women are nothing more than objects and capitalising on horrific things that happened to humans all for the attention. And they believe that this works.

I cannot allow PETA to believe that these tactics work, and are acceptable or in any way desirable. I’m all for the ethical treatment of animals, but this sort of shit makes me want to buy a big dripping veal steak. I don’t eat meat very frequently, and it is nothing to do with PETA.

I want to stop PETA from thinking this works. The only thing I can think of is to eat more meat whenever I see such unpleasant tactics used by the organisation. Any meat. And then buy meat and NOT EAT IT so the animal died in vain. And perhaps kick a puppy, though I am squeamish about that–not because PETA ran a billboard with a naked lady, but because it’s just not a very nice thing to do.

In all seriousness, though, I think we must tell PETA how pissed off we are, and how ineffective their tactics are. I cannot think of a way that does not involve eating a lot of meat and telling them about it. I am open to comment.

 


Chode of the day

From Alas A Blog, I have discovered this gem written by a “nice guy”.

When the Feminists came for the Rapists,
I remained silent;
I was not a Rapist.

When they locked up the stalkers,
I remained silent;
I was not a stalker.

When they came for the Players,
I did not speak out;
I was not a Player.

When they came for the men who they got bored of,
I remained silent;
I wasn’t some one they were bored of yet.

When they came for me, the nice guy,
there was no one left to speak out.

Lest the meaning of his poetic stylings are too opaque, the author of this short appropriated verse expands:

This is why I’ve become a harmless perv at this point.It’s not like there is an acceptable rule book, or social norm on this, and if I’m going to be the bad guy no matter what I do… might as well get it the fuck out the way right up front.

I might as well ENJOY being the villain.

This is, of course, somewhat worrying. What we have here is a “nice guy” calling for male solidarity with rapists, against those big mean feminists who are spoiling their fun. He’s a thousand times worse than the standard “nice guy” (who often aren’t that nice). I’m sure the fact that he can’t find a girlfriend is entirely down to the fact that he is “too nice”, and nothing to do with the fact that he’s fucking creepy (“harmless perv”) and thinks that rapists are unfairly maligned, and manages to do all of this while simultaneously making fun of the Holocaust.

Because women are all bitches, right? Particularly those feminazis?

What a rotten little shitstain.


Why I’m conflicted about gay marriage

Here is yet another story of bigotry against gay people: a gay woman went to buy a wedding dress. When the shop found out she was marrying a woman, they refused to sell her the dress. So strong was the force of prejudice that the wedding-industrial complex forgot its main motivation of making a profit from a woman perfectly willing to shell out a small fortune on a single-wear garment. Capitalism fail.

Despite this, public opinion in the USA is favourable towards gay marriage, despite a media-based wobble which made the public opinion graph look like the end of a cock. And, of course, you have to be a remarkable bellend to display such naked prejudice as to oppose gay people basic equality.

The thing is, I’m fairly sure I’m not a bellend, and I’m not sure I’m in favour of gay marriage. It is not because I do not think queer people are human beings who deserve equal treatment from society. In fact, I would rather see marriage abolished entirely, for everyone.

As marriage equality advocates have pointed out, it is not very fair that only a certain type of relationship is legally recognised: one man, one woman. However, the marriage equality movement tends to discriminate against other types of relationship. In their rush to point out that same sex marriages would not lead to the world ending, marriage equality advocates often fight against the slippery slope argument and say that all they want is for two people of the same sex to get married, and that anything else is wrong.

I think this is somewhat unfair, and discriminates against people who have loving relationships outside of the traditional monogamous framework. What of poly people? Marriage equality advocates do not care for three or more people in a relationship to put a legal stamp of approval on their relationships, using the same arguments against polyamory as those who seek to deny marriage to gay people. Why only fight for marriage between two people, when consensual, stable, loving relationships can be defined far more creatively?

Here, I suspect the “family” argument abounds: that one of the vital functions of marriage is for building stable families. Yet two parents seems somewhat arbitrary when one looks beyond the basic biological function of reproduction–indeed, even biologically, many children have more than two parents with the advent of IVF and egg and sperm donations. The only function marriage serves is to decrease the ways in which a family can be defined, maintaining the traditional nuclear family as the only way to live.

