I’m seeing a trend on social media and blogging of people claiming that autism and Asperger’s Syndrome are not disabilities. However, Hans Asperger* himself would disagree with that view.
Some posts on social media, like that screenshot I’ve posted below, from Facebook’s Jettproof, seem to be claiming that autism can actually be beneficial or advantageous.
The truth is that the autism spectrum is very broad, and its effects can be debilitating and disabling for many of those on it.
I understand why people may want to present autism in a positive light. There has been, over the years, something of a stigma attached to the disorder. Not only will autistic people want to see the back of that, but in particular, parents of autistic children will be keen to ensure those children are not stigmatised, or treated unfairly in life. They will want the world to see their children as human beings, not as a disorder, and so they look to focus on some of the very real advantages that can come with some points on the autistic spectrum, notably with Asperger’s.
But this does not mean that autism is not a disability.
TV personality Chris Packham has openly spoken about his problems living with Asperger’s, and his struggles with depression. This is not at all uncommon for anyone with autism.
If a person is::
... all because of their autism, how is this not a disability?
The National Autistic Society actually defines autism is “a lifelong developmental disability”.
According to Steve Silberman in his 2015 TED talk, Hans Asperger, who was almost single-handedly responsilbe for ensuring autism went on to be properly understood both in the medical world and in socity at large, framed autism as a “lifelong polygenetic disability”, and a “diverse continuum that spans an astonishing range of giftedness and disability.”
People with autism, including Asperger’s, are living a daily struggle, and when people misguidedly go on social media, trying to make autism nice and fluffy, they are not helping at all.
*Update: Hans Asperger. Recent reports in the news have revealed evidence that Asperger was a Nazi supporter and allegedly was involved in the killing of children. The above article which refers to Asperger's research into autism should not be taken as an indication that Now We Live support or even ignore this vile criminal behaviour. We are appalled by the revelations, and while we have to accept that Asperger's historical work on autism was pivotal, we are fully behind the trend of referring to "Asperger's Syndrome" simply as part of the autism spectrum, rather than enshrining the man's name as a medical condition.
Have you ever heard people trot out that old saying 'It's six of one and half a dozen of the other'? It's used in many ways, but most commonly when supposedly trying to apportion blame between two parties in conflict. Saying 'Oh, it's six of one and half a dozen of the other', is shorthand for saying, 'Blame is shared between these two, therefore neither one (or, more rarely, both) will be held accountable. It's a way of copping out of getting to the bottom of a conflict, and properly sorting out who is to blame for which issues.
Is ever really fair to anyone to deal with a conlict situation by copping out in this way? You might be a teacher dealing with kids in conflict, or an employer dealing with workers in conflict, or a parent with squabbling siblings. Whatever the case, what message does it send to them if you wash your hands of it because you can't be bothered to sort out which party is responsible for which misdemeanours?
I'm a parent, I've spent the best part of thirty years in management, I've run football teams, and other group activities, and I can honestly say that in my experience, conflict usually has some shared blame. Not always, but most of the time. I would hazard a very unscientific guess, and say that probably 80% of conflicts between individuals is shared. But that still leaves a good 20% of instances in which there is an innocent party, and an aggressor. Falling for the 'six of one and half a dozen of the other' copout in these circumstances risks and incredibly damaging miscarriage of justice on the one hand, and sends out a very worrying message (you can get away with it if you cry foul loud enough) on the other. A leader who adopts this policy in these circumstances will be seen by both parties as weak and unfair.
As for the 80% of instances in which blame is indeed shared, rarely if ever is that blame 50/50. Again, by just assuming that if blame is shared then it must be 50/50, the leader will end up being seen as weak and unfair by both parties.
Unfortunately, everywhere you look; in schools, homes, and workplaces, you see this policy in action. And what's more, its proponents insist it's a good, fair policy. Just one example of what I'm calling Crap Wisdom.
© Darren R. Scothern, 2016
Empathising with someone will only make you a better person
Empathising with someone will only make you a better person.
Even if that person has done the most horrible, vile things imaginable, the worst that can happen from you trying to empathise with them is that you will start to understand what led them to that evil behaviour. So you will learn more about the world, and become a more rounded, whole person.
Of course, most people are not horrible or vile. But still, we may find ourselves unwilling to empathise, or to try to imagine ourselves in their shoes.
Maybe it's the co-worker who seems to do everything he can at work to make life difficult for you. Or perhaps it's the new neighbours with different coloured skin, who don't speak your language. Or even a family member who seems to go out of their way to hurt you. Or the friend you thought you could rely on who suddenly turned their back.
It's easy to start to hate someone if you don't take that chance to emapthise. If you don't make the effort, what happens is that you increase the scope of your own ignorance. That's not something you might like to hear, especially if you think your negative feeling to someone is justified. But the thing about ignorance is it leads to a very subtle, insidious type of fear. It might not feel like fear; it might feel like anger, or frustration, or whatever. But the bottom line is that by switching yourself off from trying to understand that person, you will soon start to think that they are deliberately targeting you because they hate you.
The truth is, life is hardly ever like that. It is very rare indeed that someone will forgo the common issues and problems of life just to make trouble for you, whether that be constantly, or in opportunistic moments. People usually have too many issues going on in their lives for that.
Everyone is capable of doing horrible things - you and me included
Of couse, bullies do exist, and everyone is capable of doing horrible things - you and me included. But before you designate someone who has wronged you as evil, what have you got to lose by trying to empathise? And more importantly, what have you got to gain?
One thing that always comes out of a concerted attempt to understand other people, is a realisation of how much we are all like each other. You might be forced to remember things you'd rather forget; times when you've behaved in a way that might have left someone else thinking you're the horrible and vile one. Or when you've been so troubled and inwardly focused that you neglected people around you in a way that they might have felt was malicious.
And what if you are the one being despised by others? Empathising can not only help you understand them, but yourself. Realising that you have - either deliberately or unintentionally or by simple lack of awareness - caused someone to feel so negatively toward you can only bring a deeper understanding of yourself, and your place in the community you inhabit.
Hate is not a positive feeling
One common thing about hating, or despising, or even just strongly disliking someone, is that it doesn't feel good. Hate is not a positive feeling, even when you believe it is justified.
By taking time out to try to understand that person who has behaved in a way that has left you with such unpleasant feelings, you will at least begin to see the humanity in that person. And from there, you might begin to see other aspects of them. You might never get to the stage where you forgive them, but at least the unpleasant feelings you have will dissipate as your common humanity is revealed, and you begin to put that person in the context of yourself and your own, all too human faults. You might end up changing your behaviour to that person as a result. They may or may not respond, depending on what's going on in their lives, but what matters here is what you are doing, not them. It's about realising that your negative feelings don't have to control you.
If this leads to more positive life experience for you, then you have grown as a person.
By definition, if you remove a reason to have negative feelings, you have made yourself happier.
Does this mean you should never be angry or upset; never allow yourself to display your ordinary human emotions? Of course not. But it does mean that you have nothing to gain from holding on to them, and everything to gain from simply empathising.
© Darren R. Scothern 2016
Don't come to me if you're looking for tourist guide information, or key facts about lovely Scarborough. I'm just going to tell you how the place made me feel.
I visited on 3rd August 2016, to spend the day there. Scarborough was an occasional family holiday destination was I was a small boy, back in the days when package tours abroad were considered extravagant for the lower working classes from which I sprang. These days, while plenty of people still visit English seasides, many of the resorts have something of a tarnished reputation, not helped by boozy Blackpool, and the pollution problems of earlier decades. But when I arrived here for my visit, I was amazed by how clean and tidy the promenade and beach were. I struggled to find signs of litter. The and on the beach was beautifully soft, the sea blue and clear. The promenade has all the lovely tack that you associate with and English seaside, from the bucket-and-spade shops, amusement arcades, ferris wheel and dodgems, and wafting smells of candy floss, burgers, donuts and fish n chips. The lovely old buildings cram together on the hillside in pastel shades, with the old Grand Hotel, and the even older ruins imposing against the skyline. When the sky is blue over Scarborough, the place comes into its own; so picturesque, so quintessentially English. Take a boat trip and see the coastline from a distance, with rolling green hilltops terminating in sudden dramatic cliffs. Walk the beach and feel the sea on your feet, find some crabs in the pools, or if you're lucky, a starfish. Go up the hillside in the quaint trams. And remember to have have fish n chips for lunch!
Words & pictures © Darren R. Scothern 2016
We’re all familiar with the question – What is the meaning of life? Well, I’m here to tell you the answer. Of sorts. I have no qualification to be able to take on such a task except that I am a living being. Maybe that’s all the qualification anyone needs to answer this, the biggest question of all.
As you might imagine, the answer to such a weighty inquiry – an inquiry that has foxed many a philosopher – isn’t short. It’s certainly not a two-digit number whose square root is slightly over 6.48, and neither is it a comedy movie about a messiah, (Yeah, let’s get the horrible pop culture references out of the way so we can focus on the real issue…) but it’s not a long-winded answer, either. I’m going to cover it for you in a few hundred words. And when you see it laid out, you’ll realise how brilliantly simple the answer is.
Let’s start with the notion of the question itself. Why do we even ask What is the meaning of life? Does an ant ask that question when it’s part of a foraging team? What about a pigeon? Or a coconut, or ivy, or a daffodil? They’re living things just like us, but while, at a stretch, you might be able to argue that an ant or a pigeon has some self-awareness which might lead to asking such questions, it would hardly be the same thing as when we humans, with all our diverse culture, sciences, our probing of the universe at both the macroscopic and subatomic levels, and our philosophy, mean when we invoke the terms. I’ve seen animals larger than ants or pigeons; dogs, apes, elephants, lions, polar bears, who have given all the appearances of being bored, or angry or depressed; complex mental states. But do they really contemplate life, the universe and everything in the way that we humans can; we humans who have developed intricate linguistic structures to express even more convoluted thoughts; from how the universe was formed, to decoding DNA, to exploring the possibility of the existence of god?
There seems to be something unique about the ability to even pose the question what is the meaning of life? And it is there the clue lies. The fact that we can even consider the meaning of life; that we can believe it is an important question, is a signpost to what that meaning may be.
