How Slavery is still legal in the UK

The reality is slavery is still alive and well in this world, including the UK. Not only is this upsetting but also difficult to acknowledge; how can one of the world’s most economically and ethically developed nations still not only tolerate, but participate, in slavery without offending and outraging wider society? The answer is simple; informally.

Firstly, to understand this it is important to acknowledge different forms of slavery. Historically slaves have been regarded as legal property as opposed to individual humans. This was not only the case in the notorious slave trade from Africa to various plantations around the world, but also existed in a variety of other forms as well, such as in feudal Europe and the serf based economies of eastern-Europe, Russia and Asia. For those unfamiliar with these systems, although technically not property, the serfs or peasants essentially counted as a part of the property that they worked and had been dehumanised. These individuals had been forced to produce food on land they didn’t own in return for somewhere to live and a small amount of food for themselves producing massive profit for those higher up the social ladder.

‘What has this got to do with slavery in the modern day UK?’ you may ask. Well, picture an individual who works a 9-5 job for a wage. This person will be generating for their company or organisation more than their wage in goods or services providing profit for the employer. This is not intrinsically negative; however, what happens is this individual will then have to fund their transport and food to sustain a life in which they are able to work. This again is not completely unreasonable. But even reasonability has limits, in this case, excessive rent. An individual, particularly in Surrey, is lucky to find a 1-bed for less that about £650 monthly. If we subtract that from low-medium income, that presents a substantial chunk of their monthly pay; for cheap accommodation it could be up to a third of your wages. Now the necessities mentioned previously; food, travel and even utilities start to take their toll. This is essentially slavery; more akin to the aforementioned serfdom than the far more brutal slave trade beginning in the 17th century but slavery nonetheless. You are forced to work with so many constraints on your income that you are left with very little spare per month to enjoy the life your hard work genuinely warrants.

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I am a strong supporter of the state safety-net, our benefits system, helping those less fortunate than us. Equally, as a worker, I get frustrated with those who cheat the system. When you look at a system that will hand an individual enough money to escape this cycle of exploitation, a level of empathy can be established and you understand why people will be exploitative of this system. View the choice from their perspective; working a 9-5 job and having all your wages consumed by those seeking to exploit you for profit (landlords, utilities, food, travel), or you could not work, do what you want with your time, not be exploited and be in a similar financial situation. From a sensible perspective it stands to reason that people, especially those who would otherwise be on a low income, may wish to avoid work.

Now you see that a cycle is in place that will create a society of people who can afford to do little more than work, sleep and eat in which people are profiting from them from all angles, through food, utilities and work in a parasitic-like manner and those that leave attempt to leave this system end up demonized by society and ‘benefits-porn’ television shows such as ‘Jeremy Kyle’ and ‘Benefits Street’.  This effectively creates a scapegoat; the anger felt by the oppressed is angled and manipulated by television and newspapers towards those with the same frustrations as themselves. You look at these scenarios and ask you self; is this fair? What can be done to change this? With rent in Surrey and especially London rising year after year, social cleansing is evident. There are a number of ways to end this system of exploitative profiteering (all of them unappealing to the exploiters); impose a cap on rent per region, nationalise utilities and travel, increase wages. Now not only would this improve the scenario of millions of people oppressed through our current system by giving them ‘spare money’; through money comes choice, and therefore elements of freedom, and with people spending more of this ‘spare money’ they are improving not only their quality of life but they are also investing in to our economy.

Freedom as a word is different to freedom in practice. Right now you have the choice to varying degrees of how you are exploited. Having real and true choice costs money. Those crushed under exploiters are not free. They are slaves.


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Orwell, Freedom of Speech and the Meaning of Liberty

In these turbulent political times, what can we learn from the man widely regarded as one of the most important voices of his generation?

Politics feels particularly tribal these days with little room for balance or nuance around today’s main discussion topics. In Britain this polarisation has become glaringly apparent in the aftermath of the last year’s EU referendum and the recent general election.

In the United States, the political earthquake that was Donald Trump’s election to the White House, shortly followed by the “alternative facts” debacle, led to an increased interest in the work of George Orwell. We were living, it seemed, in a post-truth era and Orwell was the man who could offer the literary antidote.

After all, this most prescient of authors had written of this almost seventy years earlier in his dystopian classic 1984. Sales of this book, incidentally, soared in the wake of the alternative facts revelations.

It is tempting to theorise what Orwell would have made of the current political scene, but such an analysis would likely require more than one article.

