Monday, 7 July 2008

Speaking with children

The genesis of this piece was the discussion on Bristol IndyMedia newswire about attacks on the cycle path in Easton. What particularly struck me about these attacks was that people referred to the attackers as `groups of kids'. Why would children do this? Well I've got no answers but this piece outlines the trail that my thoughts have taken in the weeks since reading the discussion...

In just over a month's time I expect to become a dad for the first time. That admission should tell you all you need to know about my interest in the question of parenting... and about my current ignorance of the subject.

Not long since I was talking to a young relative of mine (let's call him Ben) who had got himself in a lot of trouble with his family, due to misbehaviour at school. He'd been excluded for a couple of days over an incident - the first time that (to his family's knowledge) he'd been in any serious trouble at school.

What struck me, when I spoke to him about it, was how little his voice had been heard by the rest of his family. A version of events had come forth from teachers at the school and this had been immediately received as the whole story, with Ben cast as the villain of the piece. Undoubtedly Ben had been pretty naughty, but when I talked to him it was also clear that some of the teachers had probably got the wrong end of the stick.

In the family's eyes though, the most important thing was for Ben to understand the importance of submitting to authority. They were concerned that he learned to `behave' for his teachers, and to do as he was told, for fear that his behaviour would spiral out of control and he'd ruin his chance for a decent education. Their concerns were well-intentioned and, to some degree, well-founded. My reservation is that we can become so focussed on getting a particular message across that we lost sight of the `truth' within a situation.

It was an issue I came across when I worked in homeless hostels in Bristol. Residents would often come to staff members griping about any number of issues; a lot of the time it was simply a way of venting their frustration at the daily difficulties of their existence and all I needed to do was be sympathetic, and help them to calm down a little. Sometimes though their complaints were related to serious issues relating to how the hostel was run, or the behaviour of other residents, and the `calm down' response was not appropriate; just diffusing the complaint was missing the point. The problem was that I (and my fellow workers) were just seeing the person doing the complaining as the problem and, again, not sighting the `truth' within the situation.

Another example: the government's message about drugs. This is another example of how just focusing on a `message' that we want to communicate can fall down if it doesn't tally with the truth. The government and their clients, the mainstream media, are so obsessed with demonising drugs and drug-takers, supposedly with a view to putting kids off taking drugs (although a discussion of the real motivation could take a while), that their portrayal of the issue is entirely skewed. It is impossible to have a serious debate about drugs because everyone involved is so focussed on `getting the message across'.

The problem with all this, well-intentioned as it may be, is that people - children, in particular - can see through it. They know when people's response to a situation is skewed or, in their words, `unfair'. Such a perception results in a number of negative phenomena.

Firstly the message that people are trying to communicate, legitimate as it might be, gets lost. In the case of Ben, his family wanted him to understand the value of getting a good education, and the foolishness of ruining his opportunity with bad behaviour. It's a good message and it's a real shame if it gets lost amidst his frustration that everyone is taking sides against him. A similar principal applies in the case of drugs: god forbid that anyone should find out that you can have brilliant times on drugs. And why should this (obvious) admission detract from a serious underlying message: that drugs can fuck you up?

The second consequence of this sort of propogandising is that it diminishes respect for the `truth'. I won't go into a long and involved philosophical debate about the absoluteness or otherwise, of `truth'; what I'm referring to is not a philosophical concept but the idea that people should speak with integrity. That we should speak with children (or homeless people, or anyone) with candour and with respect for them and their capacity to understand the world around them. This also admits the legitimacy of the other party taking a different view on things. Being open to this possibility can be draining, and takes a lot of patience, but I believe it is worth it.

I want to give one more example of the conflict between `the message' and `the truth'. Too often families take the opposite approach to Ben's family, and the the effects are just as damaging. Namely they defend their child's actions to the hilt and refuse to admit (outside the family sphere at least) that criticism of their child is legitimate. This can build an unhealthy sense of invincibility, a sense in the child that they have carte blanche to be as obnoxious as they like. Once more the message has become warped because it did not tally with the truth.

Needless to say I have no idea whether any of these reflections are directly relevant to the kids who were beating people up on the cycle track. Relevant or not though, they have crystallized a determination in my mind, a determination to speak the truth, as best I can, with my own child. Let's see now if I can live up to my good intentions...

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Clarion call for resistance to the arms trade

This blog has been following developments around the arms fair DSEi very closely. We reported on Reed Elsevier's divestment of DSEi last year. Reed took their decision due to pressure from academics, health professionals, authors and others.

In the last couple of months, Clarion events have taken over the organisation of DSEi. Clarion are organisers of many different events, but the one that caught my eye is The Baby Show.

Of course all this means that the campaign must begin all over again. Below is correspondence on the matter which I've initiated in the last couple of weeks.