Imagine asking someone what pisses them off. If you’re in a light-hearted conversation when you pose that question, then you might get a suitably light-hearted answer; When someone squeezes the toothpaste tube at the middle, maybe, or When my phone runs out of charge, and so on. In a more weighty conversation, you might get answers that carry more gravity; War, or Human suffering for example. And of course a whole range of issues between and beyond those examples. Things that piss us off – or to put it another way, issues that gives us cause for concern are, I would suggest, closely related to the tendency we have to ask questions about the meaning of life. Most of the time, most people seem to enjoy the good things that happen to them without too much questioning (unless, of course, you’re a philosopher trained to think about such things, or someone who just happens to be in a philosophical mood – which is not the same thing as being a philosopher, by the way). But when bad things happen; things that piss us off or give cause for concern, there is a tendency to ask why. A need to look for answers, blame or causality. In other words, to look for meaning. That’s not to say people never ask questions about the good things that happen; just that it is often a more keenly experienced process when something bad has happened. The old phrase Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth reflects quite nicely the tendency we have to just accept the good things without too much question.
The tendency to look for answers for the bad things that happen in life is ingrained throughout human culture. As Ursula Le Guin once famously said, ‘There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories’, and as any storywriter will tell you, a story is nothing without conflict or adversity. In fact, anyone familiar with the mythic roots of classically formed stories will know that the conflict in a story reaches a peak when the hero has to overcome a symbolic death, and you can’t get more conflict and adversity than that.
It doesn’t just apply to heroic tales though. Story telling is a fundamental part of the fabric of human culture. Take gossip, for example. Most people enjoy or take part in small talk about other people at some time. And it often is formed from a truncated kind of story telling; for example:
‘Say, did you hear about Steve? He’s a total wreck! Amy dumped him.’
‘Oh my god, really? He’s such a nice guy!’
‘Yeah, but I’ve heard he had a drink problem, and when he had a drink he also had a problem with the ladies…’
‘Oh, well he totally deserves it, then.’
We’ve all heard that kind of gossip, and look how it’s shaped; almost like a Shakespearean tragedy – Good Guy Steve with his fatal flaw, and justice is served.
Small talk. Small issues about the small things going on in life. Our lives are actually made up of countless small things. Sometimes these things make us happy, sometimes they piss us off. And while we may spend some of our time contemplating weighty issues such as war and human suffering, most of our lives are taken up with the mundane. Like Why has he squeezed the goddam toothpaste tube in the middle again? and Why the hell can’t I get a smartphone with a battery that will last all day?
Sometimes, when you get pissed off with something small in life, a wise person might tell you something like Get over it, or Why should you be upset because your football team lost a game when there are kids starving in Africa? Well, no one is saying the Africa situation isn’t important… or any of the many other huge problems facing our planet. But can we really live our lives like that – not caring about any of the small things, just focusing on the huge injustices and problems in life? Of course we can’t. It’s the constant flow of the small things that make up our lives: Watching a trashy soap on TV; realising the fuel tank is almost on empty just as you join the motorway; watching ducklings bobbing around a pond; getting halfway through a good book and then finding a page is missing; opening a birthday present; realising you’ve forgotten your wedding anniversary… None of these types of things change the world in any significant way, but they change us in incremental, almost unnoticeable, ways daily. All of us do different things in our lives, and sometimes we are passionate about them. A scientist at CERN might be passionate about finding barely existent particles that make up the structure of the universe. Joe at the end of our road might be passionate about walking his Labrador, Cocoa, in the park. The types of things they do might be very different, but both of them will make an impact. Our scientist might impact on the physics history books. Joe will certainly impact on the life of Cocoa. Both people, however, will throughout their lives experience love, joy, rejection, regret and grief. These experiences are what makes us human, however insignificant the causes might seem to others. If you feel overjoyed because your favourite smartphone brand has just announced a battery that lasts a week, that’s okay. If you regret not taking the degree in physics, that’s also okay. If the only person you love in life is your Labrador, that’s okay. If you’re grieving for someone, that’s okay. Trying to stop yourself feeling such things, or trying to downplay their importance to you will not solve a famine in Africa, or help you find a theory that combines quantum and classical physics seamlessly. In fact, the little things that make up our lives are what give us the context to be able to frame the bigger questions. How would we know that the meaning of life is a big question if we weren’t able to measure it against who is dating who in the office?
If you’ve followed me this far, you can probably guess where I’m heading now. The normal day to day events in our life are exactly what gives our lives meaning; they are the fabric of which our lives are constructed, and so allow us the consider the big issues. In other words, the question What is the meaning of life? Is circular; self-referential: While exploring the big ideas, allow yourself, without guilt, to enjoy – or get annoyed with – the small things.
The meaning of life is simply to live.
© Darren R. Scothern 2016
I see opinions about Madeleine McCann are surfacing in the media again; this time certain shlebs are blaming the parents of Madeleine for her disappearance. But here's the thing:
No one knows what actually happened to Maddie except the person or persons that took her.
Logically, if you believe Mr and Mrs McCann's story that they left Maddie in the hotel room, then you cannot also blame them for the abduction - someone else took Maddie, and that is the person to blame. You can blame the parents for allowing a situation to occur that made abduction easier to achieve, but that is NOT the same as blaming the parents for the abduction, and it leads to all kinds of further considerations, as I will explain.
On the other hand, if you do blame Mr and Mrs McCann for the abduction, this means two things. Firstly, you don't believe their story that they left Maddie in the hotel room - in which case you can't logically use that story to blame them for anything. Secondly, if you don't have any evidence that Mr and Mrs McCann are to blame for the actual abduction, but you insist on saying they are to blame for it, then you are some kind of idiot.
Let me explain further with an example. Let’s imagine that a person unknown had been secretly watching Maddie, and planning her abduction for a while. And let’s also imagine that Mr and Mrs McCann hadn't left Maddie on her own that night. And now let’s imagine the person unknown waited for the whole family to go to sleep, then broke in and silently abducted Maddie. If that had actually happened, then all the people currently reviling the McCanns would now be sympathising with them. But in both instances - our imaginary story, and the McCann’s version that people are using to blame them - it was a person unknown who actually carried out the abduction. You can blame people for making a mistake, if that is the kind of person you want to be, but you cannot logically blame those people for some other evil person choosing to exploit that mistake.
I have absolutely no idea whether the McCanns are telling the truth about what happened. But I do know it is illogical to believe their story and then blame them for the abduction. It IS logical to believe their story and blame them for allowing a tragic opportunity, but even that opens up another problem, which is this: How many supposedly good parents around the world make errors in the care of their children, but through pure luck those errors do not lead to tragedy? In these cases, the world doesn't sit in contemptuous judgement, does it? And indeed, the people who make those mistakes that they luckily get away with don’t sit in judgement of themselves. And yet many of them will be the same people pointing the finger at the McCanns.
If you think you're a perfect parent, who has never made a mistake that put your child at risk, I suspect you are mistaken. I've seen a lot of life, and a lot of examples of parenting:
I know of parents who get drunk most nights and fall asleep in the house where their children also live, without carrying out basic safety checks such as making sure doors are locked, hobs are turned off, and electrical devices unplugged.
Every day, I watch people driving their cars while staring down at their smartphones. Sometimes, they have kids in the car with them; sometimes they're just driving past kids walking to school. It's carnage and murder waiting to happen.
I see parents walking through crowded shopping malls, with absolutely no attention given to their children, who could be easily lost or snatched away.
I see families on holiday, with parents falling asleep on sun loungers, oblivious to what their children are doing and where they might be going.
I have seen parents publicly beat their children, and seen the look of despair on childrens faces; the kind of long-term despair that says these kids are likely to grow up depressed, anxious, maybe suicidal.
I know of parents who spend long, long hours at work, and simply don't have a clue what their children are getting up to, both online and in the real world.
I know of parents who smoke around their kids, and who allow young children to drink alcohol.
I know of parents who have allowed under-age kids to engage in sexual behaviour, and just turned a blind eye instead of intervening, even if only with sexual health advice.
I also know of a lot of hard-working, conscientious parents who genuinely love and support their kids, who sometimes just get tired, and take their eye off the ball.
As for the McCanns, who knows? Some people have accused the McCann's of foul play. I don't know if that's true, but I would demand to see evidence before I believed it.
I am not defending the McCanns here: I am simply putting pointing out the lack of logic, and the sheer hypocrisy, of the people pointing the finger at them. If you have evidence that the McCanns are responsible for the disappearance of their daughter, send it to the police. Otherwise, stop making the accusation.
Alternatively, if you believe the McCanns version of events; that they left Maddie in a hotel room while they socialised, then you cannot logically blame them for the abduction. You CAN blame them for an incident of neglect of care, but before you start shouting off on social media about it, just ask yourself whether you're a perfect parent, and whether you've managed to avoid tragedy only through pure luck. Or indeed whether you're just storing up tragedy for the future.
"Sincerity makes the very least person to be of more value than the most talented hypocrite." ~Charles Spurgeon
Think it through, people.
Words © Darren R. Scothern 2016
I saw a meme on social media recently. An atheist page on Facebook posted a photograph that I don’t want to show here, because I found it a bit disturbing. It was a photo that was, I suppose, mocking religion. People who know me as an atheist - and indeed quite a vocal atheist at times - might be a little surprised that I was disturbed by a photo that was mocking religion. Well, so was I, and when I thought it through, it began to open a bit of a can of worms. Specifically, it made me think about how atheists present themselves to the world through social media, and the connotations that are regularly being applied to the term atheist.
First of all, let me at least describe the photo that set these thoughts in motion - and let me explain why I don’t want to show it here. It was a photograph of of a toilet basin containing a Bible, a Torah, and a Koran. Again, people who know me as an atheist, and who have seen the many atheist memes I’ve shared on social media, might be surprised that I found this disturbing. Well, let me start to unravel this conundrum by showing a couple of examples of atheist memes I’ve shared on social media.
I guess some Christians would be extremely offended by the Sunday Bitches meme. And I don’t have a problem with that. Yes, the meme is mocking a pseudo-historical religious figure that is an object of genuine love and devotion for many largely harmless people - but it is also making a point about that way religion, and in this case Christianity specifically, uses money to further its end, in apparent contradiction of some of the basic tenets of the religion.