I have reached the age now where a lot of people I know are getting married, and I have been invited to a lot of weddings. I am not looking forward to this; it will be intensely hard for me to stay quiet when the vicar asks about any objections to the union when my brain is screaming “MARRIAGE IS A TOOL OF SOCIAL CONTROL AND HAS NO PLACE IN A MODERN FREE SOCIETY.” . I am not alone in thinking this: there is a rich tradition in believing in free love without state intervention. My imaginary BFF Mary Wollstonecraft was an advocate. And why should the state have any role in valuing some types of relationship over others? A relationship between two or more people should not be a concern of anyone but the people involved.

Those who advocate marriage while acknowledging the basic tenets of free love tend to defend marriage by saying that it is useful for two reasons: property inheritance and medical decision making–the next of kin status. Both of these problems can be solved without getting married, though. Next of kin status in hospitals is far more fluid than most people think: they tend to recognise “common law” partners, and it is possible to draw up “next of kin cards“, which are like organ donation cards and leave instructions for medical staff in case of unconsciousness. The rationale behind next of kin cards is that families are becoming far more diverse than those which are recognised by the state.

As for the rest, why can people in a relationship which looks to continue for the foreseeable future draw up legal documents together? People in same sex relationships who have been denied the right to legally marry have done so for years. An added bonus of this approach is that the documents drawn up will be unique to every relationship: far from the state-mandated, one-size-fits-all approach, there is an individual legal status for an individual relationship.

Perhaps this sounds somewhat unromantic when compared to a wedding. Here is another problem with marriage: it has been thoroughly co-opted by the wedding industry. Weddings are a capitalist’s wet dream: one day will cost the happy couple on average £18, 605. This cost includes all of the things that marketing has told us we must need or we are Doing Relationships Wrong, such as engagement rings and a big white meringue dress that can only be worn once. Rather than a simple signing of a legal document, which is what marriage essentially is, it becomes a big party where one has to do everything right in a certain order. Weddings reinforce the notion that marriage is the done thing; they make legally linking oneself to another person a rite of passage, rather than something which should be a matter of choice. They reinforce the default optioning of monogamy.

If some people in a relationship fancy throwing a party to show how in love they are, that is fine by me. Why should the party coincide with signing legal documents, though? Why should it also coincide with a pantomime of tradition and ritual, and a vast amount of cash spent which could better be spent on building a life together? You wouldn’t throw a lavish party costing tens of thousands of pounds to celebrate writing a will, or filing a tax return, would you?

Bringing in same sex marriage will not help bring about marriage equality, as marriage itself is so grubbily problematic. In the long run, those who are helped by the recognition of same-sex marriage are those in the wedding industry: suddenly, they have a whole new base of consumers for an army of single-wear suits and flowers that will die and a cake that nobody wants to eat because nobody really likes marzipan.

For real equality, we need to abolish marriage. We cannot have the state and the church dictating how love and families should look. For real equality, we need freedom from marriage.

In a world without marriage, anything is possible.


A daydream I had

Sometimes I daydream about spending time with historical figures. It is not because my real friends are crap; they are good enough. They simply lack the mystique required for daydreaming.

This particular fantasy begins, as most do, with a historical figure showing up on my doorstep. The set-up is largely irrelevant: it is a contrived scenario which allows everything to happen, much like a porn film but without any fucking.

“Hello,” says my visitor, “I am Mary Wollstonecraft. I hear you like to harbour time travellers in your imagination so you can show them around 21st century life. Do you mind if I stay with you?”

“Of course,” I beam, delighted by my new houseguest. “Come in, I’ll show you everything.”

Mary Wollstonecraft follows me into my kitchen. “This is a kettle for boiling water,” I say, brandishing the cheap white Tefal. “It runs on electricity. I’ll explain electricity properly later, but basically it’s how we fuel most things round here these days. It comes out of here.” I point to the plug, then run my hands along the wire.

