Category: On Writing

The landscape of bigotry

photo credit: Istanbul via photopin (license)
photo credit: Istanbul via photopin (license)

Earlier this week, some time spent on Twitter helped me to understand the thought processes of those little Englanders and rampant Republicans who we bleeding heart liberals love to criticise.

The conversation happened in the wake of the most recent London stabbing. While knife crime happens regularly in our beloved capital city, this case struck a different chord. It was obvious from the words media used in reporting the incident. “Believed mental illness, but cannot rule out possibility of terrorist links”.

I predicted at this point that the knifeman must be brown and sure enough, he was. The assailant, who killed one and injured five, was soon revealed as a Norwegian of Somali heritage. If the guy had mental health issues and no political motive nor any link to Isis, then why mention terrorism at all?

The formula has become clearly defined:

White = likely mental health issues, brown = likely terrorist.

Certain people will deny the reality of this until they’re blue in the face. But there are too many clear-cut examples for their denial to be credible any longer. Indeed, the media is simply giving its audiences more of what they want. After all, terrorism sells newspapers, glues eyes to screens and garners clicks. That’s a sad feature of the times we live in.

So I found myself in the midst of a Twitter debate against a number of the above, flanked by a couple of supporters who were experts on counter-terrorism. One feature that stood out was the fixation on Islam as an inherently violent ideology. Islam is out to get us, according to these folks.

Islam is at the heart of all terrorist activity and only by destroying it can we retrieve and protect our previously ‘safe’, ‘tolerant’ and ‘free’ Western culture. They refused to listen to any arguments that might have spoiled this worldview, even those based in fact.

Soon they accused me of being religious and supporting Islam. This is far from the truth. Firstly, I’m agnostic, because I believe it makes more sense than atheism. Agnostic implies the ability to remain questioning and curious, while atheism suggests fixed ideas about things we have no way of really knowing. Plus, militant atheists can be just as challenging to deal with as religious fundamentalists.

Secondly, I have no particular sympathy for Islam as a creed. I’m not a great believer in organised religion, and I find the Abrahamic ones to be particularly patriarchal, rigid, exploitative and threatening.

“Follow what I say or burn in hell for all eternity”.
“Have blind faith or forever be an unbeliever”

You get the general gist.

To me that looks too much like an convenient system of social control. What’s more, I take particular issue with the Abrahamic view of women as being primarily baby producers existing to serve men. This view has caused a great deal of social injustice. Examples that spring to mind include the ongoing abortion ban in Ireland, utterly ridiculous in the present day!

Or countries where contraception is expensive or unavailable, forcing women to keep producing offspring irrespective of whether they can afford to take care of them. None of this is unique to Islam or the Qur’an. It exists in the Bible and the Torah, along with various interpretations of both Christianity and Judaism.

Back to the point in hand.

I choose to defend Islam and Muslims not because of religion but because I despair of the world holding misperceptions on such a grand scale. I don’t like demonisation. I’m naturally inclined to support the underdog. And what an underdog Muslims have become.

Perceptions are everything and when false ones are propagated they can have far-ranging damaging effects. They can shape history and drive people to do things they’d never otherwise do. With our intricately connected world this effect is now magnified more than ever before.

News travels faster. Debate happens all the time, much of it between strangers using fake names and hiding behind their screens. People are quick to speak, slower to listen and understand. The outcomes of these debates can form public perceptions of individuals and groups into images that persist for generations.

There’s one final irony that I think bears mention. The particular worldview of “the west against Islam” that these Islamophobes hold so dear, is exactly the same as that espoused by Isis.

By supporting this view, the phobic are acting as terrorist recruiting sergeants of the most effective kind. Who needs radicalisation in mosques when these repugnant views are out there on social media spread widely for all to see?

Brutal new horizons

“Nothing is so wretched or foolish as to anticipate misfortunes. What madness is it to be expecting evil before it comes.”

-Seneca

It is said that the only certainties in life are death and taxes. That may be so, but yet another certainty is change. Change can take many forms. It can be positive or negative, depending on how you spin it. Often, interpretation is everything – and can mean the difference between crushing disappointment and incredible optimism. Being as we are, people tend to rail against change. Whether in the workplace, in politics, or in our private lives, change is usually met with initial resistance. People carve out entire careers around helping others navigate change. That’s why change managers exist, to smooth the process of new systems in the office, and helping employees get used to new ways of doing things. Therapists help people find a path through disruptions in their private lives against the backdrop of anxieties stemming from past trauma and fears of an unknown future.