The second meme, Conventional Logic need not only be classed a meme that mocks religion, but in the context of religion, it’s a pretty accurate representation of what many non-believers come up against when questioning religious belief. Some may say it mocks believers who vigorously defend their faith. I prefer to think that it mocks the thinking processes of people who have been blinded by relgiious faith. There is a vast difference between the two interpretations. I do not hate or disrespect people simply because they choose to believe in a god or follow a religion. I may disagree with their choices, but I don’t hate them for it. I may have slightly less respect for a believer simply because I think they are (often) allowing themselves to be misled, but I do not totally lose respect for them as human beings. The point here is, that I may not like the religion but that is not a sufficient condition for me to hate, or just dislike, or even disrespect the person. The two memes I have reproduced mock practices or behaviours; not people. (I’ll get on to the subject of when it’s acceptable to dislike a person in the context of religion later.)
So, what is wrong with the toilet bowl meme? Let me say initially, that I can have no way of know with 100% accuracy what was going through the mind of the creator of that meme, or what the intention was. I would have to be a mind reader for that, and I don’t believe in such supernatural powers. What I can do is describe the effect the meme has - the message that is likely to be drawn from it. That message is quite simple: Religion is s*** it seems to be saying. And that is a phrase that has probably been uttered by many an atheist over the years. In fact, I’ve probably said it myself, around friends and trusted people. But I would hope that whenever I’ve made public comments about religion, I’ve added some reason to it. If you just say religion is s***, then you leave the door wide open for a believer to say, No it’s not, and then you can either walk away from each other, or maybe start pulling each other’s hair, but nothing will have been resolved by that exchange. No point has been made.
But that doesn’t tell the whole story of why I found the toilet bowl meme disturbing. You see, however much you might disagree with religion, there is no getting away from the fact that there are many many people who choose to believe in a god, and adhere to a religion, and have genuinely strong feeling toward their faith, who are ordinary good people, doing no direct harm as a result of their faith. (Indirect harm is a different matter, which I touch on in my blog post, Gods and Knives and Guns and Bombs and Wedges.) For these ordinary people, whose faith, however misguided, is genuine, putting their religious texts into a toilet with no further explanation is just a nasty, small-minded insult. It is shocking and hurtful to them, and what’s more it paints a very negative picture of atheists to society at large at a time when some atheists are discovering it is very difficult to find acceptance in the world. (Atheists can have immense trouble even finding a job in certain parts of the USA, and can be put to death in certain Islamic states. It’s that serious.)
So, when we think about the image that atheists are presenting to the world, it raises an interesting problem. People like to put other people in categories. Think of what comes to mind about what people are like when you consider these categories; poets, football fans, bikers, hairdressers… and of course atheists. The thing is, there are almost as many different types of atheist as there are people who are atheist. Categorise them all you want, but the only thing you can be certain that all atheists have in common is that they don’t believe in gods. After that, everything is up for grabs. Like any other walk of life, there are some atheists who are very intelligent, some who are a bit dumb, some who love peace, some who promote violence, some who are law-abiding, some who are criminals… and so on. Atheists run the whole gamut of human types, just like hairdressers, bikers, football fans and poets.
WHAT PEOPLE THINK AN ATHEIST IS
And because people like categories, but don’t like being pigeon-holed incorrectly, they create sub-categories. Among atheists, for example, you find militant atheists, intellectual atheists, and anti-theist atheists.Maybe the person who created the toilet bowl meme is more of a militant atheist, I don’t know. I like to think of myself as an intellectual, anti-theist atheist. What the hell does that even mean? Well, as an atheist, I don’t believe in gods. As an intellectual atheist, I don’t mean I think I’m smarter than you, I mean that my atheism came about as a result of me thinking it through, and studying science and philosophy. Some people are atheist purely on a gut feeling. For me, as an ex-believer, the only way out of the faith trap I found myself in was education. Lastly, the ant-theist part. This can be controversial as different people have different definitions of what anti-theist means. For me, it means that I think religion is morally wrong because it is used as a method to control people with lies about things like an afterlife which will never come, and gods that simply do not exist. Religion is also responsible for causing great harm and human suffering throughout history, and continues to do so today. As religion is morally wrong, I feel compelled to speak up about it. That is me being anti-theist.
I don’t feel I can add anything of value to the debate over the existence of gods and the validity of religion if my only output is of the calibre of religion is s***. In fact, I think such an attitude is likely to add to the problems religion brings to society. Instead, when asked, or when I feel like writing a blog post, or just sharing a meme, I like to think I can offer a rational explanation as to why religion is morally wrong, and why I’m sure gods don’t exist. I’m not going to make those arguments today, though. Today, I’m just going to challenge other atheists who spout stuff like religion is s*** with this: Is that all you’ve got?
Finally, as promised: When, if ever, is it acceptable to dislike someone on account of their religion? I would say whenever a person thinks it is acceptable to cause harm to others in the name of their religion, then you can feel justified in not liking them for that reason. Whenever we think it is okay to cause harm to others, we begin to undermine society, which means we are undermining ourselves. It’s that simple.
Words © Darren R. Scothern 2016
A few days ago, BBC News reported that one in ten kids aged 12 to 13 fear they are addicted to pornography. Any right minded parent will have been disturbed by that report. And sadly, it's hardly surprising. Popular culture has been sexualising children, and pushing sexuality at children, for far too long now. Only recently, the Cartoon Network was forced to pull this variant cover of a Powerpuff Girls comic, after its sexualised imagery caused outrage:
Whilst this is bad, there is actually a lot worse out there. I grew up reading Marvel and DC comics, and I love the superhero genre. But there is a lot wrong with it. And these days, I wouldn't want my kids reading the modern comics, purely because of the misogynistic exploitation and over-sexualisation of female characters. What really shocks me is that these comics are drawn by grown ups - people, presumably, with mothers, sisters, wives, girlfriends, aunts and grandmothers. What the hell are they thinking? Just so you don't think I'm exaggerating, here are a few examples of this sexualisation and exploitation at work...
This image has caused a fair amount of complaint and controversy on the web, but this is actually one of the mildest images I'm going to show you today. Painted-on 'clothes', a porn-type pose, and focusing on the character's bottom. There is worse to follow...
9: Power Girl
Power Girl is something of a teenage fanboy favourite. And, I'm sure, is just the sort of character we want young men brainwashed with when they want to take our daughters out on a date! I'm sure Power Girl finds the cleavage-window an important part of her crime-fighting regime, but she really should cover up those thighs - the poor thing will catch a cold!
8: Poison Ivy
Now, here we can see the theme really developing - more oversized breasts, bare thighs, and a glimpse of bottom. Because this is great entertainment for kids. Not.
And the theme continues - oversized breasts, bare thighs, and on this particular pic, underwear seems to have been replaced with a tiny triangular plate. Not sure how it helps fight the supervillains...
A little variation on the theme here...
As you might guess from the name, She-Hulk, like the more famous Hulk, was a normal person before being exposed to gamma radiation and getting transformed into a monster... Wait... That can't be right. The guy gets turned into a monster, but the girl gets turned into a pouting sex goddess with - you've guessed it - breasts so oversized that the artist couldn't draw a suit big enough for her!
5: Emma Frost
Another fanboy favourite, from Marvel's X-Men continuity, this is actually one of the tamer pictures of the character. She is normally found at something called 'The Hellfire Club', where she parades around in basque, stockings and a fur stole. Seriously.
4: Ms Marvel
With a costume that borders on bondage gear, Ms Marvel's main superpower appears to be the The Sashay. While holding a sparkler. Bet those villains are scared now!
3: Wonder Woman
It has been alleged on numerous occasions that Wonder Woman creator William Marston was a bondage fetishist (google it). Certainly, if you were to look back on the very earliest Wonder Woman comics, you'd see that in almost every issue, the scantily clad heroine was either chained up or tied up at some point. This image, however, takes a different spin, and a variation on the theme so far - it isn't always about the breasts. Sometime just a lot of naked thigh, and being a 'temptress.' I bet Lois Lane was furious with this one! Of course, Lois tends to not dress up in skimpy spandex - she's more interested in pursuing a career, which is way too boring for pubescent fanboys.
Yet another one for the fanboys... but not like this, surely! Elektra was a lover of the superhero Daredevil, and was, in her own right, a brilliant martial artist. Still, she ended up getting the spike from Daredevil's archenemy Bullseye. Now, if Elektra had worn some combat gear a little more sensible than a leotard and garters - garters, for goodness sake - she might not have ended up in such a tragic predicament. Note that the villain's body is nicely under wraps, the only bare flesh he's showing being his smug grin.
Before we move on to the number one spot in this countdown of exploitative misogyny and sexual misdirection, let's just have a look at what things might be like if male superheroes were portrayed like the females... The following image is from Funny Meme...
I'm sure the fanboys would love this in every issue of their comics... #Sexy
And now... the Number One most ridiculously over-sexualised comics character ever - RED SONJA!
Yeah, Red Sonja has everything, right? The pout, the enormous breasts, plenty of flesh on show... But that's not the most ridiculous thing. Oh, no. You see Red Sonja is a warrior. A sword-wielding, monster-slaying, battle-fighting warrior! God job she's wearing some armour, then, isn't it? Yeah, armour. A chainmail bikini. And people expect us to buy this rubbish.
Words © Darren R. Scothern 2015
I’ve been thinking about money and wealth recently.
To start with two of the most obvious facts you’re ever likely to stumble across: We all die, and we can’t take our money with us. Okay, we all know that, but what does it mean for how we live our lives?
What purpose is there to our lives? Yeah, I know philosophers have been debating that one since dot, but you know what - it might not actually be that complicated. Seems to me that there are two imperatives driving purpose in our lives. First off, you’ve got the biological imperative. What’s that? Well, basically, you want to pass your genes on. Make babies. It doesn’t apply to everyone, of course. Some people get along very happily without going forth with multiplication. But the ever-increasing global population is a good indicator that the urge to pass on our genetic material is fundamental to the human condition. In biological terms, that is our purpose.
Biology isn’t everything, though. What about the moral imperative? (Now, I could be a bit of a smart-arse here and argue that the only reason we can put the notion of a moral imperative on the table is because we’ve evolved that way… so, at root, morality is an issue of biology. But that’s a story for a different day.) It looks like the moral imperative (in other words, what we think we should do) is the only other realm of purpose outside of biology. I know this might read as though I’m rambling, but trust me; it’s going somewhere.
The moral imperative can be thought of as needing to do the right thing: To do good. In the main, we all like to think we’re good people, and that we’re trying to do good things. (The exception - when people actually start to think of themselves as not good, or worthless - is a symptom of mental ill health. Not relevant for this particular discussion.) Philosophers can argue about what good actually means, but for now, all we need to understand is that, in the main, we want to be good.