There is, however, one area in which it is not hard to hypothesise about Orwell’s views and that is the current trend for No Platforming – that is, the banning of those with supposedly ‘unsayable’ views from expressing them in public.

Whilst this always dubious practice has historically been used to suppress those with violent, fascist tendencies, this is no longer always the case. Nowadays, it takes much less to get no platformed, as people like Julie Bindel, Peter Tatchell and even Richard Dawkins can attest. The no platforming of Tatchell, a prominent gay rights activist for many decades, is particularly absurd. An indication of the direction this policy has taken. People are now being made into pariahs for misjudged or ill-advised comments that fall foul of the prevailing liberal orthodoxy.

Another incident, not quite no platforming but along the same lines, came when Katie Hopkins, the notorious shock-jock, was subject to a mass walkout when speaking at Brunel University in 2015. It is necessary to insert a caveat here. Katie Hopkins’ ‘views’ are deeply unpleasant and purposely provocative. But then, isn’t this the point? Would it not be more effective to demonstrate these facts within a debate? Any competent debater could comfortably dismantle and discredit Hopkins’ arguments within a few minutes. No platforming such people validates their views in a way they do not deserve. It gives them the opportunity to accuse opponents of being afraid to debate them.

Take the example of former BNP leader Nick Griffin’s appearance on Question Time in 2009. Given a platform by the BBC, Griffin proceeded to deliver a flustered and unconvincing performance which prompted criticism from all sides, including his own supporters. Surely this proves that, rather than ignoring such individuals, giving them the opportunity to discredit themselves is preferable? After all, when you’ve just beaten yourself in a debate, who else can you blame?

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Freedom of speech is an essential part of any civilised democracy and no platforming in its current incarnation is becoming a threat to this. Britain’s universities shouldn’t be places where students are shielded from views which might upset them. Instead they should be places in which they are free to rebut, repudiate and counter their opponents. You cannot win a debate by muzzling your adversary.

All of this brings the conversation back to Orwell. What would he have made of the current state of debate in the UK? In attempting to answer this question, perhaps we should turn to one of his best-known utterances, namely: “if liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” The beauty of this quote is that it works both ways. People should have the right to tell us what we don’t want to hear, because their right to do so guarantees our right to do the same. This is the foundation of freedom of speech.

If we want to build and live in a fully inclusive society we must be willing to be exposed to views with which we disagree, sometimes even vehemently oppose. Provided people’s opinions do not incite hatred or violence then they must be guaranteed the right to express them. Failure to assure this right is not conducive to inclusive discourse and will inevitably foster resentment, tension and a generation of people who crumble when confronted with views which do not mirror their own: an echo chamber generation. To quote Orwell again: “threats to freedom of speech, writing and action, though often trivial in isolation, are cumulative in effect and, unless checked, lead to a general disrespect for the rights of the citizen.”

As Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, one of the most divisive political figures in recent years, said during Labour’s recent general election campaign: “everybody we meet knows something we don’t and everybody can teach us something.” Politicians, journalists and everybody else should not be afraid to be proved wrong, to learn and to improve. Admitting we are mistaken is not a demonstration of weakness, but of strength. After all, failure to concede we have been proven wrong does not hide the fact that we have.

Orwell was a fierce opponent of totalitarianism in all its forms and it stands to reason that he would oppose any attempt to shut down debate. He believed in “the power of facing unpleasant facts.” In other words, he wasn’t inhibited by political tribalism and could see things for what they were. If something was wrong, he would say so, regardless of who was responsible. This was a man accustomed to overcoming ingrained prejudice, having spent much time ‘unlearning’ some of the views his upbringing had instilled in him in relation to, among other things, the working class.

We can take much from his example. As the United Kingdom faces up to the reality of Brexit, arguably its biggest challenge since the time of Orwell, a political climate which is as inclusive as possible can only be beneficial. Party rivalry will rightly always exist and we can’t all be friends, but the right to air these differences in a civilised and respectful way must be preserved.

It is interesting and rather apt that over the years both the right and left have made attempts to claim Orwell as one of their own. Regardless of where he would have sat on today’s political spectrum, we can all learn from his honesty and unflinching commitment to democracy and liberty.

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Negative news and the compassionate revolution

On 29th April 2015 convicted Australian drug smugglers Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumuran were among a group of eight people executed by firing squad in Indonesia. The case had drawn a huge amount of media attention, not only because the pair were Australian, but also due to the exemplary rehabilitation they underwent during their incarceration. Despite living under constant fear of execution for nine years, the pair had both managed to better themselves as individuals during this time, and give help and support to fellow inmates.