For those with an eye on world events, political change can also cause great concern. It can have far-reaching effects that stretch to the deepest corners of the globe. Take Brexit for example. In the past two weeks, the United Kingdom has been at the centre of a political storm as its people voted – unexpectedly and albeit by a narrow margin – to leave the EU. The decision had immediate repercussions worldwide as markets crashed and currencies went haywire. Traders and bankers were called into their offices in the early hours of the morning after the vote to handle the ensuing chaos. And the media, oh god the media! It drove this whole campaign of fear, pumping out inflammatory articles about refugee ‘invasions’ that played on people’s innate fear of change and the unknown ‘other’. After the results were out, the Guardian and other left-wing papers produced endless stories exploring desperate measures to avoid leaving the EU.

Clearly, the prospect of such massive change for Britain has shaken many to the core and exposed deep fault lines in society. As in other areas of life, the pessimistic side of our human nature tends to fear the worst. In terms of Brexit, although the precise nature of the new situation viz-a-viz the EU is still to be negotiated, the scare-mongering has reached new heights. Experts in law and economics predict the coming collapse of Britain.

Proponents of national image suggest that the ‘Little Englander’ effect will irreparably damage our reputation for tolerance. Indeed, the prospect of Brexit seems to have unleashed the xenophobes and racists in our midst, of which sadly there are many. In the past, they stayed in the sidelines, knowing that their intolerant views were condemned by much of mainstream society. But now, feeling legitimised by Brexit they spew their bile in daily life, directing it at all and sundry who do not conform to their narrow idea of ‘Englishness’.

All these events link back to our innate fear of change. As humans, we enjoy routine because it makes us feel safe and secure. But, as the concept of creative destruction claims, it is sometimes necessary to incessantly destroy the old while incessantly creating the new. Effective change cannot always be gentle. Sometimes it must come violently out of nowhere, taking us by surprise and jolting us out of our comfort zones. We assume that change is always something to fear. But in many cases it is a quick, brutal yet effective way to cast off the old tired approach and start again from a blank slate. In many cases, this is exactly what we need.

We often get mired in patterns and situations that have stopped benefitting us long ago. We fear the unknown so we stay stuck, despite the misery we endure, afraid to take that all-important first leap of faith. But should we be bold enough to take it we might find that the world does us far more good from that side of the fence. If the only certainties in life are death and taxes then we should not waste our time fretting over change while always teetering on the brink of making it. Sometimes a bit of brutality can herald wonderful new horizons. Embrace change; do not fear it.

Scary monsters

Night-of-the-Demon

I write from Istanbul where 75 million Turks are amassing, gearing up for their imminent incursion into Britain.

Or so the Daily Mail would have us believe.

According to that newspaper, and other ‘Brexit’ proponents, the only way to stop the Turks overrunning our precious country is by making sure we’re safely out of the European Union. (Apologies to any Turkish friends reading this. I use the terms ‘amassing’ and ‘overrunning’ purely for effect).

Looking around on the streets of Istanbul, many Turks look quite content to be here. In fact, they may have no intention of rushing to UK shores. Why would they anyway? Is Britain such a superior country that the entire world is desperate to go there. I’d beg to differ. It has many good points, but eventually it’s just a country with pros and cons like all the rest. Unfortunately, many people believe otherwise. The ridiculous Daily Mail suggestion above is just the tip of the iceberg in a recent political and media campaign that has been marred by hatred, lies and violence.

Tomorrow Britain goes to the polls to decide on its future. Whatever decision is reached will have long-lasting repercussions for the country; its economy, its image, and its place in the world. But it’s not the potential for change that unsettles me the most, but instead the racism and divisiveness that have driven this campaign, and which have grown to hysterical heights over the last few weeks.

The nation’s rage can be clearly seen in its newspaper headlines, its comment sections, its twitter feeds, and its campaign posters. Nigel Farage gleefully leads the way, stoking the flames of fear among the populace with his images of Syrian refugees waiting to ‘invade’ Britain juxtaposed with headlines reading “Breaking Point”. Shades of Nazi Germany. It was so nasty that even Michael Gove attacked Farage for it.