In consideration of this moral imperative, and understanding that we’re all going to die and we can’t take the bank balance with us, what does it all mean? Should we, in fact, use our money to do good?
Speaking as someone born and raised in a capitalist society (and I’ll almost certainly die in the same), I can tell you money is pretty important to me. I’m no hunter-gatherer, much less a farmer. If the money stops rolling in, so does the food. But not just the food… I prefer my Netflix on the largest widescreen I can fit in my house. I like having the most powerful laptop I can get my hands on. But there does come a point at which these kind of desires stop. This hit me quite hard when I realised we actually have one TV too many in the house. Seriously. What was I wasting my money on?
An old joke that did the rounds on Facebook not too long ago goes like this: Money can't make you happy, but it’s a lot more comfortable to cry in a Mercedes than on a bike. This is where we say LOL.
It might be a bit lame, because it’s already been said in so many ways by so many people, but do we actually need the bigger house, the faster car, the more powerful laptop, the wider widescreen? Do we?
For some people, money - lots of it - becomes a burden. What to do with it? Or it can become an obsession. Am I the only person who looks at some of the filthy rich gazillionaires around the world who are trying to accrue even more wealth, and thinks Why? I doubt it. In all seriousness, if I won one of those lottery mega-rollovers, I’d give most of it away (carefully, and with much thought).
Even people with only a modest amount of, or even very little, wealth can get obsessed with it. I get tired of hearing about absent or estranged fathers who either drag their feet with maintenance, or refuse to pay it altogether. It’s particularly annoying when you put it in the context of the biological imperative. Biologically, we just want to pass it all on to the next generation. But it appears to be a peculiarity of money and wealth that a lot of people (not everyone, I know) are driven to accumulate increasing amounts of wealth, to spend on transient pleasures that can never - ever - have the permanence of biological reproduction, and not share it with their own offspring. What is the point of that?
It’s pretty ambitious to try and sum up the purpose of human existence in a short blog post like this, but hey - you only live once (which is kinda the point), so I’m going to try.
To hammer home point one: Biologically, our purpose is to pass on our genes. By extension, this means not only completing the reproductive act, but doing it well, and protecting the genetic investment (being a good parent).
To progress point two a little: It could well be that the only good use for wealth is to ensure our genes are passed on in the safest and most efficient way possible (being a generous parent).
Point one and point two might just well combine to tell us that the success of an individual’s life; it’s value and purpose, can be most meaningfully expressed as an inverse ratio to that individual’s obsession with accumulating and holding on to wealth.
My late mother, for most of her life, had very little money. In her later years, she was more financially secure. But she was relentlessly generous and supportive with her offspring, and indeed her grandchildren. She had it right. The money didn’t matter to her; what she wanted, and what she gave, much more even than the money she so regularly and effortlessly parted with, was love. Her commitment to being a good, loving parent left no room in her heart for obsession with money.
Be good, people. To yourselves and your children.
© Darren R. Scothern
I am a proud fan of Sheffield Wednesday Football Club. But I don’t go to the matches any more.
Football has always been a part of my life. From playing with a crumbling old ‘casey’ ball in the streets in the seventies, trying out and failing to get into the school team, playing Sunday League for pub teams, playing in the park with my son, and later watching him captain his school’s football team, watching him score a goal which I still say would have won any professional goal of the season competition… And then of course watching TV football; Match of the Day, Sky, BT, Eurosport. Reading books about tactics, and autobiographies of players and managers. And even living the dream on a computer, playing Football Manager. But best of all, an afternoon or evening at Hillsborough, watching my beloved Sheffield Wednesday Football Club.
As a schoolkid, playing fourteen-a-side kickabouts with whoever wanted to turn up, the match was always an FA Cup Final between Sheffield Wednesday and Sheffield United. Those were the days.
With the names of those two football clubs in mind, I want to throw a few other football clubs into a list of kinds. What do the following football clubs have in common?
Here’s a clue: Port Vale is one of a few football clubs that could never make it onto this list. I’ll let you have a think about it, while I move on. We’ll come back to it shortly.
There was a time when my club, Sheffield Wednesday, was considered to be one of the biggest football clubs in England. In the early 90’s, after finishing 3rd in the top flight, and missing out on winning the league by little more than a whisker, we went on to be regular visitors to Wembley. Chelsea were an easy six points, and a plus-six goal difference, for us in a season. Alex Ferguson described us as Man United’s bogey team. In fact, when Man United waved a cheque book in the direction of Wednesday’s legendary striker David Hirst, they were sent packing. Top players came to the club; Chris Waddle, Des Walker, Roland Nilsson, John Sheridan, Carlton Palmer, Mark Bright… Hot property Andy Sinton famously turned down Arsenal to join SWFC. The list just went on. They were good times, and attendances at Hillsborough were high, as you’d expect when things on the pitch were so awesome.
But the good times didn’t last. Wednesday suffered relegations, and for a while were back in the third tier. I’m not a rich man - I’ve always had to work for a living, and my job meant I worked most Saturdays. I had to fight tooth and nail to get the time off - and the money - to see Wednesday play. And I still kept fighting, and shelling out my meagre wages, when the club was relegated… and relegated again. Even when Alan ‘badges’ Irvine instilled tactics which were based around SWFC players standing still while the opposition, quite literally, ran rings around them, I was at Hillsborough regularly, cheering and groaning in equal measure.
Why did I put myself through that? Well, the answer is that football is about more than football. A football club is a hub in the community. People talk about football so passioantely with their friends, family, and colleagues, congratulating on good results, commiserating - or taking the piss - when things aren’t so good. It’s a well-known phenomenon that when England lose an important match, there is an increase in work absence the next day; it makes people feel that bad. Football fans live and breathe the game, and feel every turn of a match in their hearts. Football clubs have become increasingly aware of their place in, and responsibility to, the community. It is a regular thing for professional footballers to visit children’s hospitals, and get involved in charity projects. I repeat; football is not just about football. It’s about tribalism, about pride, about belonging.
Now, keeping those values in mind: Tribalism, pride, and belonging, have a look back at the list of clubs above. The thing they have in common - the thing almost all football clubs have in common, with a few notable exceptions - is that they are named after places. The supporters of these football clubs recognise this geo-cultural aspect of their passion. It plays a part in local pride, and this is why derby matches - matches between local rival teams - are generally the most heated and passionate sporting spectacles around.
There have been occasions when the decision-makers at the top of a football club have lost sight of the vital importance of this geo-cultural aspect. The effect when this happens can be quite startling. A legendary example is that of Wimbledon FC. This club was formed in 1889, and so accrued a certain amount of history and geo-cultural loyalty over the years. A small club that spent a lot of time in the lower leagues of the game, they suddenly hit the big time with a surge of promotions through the divisions, and a famous FA Cup Final win over the mighty Liverpool in 1988. Wimbledon, for a while, became an established top-flight team. Due to league restrictions, they were forced play their top flight home games at Selhurst Park; home of Crystal Palace FC, but the fans were prepared to put up with that - they were still in their patch - South London - and they were playing week in, week out, against the best teams in the country. It all went wrong after relegation in 2000. The Wimbledon hierarchy decided to up sticks, and move the club 56 miles away to Milton Keynes. They even changed the club name to MK Dons. What did the Wimbledon fans do in response? They refused to accept that their club had moved and changed its name. The club belonged to the fans and to the geographical location; the southwest London district of Wimbledon. And so was born, in 2002, the ‘phoenix’ club, AFC Wimbledon. This club currently plays at Kingston Upon Thames - in southwest London - in League 2. The club has worked its way up through the non-leagues into the football league, just like Wimbledon FC originally did. There can be no more powerful illustration of the way in which a football club belongs to its fans and to its geographical location than this.
What does this have to do with Sheffield Wednesday? To start with, I want to remind you that I stuck with my football club through some pretty dark times, seasons played in the lower divisions, with poor players and tactics. I wasn’t a fair-weather fan. Toward the end of those horrible times, the club was bought up by footballing legend Milan Mandaric. Mr Mandaric is an extremely wealthy, heavily Westernised, Serb who became a US citizen, and made his fortune in the states. SWFC is a northern English football club with a largely working-class fan base. The city of Sheffield, despite being one of the greenest and most beautiful (formerly) industrial cities around, has an unfair reputation of being as grim as it gets when people trot out the old phrase, It’s grim up north. Sheffield, and Sheffield Wednesday FC, are quintessentially English. The club is rooted in the city; in northern English tradition. So, it hardly seemed - to many - that Mandaric and SWFC was a marriage made in heaven. But Milan Mandaric is a man steeped in football. After football dealings in the USA and France, he came to England, and is widely regarded as the driving force behind success that came to clubs such as Portsmouth and Leicester. Importantly, Mandaric embraced English culture. He spoke good English, and understood both what English football fans wanted, and the importance of the geo-cultural considerations of a football club. The SWFC fans welcomed Mandaric with open arms, and the whole thing had the feel of a kind of mutual admiration verging on a love affair.
Under Mandaric, SWFC returned to the second flight of English football with a sense of stability and optimism that had been absent for years. The fans wanted more. SWFC fans believe that the club’s rightful place is in the top tier, rubbing shoulders on an equal footing with the biggest of big clubs; the way we did it in the early 90’s. Mandaric appeared to feel that he couldn’t make those dreams come true himself. Having purchased the club on the brink of a winding-up order for £1, he now sold it on (for a modest profit) to equally wealthy Thai businessman Dejphon Chansiri. The price: £37.5 million. I was sorry to see Mandaric sell the club after the good work he’d done, but at the same time, I felt we’d been used. A £37.5 million profit (all but a single quid)? Come on! All the love I felt for Mandaric kind of evaporated on the back of that. There’s still gratitude for the way he turned around a club on the brink of folding entirely, but coupled with an understanding that Mandaric was, in the end, a hard-nosed businessman, with his own interests at the top of his priorities (which is fine), and who could never fully and completely immerse himself in, and be part of, the culture of SWFC. At the end of the day, he was a Serbian-American, with his own life and priorities, and his association with SWFC was just one pleasant chapter in his busy and complex life.