We drink tea, and Mary Wollstonecraft looks politely baffled by my slightly confused attempt to explain the physics behind electricity. I worry slightly about taking her outside and having to talk her through how cars work. It doesn’t help that I have no idea how the internal combustion engine functions myself.

Next, I show Wollstonecraft my room. I have braced myself to explain television (“like a play, but everyone in the country can watch it in their houses! It runs on electricity, too. Remind me to explain electricity to you later.”) and the internet (“sort of like telegrams, except MUCH faster and you can said it yourself. Wait, you do have telegrams in your time, don’t you? Oh fuck it. It’s like letters except instant. And it runs on electricity, which I promise I’ll explain to you at some point.”). Wollstonecraft surveys the room, her eyes glancing over all of the features: the TV, the computer, the pile of dirty laundry in the corners.

Finally she pauses. She stares intently at the bookshelf.

“You still have books here?”

“We do,” I say. I shove my Kindle under yesterday’s newspaper. I don’t think I’m ready to tell her about ebooks.

With wonder, she runs her hands along my disorganised collection of books. “They are bound in paper,” she says quietly.

Her fingers alight on one particular book. Slowly she pulls it from the shelf.

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.

“I wrote this book,” she whispers.

Bollocks, I think to myself. What if she hasn’t already written it? What if I have just created a temporal paradox in my daydream, and I’m going to have to spend the rest of this tube ride imagining some sort of situation where Mary Wollstonecraft develops memory loss before she goes back to her time and writes that book? I knew I should have put it in my handbag before I invited her into my fantasy.

“What year is it?” Wollstonecraft asks.

“2011,” I reply.

“That means I wrote this book more than 220 years ago,” she says. “Are you free now?”

“Let me show you,” I say. I am relieved. She is less concerned with understanding electricity and more interested in the state of modern gender roles. This will be much easier for me to talk about.

I take Mary Wollstonecraft to a high street. Her brow furrows in disgust at billboard after billboard advertising products to make women beautiful. Baubles and trinkets.

I sit her down and we read The Blank Slate together.

“So science has proved that women are naturally inferior after all?” Wollstonecraft sighs. She is tearful in her disappointment.

“Quite the opposite,” I say, handing her a copy of Delusions of Gender. “It’s just that there’s still a lot of people who think that women are weak and inferior and will speculate as to why with a Darwinian fairy tale–remind me to tell you about Darwin later. You were probably right with your assessment that it’s all down to how we treat women.”

“How does that affect women?” she asks.

I do not speak for quite some time. Silently, I roll us both cigarettes. Wollstonecraft does not smoke, and finds my perpetual smoking rather unpalatable, but I know she will need it for what I am about to show her.

“I am going to show you something horrible.” I pass her a copy of More magazine.

She reads it; I hear her periodically scoff and harrumph. As her hands start to shake with rage, I pass her the cigarette, lit. She takes a long drag.

“WHAT THE FUCK IS THIS SHIT?” exclaims Mary Wollstonecraft. The cigarette drops from between her lips and burns the paper.

“Seriously, what the fuck is this shit? It’s all just beauty regimes to attract a man, and shopping and fucking and it’s all about pleasing a shitting cockfuck arseholing cunthammer man!” Wollstonecraft, as conjured by my imagination, is somewhat less eloquent and rather more profane. She is completely right in her assessment of the magazine.

Wollstonecraft exhales in long puffs until her face is no longer puce. “I had vainly hoped that some things might have changed.”

“In a way, they have,” I say, by way of reassurance.

“They have not. You may claim to have nominal equality of the sexes, yet it is all the same. We still teach women inferiority and weakness. Women are still kept in a state of utter abjection!”

I nod.

“Mary Wollstonecraft, will you help me amend this?” I ask.

“I shall,” Wollstonecraft replies with smouldering determination.

A training montage ensues wherein I guide her through some of the more problematic aspects of her thinking, such as her attitude to the working class and her religiosity. I also teach her about things which were never discussed in her time, like sex toys and queer politics. She is a swift learner. As she is loudly decrying certain radical feminists for their transphobia, there is a crash at my front door.

