Monday 24 October 2016

Kids, Jobsworths And Clowns at #Battleofideas

"The current fuss about creepy clowns is a pantomime version of the world. Adults are no longer able to lay the law down to kids, and life is ordered not for adults but for children".

So opined Dr Andrew Calcutt, a lecturer at the University of East London, during a Battle of Ideas panel debate this weekend discussing the so-called 'killer clown' craze which swept America and is now reaching panic proportions in the UK and beyond too.

He was referring to how online-led pranks such as these are well understood by teens on social media and that kids are generally unconcerned, but that media panic and moral outrage contribute to blow things out of all proportion, despite history telling us that crazes soon die down to be replaced by something else, especially if there is little fuss.

Dr Calcutt tops up with water prior to the 'killer clowns' panel
The "life is ordered not for adults but for children" idea could also just as easily have been adopted as a partial theme for the other two sessions I attended at the Barbican event though. In fact, this is my sixth year of rocking up to the annual Institute of Ideas free speech festival, and it could describe most of what I've seen over that period.

The first of my chosen sessions this year was "The Busybody State" which discussed how we have arrived at the position whereby so much human behaviour is now frowned upon and controlled by petty bureaucracy and poorly-trained citizen enforcers. The archetypal 'jobsworths' who can now issue fines for 'crimes' such as enjoying a barbecue on a beach, lying down in a public place, busking, smoking in a park, handing out leaflets on the High Street, and even reading poetry in a pub without a licence.

The panel for The Busybody State
As we know here, using children as a weapon to impose illiberal rules is a favourite tactic of 'public health'. Denying adults the freedom to smoke in public in case children see them is one particularly fascist application of the weapon, but Dr Jan MacVarish - a lecturer at the Centre for Parenting Culture Studies at the University of Kent - told of methods employed by the modern day health visitor which are arguably more sinister. Explaining how the state now assumes that all new parents are incompetent and therefore require guidance, she expressed mild exasperation that "there is no thought that parents might, you know, just work it out for themselves". That the child is precious and the parent assumed to be a vector for harm no matter the domestic environment.

Josie Appleton of the Manifesto Club had kicked off the panel - partly as an unofficial launch of her new book, Officious - with a speech detailing the history of officialdom and how its roots used to be to control based on class, and how this is still partly true. Speaking to about 200 people who had trekked to the very remote Frobisher Auditorium on the 4th floor ... with no lift - an attendance which illustrates how many people can identify with the deteriorating relationship between citizens and the locally-administered state - she ran through abuses of power such as PSPOs and other infringements on liberty and described how it seems that none of these petty rules are designed to advance the public good, but more to place the bureaucrat at the top of the food chain and to value rules over and above the preferences and choices of the public.

Full house to hear about The Busybody State
Fellow panellist Max Wind-Cowie - a self-professed big C conservative who appreciates rules and order but is still concerned about the rise in petty criminalisation of mundane activities - succinctly condensed this phenomenon as "we've nationalised the clip round the ear". And it's true. The public is not trusted to resolve conflicts over minor irritations amongst ourselves now, increasingly it is local councils who seem to believe that the only members of the public who can be trusted to tackle mildly icky behaviour are those deemed to be an "accredited person" after arguably scant training. An accredited person is now elevated above their peers and their word trusted in any case of disagreement. If you were to receive a penalty notice from one of these people, you could argue that you did not commit the offence - and you may be 100% correct - but their word is worth more than yours because they have been accredited.

Common sense and assumptions of innocence have been replaced by control and the assumption of state-designated power as infallible.

Mark Littlewood of the IEA suggested that skewed motivations were at fault for the burgeoning bully state promoted by local bureaucrats; that they may well believe that since local services are paid for by taxpayers, councillors and officials are obliged to do everything in their power to reduce - for example - discarded leaflets on the High Street due to a marginal increase in cleaning up costs. However, he pointed out that this incentive often disregards the greater goal of local harmony; that most of the public will rationally value freedoms and human interaction more than a few pennies here and there on a council spreadsheet. The problem, then, is that local authority incentives regularly fail to serve the public adequately. His suggested solution was to shift these motivations by "naming and shaming" the bureaucrats involved; to personalise the issue and remove anonymity. If Joe Bloggs, accredited person or bureaucrat, is exposed to ridicule when writing illiberal rules or rigidly enforcing them, it might encourage them to take into account more human decency and introduce some semblance of discretion which is very often lacking. Publicity, he argued, is something that bureaucrats fear greatly, and I would agree.

He also expressed dismay that these attitudes had spread from the public sector into private industry, citing one particular example as quite shocking.

Of course, we know that this too is a state-funded - and therefore public sector - problem brought about by tax-spongers at Healthy Stadia misleading sports clubs with deliberate lies based on ideology not health and others like them exaggerating miniscule concerns into something bigger. Pubs, for example, can't be guided in the right direction all the while ASH refuse to vocally object to bans and offer the dire insipid advice that they do. Not that this makes the problem of private sector bans any less worrying.

One of the reasons for e-cigs not being allowed in sports stadia, of course, is that children shouldn't see them, which also came up as a theme in the second of the BoI sessions I attended entitled "Does Britain have a gambling problem?".

The gambling panel in the Pit Theatre
On the far right of that pic above is John Crowley - Editor-in-Chief of International Business Times - who argued that Ray Winstone advertising betting companies during daytime sports shows should be banned because his children see him. When it was suggested that there are tools by which it is possible to ensure they don't, he replied that he didn't think it should be up to him to police what his kids see, so therefore the ads should be restricted to after 9pm.

He had used the example of the England cricket tour of Bangladesh which he'd been watching at 11am that morning by way of justification. I struggled to think how many cricket matches take place after 9pm whereby the obviously child-alluring Winstone might be allowed, but I suppose there might be some.