The purchase of the club by a new, rich and seemingly ambitious owner sparked excitement among many SWFC fans, who were put in mind of the way other clubs had been transformed by wealthy owners; Chelsea by Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, for example. For me, the optimism was mixed with a slightly hollow feeling. A Thai businessman? What did he know about England - or more to the point - northern England, and Sheffield? What did he know about Sheffield Wednesday that didn’t come from reports put together by advisers? There were stories - I don’t know how true - that the idea of Chansiri buying a football club in England came from his young son, a fan of English football, who perhaps had played the Football Manager computer game, and fancied a go in real life. Chansiri had had no previous involvement in football. It didn’t feel right to me.
It got worse.
The popular Stuart Gray, head coach of SWFC, was sacked. Gray had originally joined the club as an assistant to manager Dave Jones. After a good start, Jones faltered and lost his job. Gray stepped up to fill the void, and with little or no funds, guided the club to their highest league finish for six years, along with equalling the club record for clean sheets. A lot of SWFC fans were wondering what Gray would be capable of with cash to spend in the transfer market. But he was never given the chance by this new, foreign owner from the other side of the world. But hey, the club was now Chansiri's train set now, and maybe he was going to bring in some high-profile manager to turn the club around. Some of the names that were speculated upon were hilarious… Sam Allardyce? Kevin Keegan? Harry Redknapp? But no. The new manager appointed by Chansiri was someone pretty much no English football fan had ever heard of; one Carlos Carvalhal, a Portuguese coach with a chequered background, whose one claim to fame what the he was mates with Jose Mourinho.
My traditional English football club, soaked in footballing history, now had a foreign owner from the other side of the planet, a foreign manager, and a number of foreign coaches. Next: Boom! The ticket price controversy...
The club announced a new structure for ticket prices that had many SWFC fans shaking their heads in disbelief. Many football fans around Europe are now familiar with Uli Hoeness’s damning summary of the way English fans are milked over ticket prices. He was referring to the Premier League, but here we had the same thing happening at a second-tier club. Hoeness made himself very clear on the subject of ticket prices:
"We could charge more than €130 (£104). Let's say we charged €380 (£300). We'd get €2.5m (£2m) more in income, but what's €2.5m to us? … In a transfer discussion you argue about the sum for five minutes. But the difference between €130 and €380 is huge for the fans. … We do not think fans are like cows, who you milk. Football has got to be for everybody."
In English football, ticket prices are, whilst not exactly a drop in the ocean, secondary to the funds that are generated by TV coverage and sponsorship. And yet the whole house of cards that is football economics crumbles if the fans lose interest. Which makes you wonder what can be gained by charging fans high ticket prices. Incidentally, it’s not only SWFC fans who are concerned, as can be seen from the recent demonstration at Liverpool, in which supporters walked out of the stadium on 77 minutes after the announcement of a £77 ticket prices. Maybe football hierarchies have a secret plan to drive most fans out of stadiums, forcing them to watch TV at home, increasing demand for TV coverage, and therefore driving up the prices… and the revenue for clubs. Who knows?
So where are we now? SWFC are currently in a playoff position, and have a realistic chance of promotion to the top flight. Carvalhal has managed to get some decent results and performances out of his players. But here’s the thing. It doesn’t fee like my football club any more. They might as well have moved the club to Milton Keynes. SWFC feels like the puppet of a foreign millionaire who just doesn’t get it. I’m a working class family man, and I cannot justify paying the current ticket prices. I want the club to be under English ownership, because I believe in the geo-cultural tradition of football. Remember that list of clubs? Remember my point that football clubs are tied to their geographic location, and to their communities? Dejphon Chansiri and Carlos Carvalhal may understand the concepts of tradition and community - all human beings do - but do they really get SWFC? Ideally, I’d like the club to be owned by a Sheffielder - or better still, by a consortium of fans! Just now, I’m not even excited by the prospect of promotion - that would only lead to higher ticket prices anyway.
Will Chansiri own SWFC forever? Or will he sell the club for an even bigger profit than Mandaric? Do I want to be paying over the odds to help fund that kind of parasitic profiteering?
If SWFC get promoted back to the top flight, or if they win some silverware, I will be delighted for all the fans that still attend the matches. But until two things happen, I won’t be attending any more. Those two things are: Fair ticket prices, and a club ownership that understands, participates in, and originates from the community that SWFC represents.
© Darren R. Scothern 2016
What is Atheism?
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, atheismis disbelief in, or denial of, the existence of a God. This is the only accurate definition of atheism. If I am an atheist, it simply means I do not believe in the existence of a god â any god. It does not mean that I am angry at god, or that I am a Satanist. It does not mean I have no moral code (Iâll come back to this). It simply means I do not believe in any god. There are many different people who are atheists, and they do not necessarily agree on anything else. The only thing they definitely have in common is that they donât believe in any god. If one atheist is a genius, that does not make all atheists geniuses. Similarly, if one atheist is a moron, that does not make all atheists morons. Atheists are just people, running the whole gamut of styles and behaviours, who just happen to not believe in any god. Got that?
What is Theism?
Going back to the OED, theism is defined thus: Belief in a deity, or deities, as opposed to atheism. Unsurprisingly, it is the opposite of atheism, with all other caveats regarding individuality, geniuses and morons applying equally.
What is Antitheism (also called Anti-Theism)?
Lets see what the OED has to say: Opposition to belief in the existence of a God. Thatâs a bit of a tricky definition, because it leaves us, if we are trying to be precise, asking what we mean by opposition. There are, clearly, many different ways in which one can oppose something. Verbal argument is one form of opposition, but unfortunately, so is a terrorist campaign. In the same way that there are many different types of people who can be atheists, or theists, then you can see the same applies to anti-theists. Just because one anti-theist might be aggressive, it doesnât mean they all are. The only thing all anti-theists definitely have in common is that they are in some way opposed to belief in gods.
Why Would an Atheist Become an Anti-Theist?
We have to start that answer with the caveat that there are likely to be almost as many reasons for this as there are anti-theists (the individuality position, again).
Almost as many, but not quite. I think it is reasonable to assume that a number of atheists would have become anti-theists for the same or similar reasons. Iâd like to put forward one reason which applied to me, which I suspect applies to many: A moral code. In my personal journey from believer to atheist and then anti-theist, there has been an inexorable logical development. Experience of life led me to question my religious belief. Questioning led to research and education. This led to an understanding that god is a logical impossibility, and, importantly, that religion is dangerous. Once the understanding of the dangers of religion landed, there came the feeling of responsibility â that I must act in a moral fashion, and speak out about the dangers of religion. This is moral code in action. Iâm not interested in trying to sell myself as a paragon of moral virtue, far from it. But Iâd like to try to do my own little bit in the world. My conscience simply wonât let me not speak up. This is why I sometimes post things like Gods and Knives and guns and Bombs and Wedges.
Â© Darren R. Scothern 2015
A guy walks into a gym... No, this isn't a joke, it's the beginning of an analogy. Bear with me.
Anyway, a guy, let's call him Kevin, walks into a gym. He does a workout that is the most crazy, intense thing the gym instructors have ever seen. He hits all the weights machines, all the free weights, and does an hour on each of the cardio machines; the treadmill, the elliptical, the stationary bike, the stepper, you name it. By the end of the session, he is wasted, and leaves the gym barely able to walk.
No one sees Kevin at the gym for two months. When he finally walks back in, he's still limping. He says to one of the instructors, 'I think I overdid it last time.'
What response would you expect from the gym instructor? Let's make this a multiple choice game! Does the instructor reply with:
A: 'Kevin, for you, working out is clearly dangerous. You almost killed yourself last time, so you should avoid working out at all costs.'
Or B: 'Kevin, you really overdid it. Too much exercise can be as bad as no exercise. Talk to us, and we'll show you how to exercise safely, and keep fit and healthy.'
Okay, it's a bit of a silly and extreme story, but deliberately so. I'm going to use this scenario as a reducto absurdum to shine a light on a particularly silly attitude to depression I encountered recently.
The instance of a depressive illness in question was a serious bout of depression that had been triggered by excessive stress. The person under discussion, Kevin let's say, had a long history of depression, but had been successfully managing the condition for a number of years.
Unfortunately, he was then subjected to a long and drawn out sequence of stressful events that eventually triggered a serious depressive episode.
Before I go any further, let's just have a reality check. The NHS cites stress as a common cause of depression. The 'causes of depression' section of the NHS website details how people often describe a 'downward spiral of events' that leads to depression. On other occasions, it can be a single, significant stressful event that triggers depression, such as a bereavement. I want to make this point very clear: Stress can, and does, trigger depression. It's not always the case, of course. Everyone experiences stress of differing intensity throughout their lives, but not everyone suffers a depressive illness. But for those prone to depressive illness, stress is often a trigger.
I will, I promise, get back the gym thing. For now, though, let's talk a little more about stress. The NHS website gives a pretty definitive explanation of what stress is:
But also, look at what the NHS says about managing stress:
Now we can draw some safe conclusions: Everyone experiences pressure and stress in their lives. Too much pressure leads to stress that a person may not be able to cope with, and this in turn can lead to a depressive illness.
So now consider the following question. If Kevin has a history of depressive illness, and is aware that stress can be a trigger, should he...
A: Avoid all stress at all costs?
Or B: Learn and use recognised techniques to manage stress, in order to avoid or minimise depressive illness?
Now you will begin to see where the silly gym analogy comes in, and hopefully see why a silly analogy was needed.
In the conversation I had today, my interlocutor insisted that Kevin, who had suffered the stress-triggered depressive illness, should change the way he lives to avoid some of those circumstances that can cause stress.
But for Kevin, it wasn't one particular circumstance that caused stress and triggered a depressive episode. It was a combination of circumstances. Kevin is completely able to handle his given circumstances in normal conditions. what happened to him was an unusual and unexpected series of stressful events, which combined with the normal day to day stresses we all experience, to create a cumulative effect. This triggered a breaking point that led to a depressive episode.
With this in mind, is there any value in telling Kevin to avoid some of the circumstances that caused stress? Think about it. It stands to reason that the unusual and unexpected events will not be happening all the time, and by their nature will not be avoidable (they're unusual and unexpected, after all). As for the normal day to day stresses, if he was handling them fine before, why should he avoid them now? And is it even possible to avoid normal day to day stresses and pressures? What would you do to achieve this? Avoid work pressure by giving up your job? If so, imagine the stresses and pressures that come with having no, or reduced, income.