Where once there stood a front door, there is now a woman clad entirely in red and black, wearing a belt of milk bottles with protruding rags. Framed in smoke, she is brandishing a weapon: a brass ray gun.

“Hello,” she says, “I’m Emma Goldman. I’m here to help you smash the patriarchy.”

Of course, the problems identified by Wollstonecraft two centuries ago cannot feasibly be solved with an imaginary time travelling steampunk anarcha feminist collective, so I will leave the narrative there.

There is still work to do. A lot of it. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is largely as relevant today as it was when written. As Mary Wollstonecraft would say, fuck that shit. 


An incitement to anarchy

This story has taught me that “incitement” entails commenting on something that has already happened and suggesting that expansion of such behaviour would not have entirely negative consequences. I hereby incite anarchism.

I think if more than one person is waiting for something, they should form a queue, with those who arrived first at the front of the queue. When this happens, it is fair and a very effective way of doing things.

I think that if you have too much dinner on your plate, and your friend is still hungry, you should give them the rest of your dinner rather than throwing it away. That way, no food gets wasted and both of you get to eat until you’re comfortably full.

I think everyone should treat other people as human beings rather than as a skin colour or what you think their genitals look like or as a slave or master. The world would be nicer that way.

I think that people should place far less trust than they do in the things the media and other authorities tell them. Knowledge should be a personal quest for all people, not just absorption of party lines. We might all be able to make better decisions that way.

I think that patriarchy and kyriarchy and the class system and racism and ableism and homophobia and transphobia and all forms of oppression are harmful to all of us. I think we could do better without those systems.

I think that imposed order in the form of religion, the state and capitalism are harmful to all of us and drive oppression. I think we could do better without these artificial structures.

I think that people should be able to take action with which they are comfortable to take apart artificial structures of oppression. This action can take any form they see to be right, provided their actions do not harm another person. I think that it is absolutely right that people strive to heal the world by any means necessary.

This is an incitement to anarchy. Such incitement is, according to our crooked judicial system, punishable by draconian, disproportionate penalties. This is but one more reason why I believe anarchy to be far less dangerous than the current system.


When not reporting a rape seems like a sensible option

Trigger warning for rape and systemic abuse of rape survivors

Some years ago, I was raped. I never reported it.

I am not alone: the vast majority of rapes are not reported to the police. Some estimates suggest up to 95% of rapes are unreported. The thing is, a lot of the time, not reporting a rape seems like a sensible option.

When a woman reports a rape, forensic evidence is gathered using a rape kit. This procedure is highly invasive, consisting of a full, intimate physical examination and sampling from parts of the body which have only recently been violated. It is highly understandable that many survivors would not want to subject themselves to this intrusive procedure following a traumatic experience. There is also questioning, sometimes with an insensitive or disbelieving tone from the police. Between half to two thirds of rape cases never make it past investigation, and there is a paltry 6.5% conviction rate. A convicted rapist will serve an average of eight years in prison.

Then there are horrifying stories like this. Layla Ibrahim was attacked and raped by two men. She was courageous enough to report this to the police, even though the police had a track record of repeatedly arresting her twelve year old brother and failing her sister after a beating, due to being a mixed-race family in a predominately white area. Despite overwhelming forensic evidence, the police chose not to believe Layla. She was sent to prison for three years.

This did not happen in Iran or Sudan. This did not happen many years ago. This happened last year in the UK.

It is yet another story of rape culture. It differs from others in magnitude, not substance. We live in a world where survivors of rape are not believed.

Rape culture falsely differentiates between “serious rape” and other rapes. This dichotomy alone is enough to ensure that many rapes are not reported. I did not report my rape because rape culture had taught me that what happened to me was not rape. So many women I know have had a similar experience.

When a woman does identify that she has been raped, she faces disbelief from others. This is particularly true if she has been raped by someone powerful: the treatment of the women who accused Julian Assange and Dominique Strauss-Kahn of rape are testament to this. It is also true if she has been wearing “the wrong” sort of clothes, or being “the wrong colour”, or behaving in a way that rape culture dictates is a “definite sexual invitation“.