Crowley was also not enthused by the suggestion that technology could solve his very personal problem. It was advanced that it is very likely that digital viewing may very soon allow account-holders to decide which adverts they wish to see and which they don't. Considering that betting and gambling companies pay top dollar to advertise - and therefore subsidise TV subscription rates - it might be that those who opt to reject those industries advertising might pay a higher rate for their viewing, but it would be worth it so their kids wouldn't see ads they find objectionable, wouldn't it? I didn't get the impression that Crowley agreed.

His ally was the baddie of the whole day for me (there is always one, last year was the RSPH's Duncan Stephenson, you may recall). Step forward Jim Orford, Professor of clinical and community psychology at the University of Birmingham, and proud founder of Gambling Watch UK.

Jim Orford
In Orford's world, there are no redeeming features of gambling, no pleasure derived, merely problems. He argued that despite problem gambling only making up a tiny percentage of those who regularly enjoy a flutter (and even amongst those there will be a significant number who shouldn't be classified as such), it is still a big number so there should be far more restrictions. He naturally agreed that seductive kiddie corrupter Winstone should be removed from view for the children, but also advocated even more stringent measures. He spoke of how "the balance is increasingly wrong between freedom and regulation" and talked about "going back" to an era he viewed as far more acceptable. By the way he spoke, I imagined that would be around 1950 when gambling was banned and only Flash Harry bookie's runners ran the trade.

As a side note, it's interesting that when those of us who believe 'public health' has gone too far argue that we should go back to something more realistic, we are condemned as being stick-in-the-muds who have a glamourised view of the past, and that 'progress' is being made. But when progress involves liberalising rules, bansturbators squeal that only a Victorian appreciation of risk is acceptable.

For someone who mentioned children as a justification, Orford's own understanding of the betting industry was remarkably childlike. Citing the 2005 Gambling Act as a root of much evil, he spoke of how local councils are no longer able to restrict shops opening by having to prove "unmet demand" and that this has led to tons of them populating our High Streets and making them look grubby. It's an interesting argument but only if you have a rather arrogant view of how businesses and humans interact. He seemed to be saying that it is only the power of the state - and clever people like him, natch - which had been stopping bookies opening up in every available shop letting in every High Street in the country; that businesses never take into account whether there is demand for their product, they just want to place loss-making operations in as many locations as they can muster.

Likewise, that the moment a shop opens up, vacant proles are instantly deprived of their better instincts and are seduced, like automatons, into becoming enthusiastic gamblers against their will. The betting industry is incapable of assessing demand, only the state can do that; and consumers are woefully incompetent at assessing their own level of risk based on their income. Only Jim and his mates can do that.

This strikes me as an incredible position to take. It masks what is an in-built disgust for the will of people and the wisdom of businesses. He may couch his 'concern' in fluffy terms but his basic message is that people are stupid so can't be trusted. I'd far prefer it if those who favour restrictions and prohibition would just come out and honestly say that rather than pretend that they're 'protecting' the public from avaricious businesses who are apparently not interested in profit, but instead merely want to thrust shops onto poor hard-pressed local authorities just for a laugh.

If you think you might have seen these kind of methods before, you'd be right. Orford also talked about how ads should be banned "just like we did with tobacco" and spoke often about gambling as a 'public health' problem. It was quite clear he was using the same tactics and the same dubious manipulation of statistics - I was ticking off the instantly recognisable template sound bites as he spoke. At one point, he condemned the gambling industry for providing over 90% of funds for treating harmful gambling, saying the he would prefer that they were not involved at all. "It's significant", he asserted, "that the only conference on gambling harm is funded by the betting industry!". He didn't quite explain why he and others who feel the way he does didn't hold their own conferences as they are quite entitled to do.

By way of response, Malcolm George of the Association of British Bookmakers - who had sponsored the session and asked that Orford be invited to flay them - declared that if taxpayers wanted industry to butt out of programmes to help problem gamblers and for the state to pay for it instead, he'd be very happy (I wouldn't, for the record), but that he was proud of what they do.

Despite all that, it was a feisty session which is most welcome and why the Battle of Ideas is such a great event to attend. Yes there are some hideous people there at times but the motto is "Free Speech Allowed" which is its charm. I'm sure there were plenty who would have a polar opposite view than mine, and they often make themselves known in the Q&A periods. If only there were more opportunities like that in the policy areas we discuss here, eh tobacco control?

After those two sessions, it was curiosity which drew my pal and I to the hastily-arranged panel on "Creepy Clowns: Horror, social media and urban myth" and the aforementioned remarks of Dr Andrew Calcutt. Was this another case of kids being over-protected?

Perhaps so. At one point, a head teacher objected to the suggestion that creepy clowns are mostly benign, and - with a barely-suppressed anger - argued that it was "not fun, but anti-social". His view was very quickly counteracted by a couple of Year 10 students in the audience (there were many youngsters in the sessions I saw) who said that the "killer clowns" didn't bother them much at all. The media, it seems, were more squeamish about the whole palaver than the kids they were concerned about. It makes you wonder how the whole thing got elevated into such a moral panic (which we know will evaporate in very short order).

Perhaps, I dunno, red top news organisations could start by not calling them 'killer clowns' I suppose. Elevating pretty mundane concerns to the category of 'epidemics', 'ticking time bombs' and crises' which require 'urgent' or 'courageous' action - often by invoking the children - when it's almost never worth the hysteria, and almost always harms society for no good reason overall, is great for those who profit by promoting such panics, but never good for the rest of us who have to suffer a never-ending net deterioration in quality of life.

Maybe there's a lesson in there somewhere.

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