Let's get back to the gym. Kevin didn't really have that crazy, suicidal workout session, of course. That was just a silly example - an analogy of sorts. Telling someone not to go to extremes in the gym is fine. Telling them to avoid extreme pressures in life that result from sudden unexpected events - say the death of someone close, followed by a serious accident for example - isn't realistic. By definition, you cannot avoid the unexpected. And telling someone to avoid the ordinary everyday pressures of life - the job, relationships, home maintenance, or whatever it is that gets your goat - is dangerous advice. If you tell someone to avoid those pressures, you are effectively telling them to withdraw from life. To isolate themselves. This is bound to be a recipe for further depression.
So, let me summarise a little here. I had a conversation with someone who suggested that 'Kevin' might suffer less from depression if he avoided stressful circumstances. Which may seem legit at first glance, but just doesn't stand up to examination. Kevin (or anyone else for that matter) can't avoid the unexpected stuff, and he'd be hurting himself more if he withdrew from a normal life to avoid normal stresses. Particularly when he's shown he can handle the normal day to day thing, anyway.
It is possible to give useful advice to people with depression on things to do or not do. Alcohol and drug abuse is known to exacerbate depression, so yes, you can advise that.
Exercise is known to help alleviate depression, so you can advise that. But telling someone to, for example, give up their job, or stay out of relationships, is dangerous, stupid, and is not helping.
*** There is a serious logical flaw present in the idea that Kevin should avoid some of the ordinary stresses of life to avert depression.(We'll ignore the unusual and unexpected stresses because they are by definition unavoidable.) By making the issue a question of what Kevin should, or should not, do to avert depression, one attaches a sense of causality to Kevin himself. It creates an implication that he is to blame; that his depression is the result of him not doing what he should, or of him doing what he should not. The word 'should' here is tricky. Who decides what Kevin should or should not do? Who are what is the external arbiter to decide on the ethics of Kevin's behaviour? The suggestion that Kevin is to blame for his own depressive illness is just one more example of the stupid preconceptions and silly attitudes that surround mental health problems today.
Tweet © Darren R. Scothern 2015
I was watching good old Look North on the idiot box this evening, and had to stop myself getting all rock n roll and shoving the box out the window. What could have rattled my cage so?
Have you ever heard of the story of the Emperor's new clothes? Yes, this:
Of course you've heard of it. But just in case; two con men trick the Emperor into thinking he's bought some supernaturally awesome new clothes. In actual fact, they just mimed fitting him (is this where the term 'fitting someone up' comes from?) and sent him out stark bollock naked. But because the tricksters had so much front, everybody just went along with it... 'Ooh, look at the Emperor's lovely new clothes!' It took some cheeky, mouthy kid to point out the obvious: 'Wait a minute - He's starkers!'
People do tend to go along with things that are rather silly sometimes. And it can really gain momentum, with a whole culture and industry built around the fact that people just won't stand up and say, 'Hang on; this is bullshit!' Well, today, I'm going to be the cheeky mouthy kid, and point out the scam that we currently call 'art'.
So, getting back to Look
Angled blocks with large holes.
And (totally unrelated), here is a painting by an elephant:
Art has always been notoriously hard to define. And I'm not going to try to define it here. (Not that brave.) But I think I can safely say that it rather looks like people have given up trying for a definition. As a result, pretty much anything gets classed as art. Pile of bricks? Art, mate. Unmade bed? It's art, innit? Chop up a dead animal? Art, baby!
Meanwhile, here is some proper art:
Here's another one to have a think about:
Just look at the detail, the form, on this. This is an utterly splendid piece of sculptural art. See it a million times, and you'll still admire it. Bloody awesome is what it is.
Now, I accept that there are many different types of art, and not all of them will be of the classical variety. However, if we just accept ANYTHING as art, then it stands perfectly to reason and logic that the term art will lose all meaning. The very nature of art itself is being eroded by conmen selling us invisible clothes. And people outside the art world hierarchy are scared to say anything about it, because those lofty experts will just say we don't understand. I call bullshit. I say art should clothe the human experience brilliantly, not send us out stark bollock naked while claiming 'Ooh, suits you, sir!'
So-called 'art' of the Chatsworth Hepworth type is simply manufacturing. Emin's unmade bed is is an act of expression, for sure. And many of the industrial-type pieces of 'art' we see certainly have an element of craft to them. But it that really what we, as civilised cultured people, want to be our (capital A) Art?
I can't define art. I'm not sure anyone ever will, satisfactorily. But maybe we can make a start on ruling out what is not Art. Maybe, we could ask the question, 'Given time and materials, could this work be replicated by any ordinary person?' If the answer is yes (angled blocks with holes in), then the chances are, it ain't art, baby. If the answer is no (Sistine chapel ceiling, Rodin's Thinker), at least we are one step closer to something that might be Art.
I'm off to get dressed.
Words © Darren R. Scothern 2015
You've got so many things to be happy about! How can you be depressed?
Why they say it:
This old favourite comes in two flavours; sympathetic and exasperated. The sympathetic types want to try to understand how and why you are suffering... although there will be a hint of something in their tone that suggests they think you're not quite being legit. And that leads us to the exasperated types; they too think there's no way you can really be legit about this depression thing. It's not clear how many of these people think you're plain old lying, and how many think you're having yourself on. In the end, though, both types say this stuff simply because they don't believe that depression is a real illness.
Why it's bollocks:
Depression is recognised by all medical authorities as a real illness. There simply is no doubt about how serious this illness is. As an illustration, bear in mind that suicide is currently the biggest killer of males under the age of fifty in the UK. There is a worry that men are driven this far because it is not socially acceptable for them to talk about suffering a depressive illness. Perhaps because people don't believe them. I mean, they've got so many things to be happy about! How can they be depressed? Read more here.
It's a good way of getting some time off work / school, isn't it?
Why they say it:
This is sometimes said in a tone of acidic wit or what some idiot thinks passes for sarcasm. Sometimes it is said with a nudge and a wink. Like in '10' above, these people just don't believe depression is a real illness. But to compound the insult, they are also questioning your honesty and integrity.
Why it's bollocks:
It's bad enough someone not believing that depression is a real illness, but at least that attitude can be corrected with a little education. But when someone questions your honesty and integrity, that's a kick in the balls we can all do without. It's a particularly nasty thing to say to someone with a depressive illness, because someone suffering from depression may be tempted to question themselves. Depression really does play with your mind. So, a stupid comment like this one can help send a sufferer deeper into a depressive spiral. If you're suffering, be prepared for this bullshit, and consign it to the garbage pile, where it deserves to be.
It's not nice when you feel down, is it?
Why they say it:
This is usually said in genuine sympathy, with actual good intentions. Unfortunately, the person making the comment doesn't realise that a depressive illness is about far more than 'feeling a bit down'. They may believe that depressive illnesses are genuine, but they don't have a clue about the severity of the illness, and its often fatal results.
Why it's bollocks:
The perception that depression is just about 'feeling down' completely trivialises depressive illness. It implies that the sufferer is weak. Be prepared for this bullshit, and consign it to the garbage pile. These people genuinely do not understand the issue, and so it is perfectly accurate to say that they do not know what they are talking about.
Just try to stay positive.
Why they say it:
This comment is down to a colossal misunderstanding of the nature of depression. These people are assuming that having a depressive illness is a choice - and that you can choose not to be depressed. That's right - you can just 'stay positive' and everything will be okay.
Why it's bollocks:
It is the nature of depressive illness that you cannot be positive. That's kind of the point of the illness. If you've suffered from a depressive illness, it's important that you don't let this comment get to you. If you were able to just 'be positive', you wouldn't have a depressive illness in the first place. (However, it is worth noting that cognitive behavioural therapy can be a great help in fighting off compulsively negative thoughts - speak to your GP or a mental health professional.)
Everyone gets depressed every now and then. You just have to get on with it.
Why they say it:
This is an old favourite, and one that gets me straight on my soapbox. You see, one of the reasons many people don't understand the severity of depressive illness is that we refer to the illness as depression. And for the uninitiated, depression simply sounds like being depressed... in other words feeling a bit down!
Why it's bollocks:
It's an issue of semantics. We really need a new term to describe the illness depression, and this is one of the reasons I am using the term depressive illness more frequently - to try and differentiate from the popular, colloquial interpretation of depression. Here is the thing: Yes, it is true that everyone gets depressed every now and then... but that is not the same as clinical depression, or depressive illness. don't let these people make you feel worse about yourself simply because they don't understand the issue. You know where their comments can go: in the garbage pile.
Just remember, there's always someone worse off than you.
Why they say it:
This is often said with quite benign intentions (ah, that word again... intentions). However, there is a quite terrifying thought process underlying this comment; the notion that if someone else is suffering more than you, then you should be okay. If that was the case, you could cure your own depressive illness by torturing and murdering innocent people - a move I would not encourage anyone to try. Of course, no one really means that. But that just goes to show that when people say this, they just haven't thought it through.
Why it's bollocks:
You can only live your own life. You can only experience your own joys, and your own heartaches... and your own depressive illness. How much someone else is suffering has no bearing on how severe your illness is.
Why are you so angry / aggressive all the time?
Why they say it:
This comment, of course, does not apply to all people with a depressive illness. But anger, rage, and just plain old irritability are recognised symptoms of depressive illnesses. If someone is challenging you on your aggressive behaviour, it may be that they simply don't know that you are suffering with an illness that affects your behaviour in this way. In any case, they are telling you that your behaviour is not acceptable to them.
Why it's bollocks:
No one is angry without reason. No one. To get angry, something must have triggered it. The real question here is whether an expression of anger is reasonable and appropriate. When anger is expressed as a result of a depressive illness, it is likely it will be in a situation in which other people find it inappropriate, or it may be expressed with unacceptable ferocity. If people choose to think of you as a bad person because of this, then quite simply, the problem is theirs. You don't blame a cancer patient for the symptoms they suffer, and no one with a depressive illness should be made to feel bad about the symptoms they express. If someone's anger is inappropriate, it's pretty much a dead giveaway that person is suffering some form of mental or emotional distress. Making them feel even worse about it does not help. So, if you're suffering this way, by all means seek help for your condition, but do not listen to people who would try to convince you that you are a bad person.
You've had a rough time recently, haven't you?
Why they say it:
This is the type of well-intentioned comment made by someone who genuinely wants to express concern. They recognise that you have been dealing with difficult circumstances, and are aware of a possible link between those circumstances and your depressive illness.