Layla Ibrahim was accused of “wasting police time” with reporting her rape. Meanwhile, 450 London detectives have been pulled from their usual work to go over CCTV footage of rioters with a view to prosecute them. What, here, is more of a waste of police time? Seeking justice for a person brave enough to be in the minority of people who report rape, or sending a kid to prison for nicking a pair of trainers?

Not reporting a rape seems to be the best possible option in a culture which allows rape, sometimes encouraging it. Not reporting a rape seems to be the best possible option in a broken justice system where barely any survivors see justice served. Not reporting a rape seems like the best possible option where the survivor can be sent to prison while the rapists walk free.

What, then, can be done for rape survivors seeking justice?

In her fantastic book Cunt: A Declaration of Independence, Inga Muscio proposes a solution: Cuntlovin’ Public Retaliation:

The basic premise of C.P.R. is publicly humiliating rapists. Since rapists count on a woman’s shame and silence to keep them on the streets, it seems to me an undue amount of attention focused on rapists would seriously counter this assumption.

C.P.R. can be employed when a woman is sure of her attacker’s identity. Since most attacks are not perpetrated by strangers, this is a highly relevant factor.

There is safety and power in numbers.

A group of two hundred women walking into the place of employment of a known rapist would have an effect. If each of these women were in possession of a dozen rotting eggs which were deposited on the rapist’s person, the rapist might well come to the conclusion that he had committed a very unpopular act, one which was not tolerated by the community. If a rapist had to walk through a crowd of angry, stating, silent or quietly and deadly chanting women to get to his car in the grocery store parking lot, he might feel pretty uncomfortable.

This technique would require a vast degree of solidarity among women and allies. Were it to happen, though, it would feel a damn sight more like justice than the current shambolic system.

The risk to survivors is considerably lower in Muscio’s admirable proposition. Here, they do not risk further invasion with no justice served. They do not risk imprisonment for daring to report a rape to a morally bankrupt police force. They do not become passive pawns in a game of patriarchal power. It is justice for survivors, by survivors.

Muscio stresses non-violence, and I thoroughly agree. Violence is not a solution to violence. Showing a rapist that such behaviour is thoroughly intolerable, reminding him that his behaviour is thoroughly unacceptable, through a supportive network of the community–that is more like what justice looks like.

Were this to happen, rape culture would topple. For this to happen, we need to fight rape culture. Then, perhaps, we will see true justice.


Why the government is making bad decisions after the riots

Following the riots, the government have made a decision which is likely to lead to more, rather than less rioting. These decisions are welcomed by a sizeable chunk of the British public, who are suddenly developing a bloodthirsty yearning for water cannons, rubber bullets and live ammunition–again, despite the fact that such tactics are likely to lead to more riots. They are also pursuing a vindictive policy to evict families of those charged and convicted with rioting from their social housing. How this measure is supposed to help is thoroughly unclear.

The collective lack of good judgment is hardly surprising: indeed, it is a natural consequence of decision making under stress. For once, this may not be entirely a consequence of the fact that we have a government who have nothing but contempt for anyone who is not rich and white.

It is important to acknowledge the context in which these decisions have been made: there is a climate of fear, stress and anger, and demands that Something Must Be Done Immediately. In this kind of context, good decisions are rarely made.

On an individual level, decision making is greatly affected by emotion. The ability to feel emotions is necessary for a person to make decisions: those who have been brain damaged and lose the ability to feel emotion suffer severe impairments in their ability to make decisions in their day-to-day life. High, negative emotions are problematic in making decisions, though.

In stressed decision making, the decision maker tends to focus their attention very narrowly and not examine all possible alternative analyses of the situation and courses of action. Instead, a hasty solution is proposed, one which may not be particularly fit for purpose in solving the problem. To make a good decision requires clear thinking on possible solutions to a problem and the consequences of such solutions. In their response to the riots, the government have not thought through possible consequences of their decision.

