What kind of a year has 2013 been for social justice? If you were to ask social justice itself, ‘How was it for you?’, that much invoked but poorly understood concept might have some justifiable causes for complaint. But where does one begin the roll of dishonour when we’re so spoiled for choice? Perhaps by going back to basics. At this time of year, one can of course reliably turn to Fox News for a sprinkling of festive horrendousness.
Last week Fox presenter Megyn Kelly told viewers that it was a ‘verifiable fact’ that both Jesus Christ and Santa Claus were white. After all, as Kelly argues, ‘Why change it just because it makes you uncomfortable?’ One is tempted to observe that we can of course simply change the channel. But if we dismiss Fox News (and our own purveyors of lurid tabloid inanities) as mere ghoulish ‘entertainment’, we do so at our peril. For such a stance underestimates their social impact in shaping not just what counts for ‘news’, but in circulating narratives that shape – and disfigure - the culture. Take the question of racism.
In the year that the unmatched and magisterial Nelson Mandela died, and we had the 58th anniversary of Rosa Parks refusing to get out of her seat on a bus in Alabama, racial injustice, racial disparity – and just plain racism - remain far from eradicated. For particular lowlights we can marvel at the sheer appallingness of the Daily Express’s crassly named ‘Crusade’ to ban new migration. Then there was the Daily Star’s hysterical prophesy of war: alerting us that an ‘army’ of 200,000 Roma migrants had already ‘infiltrated’ our borders and a further invasion force was on the way. Contrast this with some inconveniently sobering facts, elucidated by former diplomat Sir David Warren.
In his piece in the Independent, Warren pointed out that ‘All the evidence is that migrants put more into the economy than they take out. Only a tiny minority – around 6 per cent – claim benefits.’ These competing claims must be seen in the context of the fractious debate that raged around the Immigration Bill (and still does). But where to start with this misconceived, shamelessly opportunistic, affront to social cohesion?
What is especially contemptible about this piece of legislation is that it both panders to base populist instincts towards outgroups and foments social disharmony – all in one neat legislative package. Disastrous. And around the same time, we were treated to the Bill’s dangerous corollaries: vans driving around London displaying messages that people illegally in the UK should go home; and unsolicited text messages such as this sent by the UK Border Agency: ‘In the UK illegally? Go home or face arrest. Text HOME to 78070’ - never mind that messages were also sent to legally resident minority ethnic people. Finally on this, it would be a serious omission to forget the woefully inappropriate tweet from Guildford police, after a joint ‘operation’ with the UKBA: “Officers 1 Immigrants 0!! #WeWillCatchUpWithYou.” One hopes that the officers in question have now been informed that not all migration to the UK is illegal.
Overall 2013 has been marked by yet more neoliberal damage to the social fabric. The structural weaknesses of this ideology, with the creeping marketisation of social life at its centre, have marred the economy, education and criminal justice, to name but three. Along with this process has been the intensification of what French social theorist Pierre Bourdieu calls ‘social suffering’.
It is, for example, dispiriting to see foodbanks in Britain in the 21st century; regrettable to see a Minister of State (Danny Alexander) smiling for the camera at a foodbank in Inverness. But beyond deprecating this PR faux pas, what is required is a cool analysis of the structural drivers that produce and reproduce the conditions for foodbank flourishing (which I will come to). It appears that the situation is set to deteriorate. The Trussell Trust reports the biggest ever rise in the use of their foodbanks, with 350,000 people receiving at least three days’ emergency food (a 170 percent increase in the year). As the organisation reports, these alarming numbers predate April’s welfare reforms, so the figure is bound to rise.
To contextualise such unwelcome news, we need to understand how neoliberalism produces vast inequalities of wealth. How its attack on social welfare, and the associated demonisation of benefit claimants, must be viewed with the same lens as we examine its over-reliance on incarceration. The structural logic of the ideology creates enrichment at the top of social space and deleterious consequences at the other end: the production of insecurity and the reliance on punitivism and incarceration.
In England and Wales the prison population hovers around 85,000, near its historic high. At the same time, as the Howard League points out, there is chronic overcrowding with almost one quarter of the people incarcerated doubling up in cells designed for one person. Simultaneously, another part of the criminal justice system teeters on the brink of meltdown due to myopic and misconceived governmental plans to mangle Legal Aid.
The all-party Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights has warned Justice Secretary Chris Grayling that his proposed cuts may breach human rights. And in an unprecedented step, barristers will engage in a day of protest meetings in January. It is not without a sense of very real trepidation that one wonders what will be left of adequate access to justice for those who cannot afford their own lawyers - not just in five years, but by this time next year.