Why it's bollocks:
Well, it's potentially bollocks. And by that, I mean that it can lead to dangerous ideas if you're not careful. Here's why. For many people, difficult circumstances can act as triggers for depressive illness. For example, bereavement is widely recognised as a trigger for depressive illness, as is stress. However, depression can strike unexpectedly, at times when there does not appear to be an obvious trigger. Furthermore, removing a trigger does not necessarily suddenly cure the depressive illness. So, if a period of high stress results in you suffering a depressive illness, do not expect to immediately return to 100% just because the period of stress ends. It's important to understand this, because otherwise, you are heading for the nonsense in '10', at the top of this list.
Are you better, now?
Why they say it:
It's an innocent comment, and the same could be asked after a bout of flu.
Why it's bollocks:
For many people who have suffered a depressive illness, there is no cure. Treating depressive illness is not like re-setting a broken bone. Most people develop strategies for coping. These strategies are many and varied. For example, a regime of medication, cognitive behavioural therapy, dietary changes, exercise and more can all play a part. The victim of depressive illness comes to accept that there will be up and down phases throughout life, just like any other person. But for the victim of depressive illness, the down times will need careful management if they are not to destroy you. So yes, you might be 'better' now, but really, you will never fully, completely be 'better'. Depressive illness chips bits off you. If you survive that, then what's left of you will be pretty damn sturdy stuff, though.
Pull yourself together/ Snap out of it.
Why they say it:
It's hard to believe that in the 21st century, the information age, in which google brings all facts to your fingertips, that some people still spout this crap. But they do. Some people just don't understand that clinical depression is an illness.
I've never really been interested in gambling. It seems to me that if gambling is such big business, with the bookies and casinos making the huge profits they are renowned for, only an idiot would think they can make consistent, profitable winnings from betting, right?
Well, actually, it's not that simple. I've known a couple of people with gambling problems. One person lost a job, a family, and indeed a life from gambling addiction coupled with alcohol addiction. The other person is wrestling with a gambling addiction problem, and working hard to beat it.
So - "gambling adiction"... Really? Is it actually a thing? Yes it is. If you've turned on the TV recently, you can't fail to notice that gambling is advertised all the time. From Ray Winstone and his big head, to hot casino chicks winking at you through your screen, you can't get away from it. Bet365, Skybet, Betfair, Paddy Power... the list goes on. With that in mind, I'd like to share with you a short list of Fun Facts About Gambling! Enjoy!
Bet all you like, Winstone will laugh his fee all the way to the bank. Will you?
Bet 365 was founded by Denise Coates, in 2000, and was run from a portakabin. Five years later, she sold the business to Coral for a cool £40 million, getting filthy rich on the back of gambling profits!
Meanwhile, the NHS reports that around 450,000 people in the Uk suffer from gambling addiction.
In September 2013, Skybet announced a surge in yearly profits up to £32 million.
Gambling addiction is commonly considered a hidden problem. A gambling addict does not display the obvious physical signs and symptoms of a drug or alcohol addict. Loved ones are often blindsided by the consequences of a gambling addiction, realizing the problem only after the person has spent huge sums of money and incurred significant debts.
C'mon... just try it. You can have the first one for free. All the cool kids are doing it...
Paddy Power is a lovely gambling business. They do things like take bets on which will be the first species to be wiped out by an oil spill. And they sometimes refuse to pay out on big odds winners.
Gamblingaddiction.org.uk states: The vast majority of people who could be classed as ‘problem gamblers’ do not seek help for their addiction. In fact, NHS statistics show that only around 5 percent of people seek help and only 1 percent get treatment for their gambling problem. If a gambling problem is left to develop, debts can spiral out of control and people can become withdrawn and depressed, which can affect their professional lives and relationships with other people.
Gambling is very addictive; the adrenaline rush associated with the possibility of pulling off a big win is often described by gamblers as an unbeatable feeling and it is easy to see how people get hooked on gambling, especially if they have the means to access gambling outlets 24 hours a day. Most people can control the desire to gamble and if they start losing, they will stop. However, for some, the possibility of a win is extremely enticing and they will carry on going until they win, regardless of how much money they lose along the way.
Yeah, but gambling's sexy, right? Except when you've blown everything, and no one wants to know you any more...
You'll never beat the gambling system. If you could, the bookies would go out of business rather than making their obscene profits. Even if you find a legal, straight way of getting a big win, the chances are the bookies will punish you for it - like Betfair, who charge big winners an extra 'premium' - just one of several controversies surrounding Betfair.
Meanwhile... It's all too easy to destroy your life through gambling addiction:
Fun Fact: Betting machines: How one man lost everything, £1,000 at a time.
Fun Fact: Online gambling: how I lost my wife, children and £750,000.
Fun Fact: WHAT DIGITAL GAMBLING IS DOING TO BRITAIN.
Fun Fact: Reports suggest that as many as one in five people with gambling problems attempt to take their own life.
Think about it.
Need help with gambling problems? Here are a few useful links.
Words © Darren R. Scothern 2015
A while back, a new acquaintance asked me what my favourite era of music was. Now, my musical tastes are pretty broad, but if pushed, I could choose an era that is special to me.
‘80’s, I guess,’ was my answer.
My acquaintance’s eyes widened. ‘You mean... like... Wham? And Spandau Ballet?’
It was one of those vomit-in-your-mouth moments that made me realise my perception of 80’s music is perhaps a little different from many people’s. Why would that be? After giving it some thought, I worked out that my idea of 80’s music actually begins in 1979, started to fizzle out in ‘83, and was pretty much dead, embalmed and entombed by ‘85.
Wham kind of epitomised everything wrong with pop music, for me. And the Stock, Aitken and Waterman thing, which took the seductive synthesizer explosion and turned into the musical equivalent of flash-porn still makes me shudder to this day.
It occurs to me now that to understand my idea of 80’s music, you really had to have been born in the sixties, and raised through the 70’s period of the Cold War. You had to be part of the Threads generation.
You had to know the official instructions for what to do in the event of a nuclear strike from the Commies (sit under a table, put your head between your legs, and kiss your arse goodbye, basically). You had to have the opinion that your parents didn’t have a clue when they thought the Beatles were the greatest thing to happen to pop music. You had to know what a Miners’ Strike was all about, but you probably just missed out on the Punk Rock movement by a few months (although you now have all the major Punk anthems on your playlist). You had to think David Bowie was the best thing ever at that time, not just now he’s gone; you owned Bowie albums on vinyl.
There are so many great examples of music that defined my generation from those late 70’s / early 80’s days, that it is impossible to be exhaustive in one simple little blog post. But there are a number of anthems I can point to that can illustrate what 80’s music – my music – was really all about.
All the great music of that time had its ideas rooted in the notion of impending nuclear Armageddon. That is a heck of a claim, I know, but if you lived through that Threads era, you will know that the threat of nuclear war was all-pervasive. No creative person could have failed to be affected by it.
As with most edgy music, Bowie was one of the first to bring it screaming into the open, helping disaffected youths struggling to find an identity in the 70’s.
The seminal album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars had a track titled Five Years. A song about coming to terms with the looming end of the world.
Scroll forward a few years, and you had Punk Rock. A cynical music industry product, to be sure, but one in which the anger and despair of many of the musicians was as genuine as that of the fans that pogoed and vomited their way through the gigs. It was, of course, inevitable that Punk would disappear up its own gaping needle wound as quickly as it spewed into existence. Sid and Nancy, the Punks that weren’t really Punks (or maybe... with a lower-case p) saw in the dragged-out last rites. What was left after Punk was a void for the young outsiders. If you weren’t there – if your idea of good music is One Direction, Bruno Mars, or Kanye West – you need to understand that pop-rock back then was inextricable from youth culture, rebellion, anger, creative expression and fashion. Punks supposedly didn’t give a crap, but look how much effort went into that spiked coloured hair, the safety pin earrings, and the tartan bondage trousers. After Punk’s implosion, what was left for the new wave of disaffected teenagers? Well, New Wave, actually.
A true, all-encompassing definition of New Wave might be hard to pin down; opinions differ. The particular niche of the maze I reflect on is post-Punk, synthesizer-driven anthemic pop-rock. It targeted kids like me – almost frozen into paranoia by the threat of nuclear war, confused by post-puberty sexual obsession, and desperate to create something that would leave an impression – and grabbed us by the throat. Key moments in the development of this musical genre still resonate with me so powerfully, that hearing the songs brings me out in gooseflesh...
1979: Are Friend’s Electric? (Tubeway Army / Gary Numan)
John Foxx (he of the original incarnation of Ultravox) and the likes of OMD (Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark) had been playing with synth music for a while without ever massively appealing to the rebellious youth. What Gary Numan brought was a whole package that catapulted him to short-lived, yet strangely enduring stardom. Are Friends Electric? was a song that only a fool would call pop music. Too long for a traditional hit single, it was based around an insistent synth riff and the android-like vocals of Numan giving us a short story of loneliness and terror in a post-apocalyptic world policed by dangerous, inhuman machines. This song was a massive chart hit in the same year that Country & Western crooners Dr Hook gave us When You’re In Love With a Beautiful Woman, and Lena Martell hit the big time with One Day at a Time. Sweet Jesus!
Gary Numan looked and sounded like an android. An extremely cool, fascinating android. He sang about a world that my generation already inhabited in our nightmares. We were no longer alone. We were Numanoids.
1980: Enola Gay (OMD)
OMD finally hit it big with this song, which is widely regarded as one of the greatest songs of the era. Enola Gay doesn’t follow Numan’s format of painting a grim post-apocalyptic future, but rather looks back on the nuclear bombing of Japan in World war II. The hit single was released around the time that British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher allowed American nuclear missiles to be based in England. My generation felt we had moved one step closer to Armageddon. OMD had perfectly captured the mood.
1981: The Voice (Ultravox)
This single by Midge Ure’s revamped Ultravox really hit the stride when it came to the sweeping synth-rock anthems the band became renowned for. The lyrics are somewhat obscure, the music enthralling, but what really gives the song a place on this list is the video... or rather one of the videos, as, oddly, two were produced for it. The film we are concerned with is a mish-mash of scenes that appear to show soldiers and civilians being incinerated in a nuclear blast. A grim-faced newscaster tells the world. Meanwhile, a famous pianist’s music is seen as a force for peace, symbolised by the presence of white doves. Later, white robed people, perhaps some kind of priests, release more white doves. An overlay of text seems to indicate that things go wrong when people follow orders, or believe the media too much. It’s vague, it’s somewhat confused, but together its components hit a nerve.