I remember following the case myself, and signing all the relevant petitions to have the pair released, or at least not executed. Sadly it was already clear that these petitions would be ineffective, but it felt important to try and do something to help them. I assumed that everybody would feel the same way I did, and would be campaigning for both men to be shown mercy. However, I soon learnt that this wasn’t the case. In fact, it was quite the opposite. A large percentage of people I spoke to, both online and in person, believed that because Andrew and Myuran knew the risks, they deserved their punishment. The more I heard this opinion expressed, the more concerned I became. If a person goes driving without a seat belt on, and subsequently dies in a crash, would anybody say they deserved it?

It was the case of Andrew and Myuran that made me realise just how easy it can be for many people to dismiss the suffering of others. Especially when that suffering is not happening right in front of them. The rise in social media and the bombardment of negative news stories we each face on a daily basis may have a role to play in this. Negative news sells, and in a world where hundreds of channels have to fight for your attention, networks rely on getting the highest ratings however they can. Studies show that humans instinctively seek out negative information, and that this negative bias actually makes us remember and repeat bad news more often that good news.

Due to our societal preference for negative news, mainstream media today shows up to seventeen times more negative news stories than positive ones. Is this a sign that we live in a predominantly negative world? Perhaps, or perhaps not. It is, however, a sign that good news simply doesn’t attract enough viewers or readers compared to bad news.

This rolling coverage of negativity, delivered to us by 24-hour news channels and social media may feed our appetite for “survival-relevant” information, but it also desensitises us to the awful things we see when we watch or read such news stories. A study in 1982 by the National Institute of Mental Health concluded that regular viewing of violent images on the television can cause children to not only become more fearful of the world around them, but also become less sensitive to the pain and suffering of others. This certainly seems feasible, especially when you consider the findings of a study by the University of Michigan which found that college students today are significantly less empathetic than those in the 80’s and 90’s were. Not only does the decrease in empathy seem to correlate with the increase in exposure to violent images on the television, but the biggest drop seems to come after the year 2000, which coincides with the rise in popularity of social media. The study of over 14,000 students over 30 years found that modern students are roughly 40% less empathetic than their counterparts of 20 to 30 years ago.

This data is easy to believe. A short scroll through the comments section of any news story will attest to the fact that compassion and empathy are fast becoming rare commodities. The coverage of the European migrant crisis demonstrated this perfectly, as huge volumes of people criticised those who fled the ravages of war, not giving any thought to whether or not they would do the same in that situation. Commentators such as Katie Hopkins compared migrants to cockroaches and called for their boats to be shot at; and people cheered her on, blissfully and intentionally ignorant to just what it was those people were fleeing.

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It may be that a lack of compassion is an intentional trait, used by many as a shield to protect themselves from the horrors they see in the world. By justifying something that feels wrong, we create rationalisations that help us assuage feelings of guilt. These techniques make it easy for animal lovers to eat meat; for parents to buy clothes made by foreign children in sweatshops; and for defenders of democracy to call for bans on certain ideologies. We are able to do these things either by justifying the suffering our actions cause, or indulging in apathy. Perhaps the scariest thing would be to admit to ourselves that we care.

A world of rapidly decreasing empathy is a welcome playground for governments and large corporations, many of whom rely on exploiting resource-rich foreign nations. A society that is caring less each year about family, friends and neighbours is increasingly unlikely to make a fuss about unethical foreign policy. The British government can sell weapons to Saudi to be dropped on Yemen, and the outcry from the people of Britain will remain minimal. Even when the wars we fund spill out into the wider world, we can turn a blind eye and convince ourselves that whoever is suffering, even when it’s at our hands, probably deserves it.

Of course, it’s never too late to make changes. Compassion and empathy are powerful tools that not only help those who wield them, but also improve the lives of others. If we all endeavour to make more compassionate decisions, and inspire others to do the same, then we stand a better chance of creating a better world for future generations to enjoy.

Human history has been shaped to this point by three major revolutions; the Cognitive Revolution, the Agricultural Revolution and the Scientific Revolution. Perhaps the next step is one that liberates us all in a way that nothing before it ever has. It starts with looking at how we treat one another, and how we care for the animals with whom we share this planet. It might involve making small changes such as where we shop, what we eat or what we buy, but ultimately it will empower every single individual to make choices which have a far reaching positive effect. It’s when we all make these small changes that big changes will follow. Future generations may look back at us now and question how we came so close to abandoning our principles, stuck in this era of apathy. But perhaps they’ll also be looking back at us from the other side of the most important stage in mankind’s history; the Compassionate Revolution.

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