The type of emotion experienced also impacts decision making. In general, being in a good mood improves decision making and problem solving: thinking is more creative, flexible, thorough and efficient. The decisions made by the government were not made in a good mood: on top of stress, most of the senior members of government had to come back from their holidays, which is likely to add a further dampener on their moods.

The type of negative mood has also been shown to affect decision making differentially. In a state of anxiety, decision makers are biased towards making “safe” decisions: ones which are low-risk and low-reward. In contrast, when sad, a high-risk, high-reward option is more likely to be chosen. The findings of this study may not be particularly pertinent to the situation at hand, though, as it used a “gambling” methodology where participants were aware of the risks and rewards available from each course of action. In a more nuanced setting such as responses to the riots, such information was unlikely to be available, and, more importantly, unlikely to be fully surveyed by the decision makers.

When a group makes a decision under stress, they are no more likely to make a good decision than an individual. In fact, group processes may make the decision even worse. This is due to a phenomenon called groupthink, which I touched upon in my discussion of consensus decision making.

The word “groupthink” is loaded, melodramatic, reminiscent of an Orwellian dystopia, but this does not mean it does not happen. Through analysis of historical decision-making, and observations of group decision-making, a well-documented effect emerges: cohesive groups, particularly those under pressure, often make poor decisions. Crucially, this tends to happen when the group is attempting to reach a consensus.

The theory behind groupthink proposes eight “symptoms”:

  1. Illusions of invulnerability creating excessive optimism and encouraging risk taking.
  2. Rationalizing warnings that might challenge the group’s assumptions.
  3. Unquestioned belief in the morality of the group, causing members to ignore the consequences of their actions.
  4. Stereotyping those who are opposed to the group as weak, evil, biased, spiteful, impotent, or stupid.
  5. Direct pressure to conform placed on any member who questions the group, couched in terms of “disloyalty”.
  6. Self-censorship of ideas that deviate from the apparent group consensus.
  7. Illusions of unanimity among group members, silence is viewed as agreement.
  8. Mind guards — self-appointed members who shield the group from dissenting information.
Groupthink is facilitated by stressful conditions. The phenomenon of groupthink impairs decision making in a number of ways:
  1. Incomplete survey of alternatives
  2. Incomplete survey of objectives
  3. Failure to examine risks of preferred choice
  4. Failure to reevaluate previously rejected alternatives
  5. Poor information search
  6. Selection bias in collecting information
  7. Failure to work out contingency plans.

When surveying alternative courses of action is already impaired, decision making as a group can further narrow available options, leading to convergence on a solution which is inadequate at the very best. This appears to be what happened following the COBRA meetings to plan responses to riots.

The type of leader is an important factor in times of stress, and it is an area where followers themselves make poor decisions. This is because in times of crisis, people are drawn to a charismatic leader over any other type of leader. In one lab study, it was found that people primed with thoughts of death were most likely to vote for an imagined charismatic political candidate than one who was task-oriented, or one who focused on compassion and appreciation of followers. Preference for charisma has also been identified in real-world observational studies, such as in the aftermath of 9/11.

David Cameron is somewhat of a style-over-substance leader, and a crisis like this can be beneficial to him in this respect, as he is nothing if not charismatic. Indeed, his approval rating in the last week has improved (although it is still currently negative), and 45% of surveyed people believe he responded well by coming back from holiday and making some thoroughly dangerous decisions. Right now, if Cameron continues to act charismatically, giving perfectly-written speeches and flashing his Oxford grin, consequences for him will not be negative. It could possibly act to improve his standing in a climate of fear and stress.

I wrote this post assuming the best of our current government. A large part of me believes that much of their response is deliberate, an escalation in their war against the poor. The decisions will have long-term implications for public order situations such as demonstrations, they will make people homeless and clog up our prison and justice system with people who need to see a future rather than a barred window.

However, decision making in a crisis is always going to be problematic. We need to be aware of its shortcomings and avoid swift reactions without thinking through implications and consequences. This is a lesson that we must all learn so we can respond better in emergencies and to sudden, horrifying scenarios.

The government reaction frightens me. I cannot see a way that things will get better.


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