1982: Mad World (Tears For Fears)
The synth rhythms of Mad World moved on a step from the likes of Numan and Ultravox. The sound was more organic, more personal, a move that reflected the evolution of New Wave music. The change was also apparent in the lyrics. No future dystopia here, or warnings of nuclear doom. Nevertheless, a song that contained the haunting lyric, the dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had clearly had its roots in the darkness of ’79 and ’80. Famously, the band’s name was inspired by Primal Therapy, a form of psychotherapy intended to relieve neurosis caused by childhood trauma. That was something the Threads generation could relate to. But instead of painting a sweeping picture of global destruction, this song directed listeners to their own inner pain. Perhaps it was a small step in the inexorable drive toward the Me! Me! Me! culture of the later ‘80’s. Still, it captured enough of the feel of Armageddon to be featured in the brilliant movie Donnie Darko, which, of course, deals with a disaffected young outsider and the end of the world.
1983: Blue Monday (New Order)
New Order arose from the ashes of Joy Division, and were steeped in synthesizer sounds. Blue Monday a huge hit for this band whose terrible vocals somehow never came in for the media abuse suffered by Gary Numan. Blue Monday, for all its insistent synth and dark, dour lyrics, is unashamedly a dance track. It is probably the song that signalled the beginning of the end of post-Punk New Wave as pop-rock. A nightclub I used to attend had a second dance floor hidden away, where the songs were all Punk and New Wave. Pretty much no one danced, but we all looked incredibly cool. We drank, we smoked ordinary cigarettes, and we copped off. No one was dropping tablets in a place like that (maybe a bit of speed). Blue Monday was club music for the other type of club. For the post-Punks, it seemed like this type of music was the start of the downward slope... into ‘house’ music, and ‘raves’ whatever the hell they were. The 80’s – the 80’s that other people remember – had arrived.
Before the 80’s finally disappeared up its own arsehole however, there was one last throw of the dice, as synth-rock gave us the all-time great nuclear Armageddon anthem...
1984: Dancing With Tears in My eyes (Ultravox)
A stunning anthemic tour of the last moments before the Big One drops, and we all leave our shadows behind, in the way OMD’s Enola Gay lyric, it’s 8.15, and that’s the time that it’s always been envisioned. DWTiME was the last word in sweeping apocalyptic post-Punk synth-rock. An immortal anthem, it had the slowly-maturing kids of the Threads generation nodding their heads, and saying Yes, that’s our nightmare, right there.
Words © Darren R. Scothern, 2016.
A couple of weeks ago, I came across an advert on Facebook, thinly disguised as a 'suggested post'. It immediately struck me as not quite right. It was one of those 'too good to be true' adverts, and as this particular ad was clearly targeted at aspiring writers who might be a bit naive about the horrible exploitative culture directed at them, I decided to investigate.
It only took me two clicks to get to the bottom of what I believe is verging on a scam. I posted a comment to that effect on the 'suggested post.' My comment was deleted. I posted another comment, which was also deleted. Now, I am unable to post further comments. I have been 'banned', for sticking up for the fair treatment of new and aspiring writers. However, I will not be silenced.
First of all, here is a screenshot of the 'suggested post':
(The screenshot is actually a variation on the original ad I saw. The original made more 'in your face' claims about how to be a successful 'author'*.)
So, this screenshot shows an ad that is encouraging 'authors'* to learn how to sell their books successfully. This is just one example from a whole industry that is making money out of aspiring writers. Now, you may be wondering how this ad is going to get any money out of aspiring writers**, when it is offering a FREE course. I'll get to that shortly. But first, a word about this industry that is leeching money from aspiring writers** who should be earning money from their writing, not giving their cash away.
There are magazines aimed at writers that are published monthly, bi-monthly, quarterly, whatever. They don't come cheap. These magazines offer tips about writing, inspirational quotes from famous writers, interviews with famous writers, lists of publishers, how-to guides on getting published, etc, etc. If you were to subscribe to a couple of these magazines for a year, it would make a serious dent in your income. And yet, these magazines are targeted at aspiring writers** (why the asterisks, you may be wondering - I'll answer that at the end of this blog post). These magazines also contain page after page of adverts for writers' courses, books about writing, residential writers getaway breaks, etc, etc. Everything and anything to try and persuade aspiring writers** to spend their money. But ask yourself this - do you think JK Rowling goes on these courses? Does she read book after book about writing skills from writers far less successful than herself? What about Stephen King? Ian McEwan? Did Charles Dickens need them? Jane Austen?
The art of storytelling was laid bare thousands of years ago in Aristotle's Poetics, which you can read for a small outlay in paperback, or next to nothing on various e-readers, or totally free from various websites. If you want to learn more, you can buy some excellent paperbacks or e-books by some bestselling authors who really know what they are talking about (see my recommended list, below). Not failures riding the coattails of the famous by publishing interviews and tired old 'inspirational' quotes in expensive glossy magazines.
Let me make myself clear: The art and craft of writing is not a secret. It's intricacies are as old as storytelling itself, and they need only practice and a self-critical eye to master them.
But wait, I hear you cry, the advert you object to is pushing selling, not writing. True. It is a tricky new entry into the field of exploitation of aspiring writers**. And it contains a nasty, evil deception. Read on.
If you were to click on the ad on Facebook, it would take you to a web page, a screenshot of which is below:
Now, under the rather self-satisfied, some might say smug, expression of this self-declared high-earner, we see some icons intended to give the guy some authenticity. And I agree with the assertion that this is indeed a golden age for writers (thankfully, he drops the term 'author' on that banner). Notice in the body text, the word 'FREE' - in bold, no less. This guy is offering, from the goodness of his very heart, to give you a FREE course that will help you to emulate his success, and become a best-selling 'author' (here we go again) and build your own six-figure annual income. This is FREE people! FREE, I TELL YOU! So, what happens, do you think, when you click further? Well, see for yourself on the screenshot below.
Yes, you may have already guessed it - the FREE course is about using a PAID advertising service on Facebook! EUREKA! For FREE I can learn how to spend my money on Facebook ads! You know those ads that everyone ignores? THEM! AWESOME! Below, is a screenshot from the web form you have to fill in to place adverts on Facebook - you will notice that it asks you how much you want to SPEND.
Not only that, but Facebook will require your bank details, in order to take payment:
Now, some of you may be thinking that it's worth it. That you would spend your money to advertise your lovingly crafted, self-published book on Facebook. Hey - it's your money. But I would implore you to do four simple things first:
1: Put a value - a cash value - on the time and effort you have put into writing that book. In other words, decide on an 'hourly rate' you think you deserve to earn as a writer. Work out how much profit you make from the sale of each copy of your book that you sell. (For most indie writers, you'll see it as a few pence / cents per unit... and that's before you account for the cost of all the stationery / electronics you used when writing. Then work out how many copies of your book you'll have to sell to cover your hourly rate and costs in order to make some money. Then ask yourself how many conversions of Facebook ads into sales you would need to make it happen. Try not to throw up.
2: Ask yourself how many of the truly successful writers you think had to pay to get their books advertised. Or did their publishers pay for the advertising, as well as giving the writer an advance and royalties because they could see the writing was good enough to sell?
3: Bear in mind that recently released figures showed that the average professional writer in the UK earns an annual salary of £11,000. Not enough to live on particularly comfortably, and when you consider how much time goes into writing and rewriting a book, well below the minimum wage!
4: Ask yourself this: Is your drive to write really about money, or about the art? Think about this one seriously. I would suggest that if you are chasing money, your focus is not on your art. Furthermore, if your writing is good enough, word will get around. It might not happen in your lifetime, but hey, why are you writing? For the expression, or for the cash? If you just want fame and cash from your writing, you will need a huge dollop of luck. For most writers - even talented, brilliant writers - it never comes. And it certainly won't come from little squares on Facebook pages that most people barely give a WTF to. Here is a short list of writers who became famous only after their deaths.
Lastly: Write well. If it's good enough, you won't need a course on how to advertise on Facebook.
*'Author' or 'writer'? Most people use the words inter-changeably. I would argue that there is a subtle difference in usage, regardless of what any dictionary might say. Most people would agree, I think, that author has a slightly higher register to it. It has hints of the word authority, for example. It also assumes that the work is complete. In other words, you can say you are writing a book, but you wouldn't really say you are authoring a book. To be a successful author, you need (only) have a successfully published book to your name. To be a successful writer, you have to write. You have to work. Katie 'Jordan' Price is a successful author. You'd struggle to find anyone who would seriously call her a writer, though. Someone does it for her. The distinction can be quite subtle, yes, but when it comes to sending sneaky, subliminal signals to unwary aspiring writers**, it's worth pointing out.
**'Aspiring writers'. I hate this term. It helps perpetuate a myth that there is some secret key, some mystical gateway, to becoming a writer beyond simply writing. And it is this myth that is exploited by the leeching industry that preys on those who see themselves as aspiring writers. They are looking for the key, the magic wand. People - there is none. Let's get this straight. If you write, you are a writer. There is nothing aspirational about it. As for success - success is in your mind. All too many people who fall for the myth, and consider themselves as aspirational writers, seem to think that success equals money. I'm not going to repeat myself here - re-read point 4, above.
I'm sure most of us would love the opportunity to sit down with our favourite successful (whatever that means) writer, and pick her or his brains. In the unfortunate circumstances of this not happening, there are actually a few really good books about writing out there that might cost you a small outlay, but are of high quality, and will cost you a lot less than subscribing to a half-arsed magazine for a year, or forking out for a residential writers' course run by failures and wannabes. The list below is not exhaustive, but in my opinion these books offer some of the best thoughts, advice and coaching for writers you can get. Here they are:
The Poetics by Aristotle. Where it all began, people.
Story by Robert McKee. This book was intended for screenwriters, but its study of story structure is incredible in its scope and detail. Many fiction writers keep it by their side. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
On Writing by Stephen King. This one has a slightly different approach, and contains a large amount of autobiographical detail. It certainly illustrates the fragile and slender line between financial success and failure in writing. King's approach to the craft of writing won't work for everyone, but it forms an interesting counterpoint to the structured approach of Robert McKee.
How to Write Damn Good Fiction by James N. Frey. Now, Mr Frey has come in for a certain amount of criticism over his behaviour (google it), and rightly so. However, in terms of advice and coaching for writing page-turning popular fiction, this book is simply terrific.
Words © Darren R. Scothern 2015