Just days after this poster emerged, a breaking point of sorts was indeed reached. A Labour politician was murdered on the streets of a sleepy Yorkshire town by a man who shouted ‘Britain first’ as he stabbed her and gunned her down. Her name was Jo Cox and by all accounts she was a decent person, one of few good politicians who actually cared about the people she was supposed to serve. Cox stood for fairness, for acceptance, for tolerance. She had been preparing a report on the situation of Syrian refugees just days before she died. Having spent years as an aid worker she knew first-hand about the struggles people faced. After her death hit the headlines, even the shrill voices of the Brexit campaign quietened down for a while. Perhaps some were secretly ashamed.

For this campaign’s cynical exploitation of fear of the ‘other’, surely played a role, albeit an indirect one, in influencing this man and triggering him to commit this horrible crime. It was so clearly a politically-motivated murder that people could do very little to deny it. Yes, the right-wing media tried its best, running a slew of headlines focusing on the perpetrator’s mental health problems while brushing over the fact that he’d been buying gun-making supplies for over a decade and was a fully-paid up member of a far-right organisation. When he gave his name in court as “death to traitors, freedom to Britain”, there was no way left to deny it.

Author JK Rowling wrote recently that we have created ‘faceless monsters’, in two particular ways: the EU itself, and the ‘immigrants’ that risk heading our way because of it. She talks of storytelling and how all political campaigns use it, amplified through means of the media. Together, they create our heroes and villains for us and spoon-feed them into our waiting mouths. The only antidote to this brainwashing is exercising critical thinking and gaining independent awareness of the wider world. Rowling calls herself an ‘internationalist’, one who looks at the world from an umbrella perspective and who values interconnectedness.

Rowling says she’s ‘a mongrel product of this European continent’, thanks to a Francophile mother, stints in France and Portugal, and reading French and German at university. This is a familiar story to me. I was raised in a small Devon village, where everyone was white, English, mainly Tory, and middle-class. I found this situation boring and stifling, so at age 22 I abandoned ‘little England’ for a decade of wandering the world.

Living in China, Belgium, the US, Korea, Qatar and Turkey – along with constant travels in between, has given me a different perspective on the world, similar to that of Rowling. I place great value on my global cross-cultural networks, associations, and allegiances. I’m fortunate to count among my friends those from all over the world, including Turkey, Italy, Australia, Belgium, Libya, China, Portugal, Iran, Jamaica, the US, Pakistan, Germany, and many more. I’m anti-nationalism, pro-pluralism, in support of a interconnected world. I’m in favour of learning, of discovery, of broadening the mind – not closing it down and retreating into a shell.

Surely the 21st century world should move beyond old-fashioned concepts of patriotism, nationalism, sovereignty, etc. If only we could do away with these things altogether. They’re responsible for nothing but hatred, fear, war, and division. The ugly face of nationalism is front and centre in politics, in football, in trade deals, in debates, and in war. We’re taught to feel that ‘our’ country is superior to all others; a sentiment that’s especially prominent in Britain as people hark back to so-called ‘glory days’ of empire. They believe that, somehow, leaving the EU can help Britain recapture that past. I’ve got news for you: it won’t. We can only look to the future with open minds.

This whole ‘Brexit’ debate has reached new lows, revealing ugly depths of racism, fear and small-mindedness. Tomorrow I’m voting ‪#‎REMAIN‬, because I prefer global citizenship to little England-dom.

Plus, the very idea of Boris as PM horrifies me.

How I learned to stop worrying and love self-study

It’s been a long time since I last posted here. I had some mysterious issues with getting my previous post to show up on the live site. Happily, when I went back to it today and did a new git commit and push, it finally worked. I have a theory that my VPN (a necessary addition in Turkey…) might have caused the problem. I’m not sure how well Git and Github play with VPNs.

So it’s time for a progress update! It’s now mid-March – how time flies. I’ve been on this learning to code mission for over a year now. Although it feels like a hard slog at times, when I look back on my old stuff I can definitely see progress being made! Even this blog is testament to that.

I had a minor setback last week, when I didn’t make it onto the bootcamp I’d been aiming for. They invited me to try again in a week’s time “after reaching level 5 on CodeWars” (I’m currently on 7) Now normally I’m all for persistence, else I’d have given up on coding long ago. But quite frankly, there are better things I could be doing with my time. Like practising building my own apps, all by myself.