Please feel free to write to Clarion yourself! You can get email addresses from the Clarion website, or use the form on the CAAT website (both of which are linked above).

Sent on 20 June 2008 to Lee Masters, organiser of The Baby Shows:

Dear Mr Masters,

My partner is expecting a baby so I am very aware of preparing for the
birth. I have seen advertisements for The Baby Shows in a number of

Unfortunately I have also seen recent headlines to the effect that the
organiser of the Baby Shows is now also organising arms fairs. Can you
confirm that this is the case? I understand that Clarion have recently
bought the rights to organise the DSEi arms fair, the biggest arms fair in
the world.

I am horrified to think that Clarion thinks that organising these two
events would be considered acceptable. One event purports to help parents
prepare to bring children into the world, the other markets machines that
usher human beings out of this world. And in the most violent (and
premature) way.

In past months I have read a series of excoriating articles about DSEi
that outlined what a mockery the system of safe guards on arms trading has
been. Representatives of the most oppressive regimes in the world have
been invited to talk with producers of some of the most hideous hardware
in the world (including parts for cluster bombs and torture equipment).

The fact of the matter is that the arms trade is the most reprehensible
possible trade for Clarion to be involved in. Let me state categorically
that under no circumstances will I attend or support Clarion-run events in
any way, so long as Clarion maintains this connection with the arms trade.

I would very much appreciate hearing your thoughts on this matter. I am
writing to you as the organiser of the Baby Shows but please let me know
of others within Clarion to whom I should also address my concerns.

Yours sincerely,

Received on 28 June from Julian Graves, of Clarion Events.

Dear ***

Lee Masters has passed me your email regarding Clarion Events’ recent
acquisition of DSEi. Clarion Events is the largest independent event
organiser in the UK and a highly successful, professional, award winning
company. We have been creating leading brands and world-class business and
networking environments globally across a wide variety of sectors for more
than 30 years and I can confirm we have added defence and security to our

Defence and security is a legitimate business and we will apply the same
very high standards, rigour, experience and skill to organising events in
this sector as we do in all of our others.

The events we have acquired serve only the legitimate defence and security
industry and both exhibitors and visitors must adhere to the highest
regulatory scrutiny. We insist that exhibitors must comply with and exceed
the requirements of UK and international law.

Your letter refers to ‘parts for cluster munitions and torture equipment’
being on display at DSEi. I would like to reassure you that cluster
munitions and torture equipment, and parts or services relating to such
equipment, are banned from DSEi.

All our exhibitors are contractually required to ensure that all equipment,
services, documentation and any other forms of promotion comply with UK, EU
and international law. Appropriate action has been and will continue to be
taken against any exhibitors who fail to meet these requirements.

Thank you again for your letter.

Yours sincerely,

Julian Graves

c.c Lee Masters,

Sent on 1 July 2008 to Lee Masters and Julian Graves, of Clarion Events

Dear Julian and Lee,

Thank you for your reply. As employees of Clarion Events it is of course
incumbent upon you to advocate for the policies and activities of Clarion;
nonetheless you have not put my mind at rest.

Let me briefly address a couple of things that you mentioned in your email:

> Defence and security is a legitimate business and we will apply the same
> very high standards, rigour, experience and skill to organising events in
> this sector as we do in all of our others.

Whilst you refer to DSEi within the remit of "defence and security", I
prefer the (more accurate) term of the "arms trade". And, yes, it is true
that the arms trade is legal. This does not however make it moral.

According to the law of this country, Clarion Events is free to organise
DSEi and other arms fairs. You should be aware though that I, and many
other citizens of this country, view this as a reprehensible activity,
whether it is legal or not.

> The events we have acquired serve only the legitimate defence and
> security industry and both exhibitors and visitors must adhere to the
> regulatory scrutiny. We insist that exhibitors must comply with and
> exceed the requirements of UK and international law.

These are the same phrases that employees of Reed-Elsevier used to
reassure me when I wrote to them regarding their organisation of DSEi.
Subsequent to their reassurances scandals broke in the press involving the
sale of parts for cluster munitions, torture equipment, and invitations
extended to people like the Sudanese defence minister!

You assure me that such things won't happen again. I can only take you at
your word but, frankly, I am not convinced. I very much doubt that you as
an individual will be responsible for foul play at DSEi but inevitably,
when the arms trade is involved, the rules will be bent.

But over and above nit-picking about individual rules being broken or not,
there is a deeper issue: I truly believe that DSEi and the other arms
fairs which Clarion has added to its portfolio, will increase human
anguish and suffering on a massive scale. People will die because Clarion
sees fit to bring together arms dealers with people who would use those
arms on fellow human beings. Is this really a transaction that Clarion
should be involved in? As an individual, do you not have any qualms about
the horror these arms fairs will cause?

Yours sincerely,