Female Genital Mutilation
Nevertheless in a world of bitter (and frequently futile) party political posturing, one would have imagined that one issue around which a respectful truce would have coalesced is Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). But no. Four Conservative MEPs voted against the motion in the European Parliament condemning FGM, a course of action that provoked International Development Minister Lynne Featherstone to criticise their ‘undermining’ of Britain’s role in combating FGM. If you haven’t had the opportunity to follow the intensifying campaign against FGM, let me outline the dispiriting aspects of the present situation along with a hope for 2014.
Recently an intercollegiate group of Royal Colleges reported that approximately 24,000 young women and girls in the UK were at serious risk of genital mutilation this year or would in fact be mutilated. The practice takes a number of different forms, but essentially amounts to the mutilation of the genitalia for non-medical reasons. Although there were recent arrests in the UK for the suspected mutilation of a baby a number of weeks old, more typically the ‘cutting’ is inflicted on pre-pubescent girls aged between 5 and 10. (It is sometimes also inflicted on older girls.) The practice has been a criminal offence in Britain since 1985, and carries a maximum sentence of 14 years’ imprisonment, but there has not been a single successful prosecution in the UK.
Tackling FGM presents a formidable problem, since it requires a clear-sighted challenge to deeply entrenched cultural traditions among marginalised migrant communities, principally from sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. Frontline professionals have been unclear about their duties and wary of being accused of cultural insensitivity. To this end, this month the government issued new practitioner guidelines, but more than that, announced that in 2014 there will be the UK’s first Parliamentary Inquiry into FGM, to be chaired by Keith Vaz, MP. With suggestions from the new Director of Public Prosecutions that criminal cases are in the offing, there is some prospect that 2014 will see the first successful prosecution for FGM.
However, I would caution against any tendency towards triumphalism about such a development. The purpose is not to demonise migrant communities already subjected to social exclusion and discrimination – although we cannot ignore the fact that unsavoury extremist groups have deployed the issue as supposed evidence of the inherent ‘barbarism’ of Islam. (This is erroneous for two reasons. Firstly, the practice is not prescribed by Islam. Secondly, it is also practised by adherents of Christianity, Judaism and animist religions.) So we must guard against any successful prosecution being strategically utilised to deepen communal divides.
On the other hand, we are entitled to welcome a criminal prosecution as an important symbolic marker, a statement of collective intent, that a crime that has for too long proliferated behind a veil of silence will now be pursued with determination. Of course, legal sanctions are not enough. Real change must come from within practising communities, and it would be fanciful to think otherwise. But there needs to be a greater realisation that FGM, for all its cultural underpinnings, is inescapably and fundamentally an egregious violation of the bodily integrity of young women and girls.
We must resist the already circulating arguments that contesting FGM is the imperialistic imposition of external values. It is not. It is the protection and vindication of universally valid human rights that attach to all. Either young women and girls from practising communities possess these rights or they do not. If they do, then they are entitled to have them protected. Due to their very obvious vulnerability, that protection may have to be collective as well as community-specific. As has been frequently pointed out, it is inconceivable that if the mutilated victims were young white women and children there would not have been a deafening outcry. It is highly probable that thus far little has been done about these numerous mutilations largely because they have been seen as someone else’s problem. Therefore our resolve to eradicate the practice should not be affected by the ethnicity of the victims.
And so to 2014 …
Convention dictates that one ends a review such as this on a note of optimism. But when one thinks about the resumed Parliamentary passage of the Immigration Bill and the anti-migrant hostility that will accompany it, or the deepening immiseration of the most vulnerable in our society from the relentless programme of welfare vandalism and public spending cuts, it becomes disrespectful to paint an unrealistically rosy picture. The bald truth is that many metrics and social suffering scales will deteriorate. But hand in hand with that process - a natural consequence of neoliberalism - there is the opportunity for those who find this bifurcation of society morally abhorrent to work together to oppose it. The present administration may not be long for this world, but a change of government will little affect things if the servility to the myth of the market is not roundly rejected.
I would like to end on FGM because I sense that here credible hope exists. My wish for 2014 is that in the UK it becomes generally recognised that FGM is our problem. I hope that we come to acknowledge a common duty to challenge, publicise and oppose it. I believe that as the year turns we may be on the brink of a tipping point in the understanding of FGM in Britain. But with the plethora of deeply entrenched problems affecting society – those listed above are just a few – once FGM’s moment in the public spotlight fades the impetus for change may well weaken. We cannot let this happen.
For the sake of the many thousands of girls in the UK who are genitally mutilated every year, we must not let this happen. This above all is my hope for 2014. That we mark the year with a growing determination to stop this woeful practice. For every step in the right direction helps save another girl from mutilation.