As everyone keeps saying, we learn best by doing. And, to me, being able to build and show off a range of my own apps, is far more useful at this point than figuring out a relentless stream of abstract algorithms. Instead I intend to master programming concepts through trial, error, and building stuff. Plus, I’ll save myself a TON of money, which will help fund my imminent departure from Istanbul.

To give myself solid structure, I’m following the boot camp style curriculum in the Odin Project. It’s pretty comprehensive and includes courses on both JavaScript and Ruby on Rails. By following the materials on Odin, I’ll end up with a wide range of projects to display lovingly on Github. I’ve also reactivated my Treehouse subscription. Much has improved there since last year.

Another thing I’m doing at the moment is finding an interesting open-source project.

While stalking Twitter at 5am I discovered the guys at Hoodie. Hoodie is an open source software that provides all the backend stuff for your apps, so you don’t have to. They have a well-developed and beginner-friendly zone for solving bugs and contributing to docs. I’m looking forward to submitting my first pull request next week.

Open-source is a great way to get used to collaborating with a development team. It’s especially useful for me, living in Istanbul, far away from many accessible tech meetups.

Watch out for my next post, which will be all about my first steps into open-source, and tips for how you too can get started in this intriguing world.

Two heads are better than one

I freaked out the first time I looked at CodeWars.

I was fresh from six months of JavaScript self-study. As it turned out, the knowledge I’d shoehorned so painstakingly into my brain was suddenly nowhere to be found. It had abandoned me.

CodeWars is tough. Even the sign-up process requires new users to complete two code challenges. Once in, the list of problems was overwhelming.

My attitude to programming has changed today after completing the Ronin taster day. I still believe that a collaborative, problem-solving approach is best, but until now I haven’t had much opportunity to develop my coding skills in this way. Most of the code I’ve learned and written so far has been done in isolation, as part of my sometimes lonely digital nomad life.

With me today were eleven participants from around the world, all brought together via video-conferencing. The host started us off with a stand-up session, in which everyone introduced themselves and their goals for the day. He explained how Ronin works and what we could expect from the event.

But more importantly, he explained what the Ronin programme isn’t. It’s not a course in JavaScript or Ruby, although those skills are taught in depth. The overall goal of Ronin is to teach its students to adopt a new mindset. It teaches them to think like programmers.

I’ve been struggling with this for a long time, even while being aware of it. Although I’ve learned difficult things from scratch before (Mandarin, for example), there’s something about talking (and writing) in computer-friendly languages that feels overly abstract and hard to relate to. But to learn programming, one must learn to be comfortable in the unknown.

At least I already know that memorising syntax is NOT the way to become a good programmer. As my successful self-taught programmer friends tell me, Google is there for a reason. I fully agree. I mean, why make life harder?

Most programmers rely on Google to look up bits of syntax. They may memorise certain elements of it, especially the most common ones, but this happens through doing. As Jordan said, ‘you just need to be aware of what’s possible.’

Think about logic first, then code. Decide on the sequence of steps that can take you through the problem from start to finish. Only then should you start trying to translate the logical steps into aspects of code.

It’s essential to develop a hypothesis when you start to tackle a problem.Force yourself to use it and don’t assume anything to be the case. Test everything and be explicit about your expectations.

This is where pair programming can be really powerful.

We did two hours of pair programming during the taster day, programming with two different partners and swapping over the roles. This worked surprisingly well even over a video connection. We were encouraged to keep up a constant flow of dialogue with our partner, to explain what we were doing at every step, and ask questions about what they were doing.

At first there was that scary moment of feeling exposed, nervous about looking incompetent in front of a total stranger. But that soon passed and the process became enjoyable and motivating.

Effective pair programming requires communication and collaboration. Working together over a video link demands extra clarity and precision when explaining ideas and giving suggestions. It becomes easier to figure out problems and both people in the partnership come away with added confidence.

I’ve worked as a language teacher and a journalist so my communication skills are already quite well-honed. But pair programming adds a new layer to that existing ability. It’s unlike anything I’ve done before, but I found it very fulfilling and even fun! An hour passed by in a flash.

Now I need to go and practice my regular expressions. Those are tricky!