Student Activism is a Catalyst for Change

This article was originally published in Edinburgh University’s ‘The Student’ on the 30/09/2014. It can also be accessed online here.

Climate change. We all know the risks of doing nothing, and yet we are all guilty of doing too little. After all, having heard the global warming story a thousand times before, you wouldn’t be alone in assuming the public had lost interest. And then, from this atmosphere of apparent apathy, this weekend witnessed the largest climate change protest march in history.

In Edinburgh, thousands of local activists flooded the city centre for the People’s Climate March, in order to put pressure on delegates attending the UN Climate summit in New York this week. Parallel marches in over 150 countries worldwide saw countless protestors getting involved; well over 300,000 people took to the streets of Manhattan alone, figures which put the Occupy movement into the shade. Proving once and for all that the global public are no longer prepared to let politicians sidestep environmental issues, this is clearly a climatic moment for grassroots action on climate change.

Reflecting this, the pledges made at the New York summit do give grounds for cautious hope. Suffering acutely from pollution, China has for the first time pledged to take action on global warming, although Obama still struggles with an unwilling Congress. Yet as shown by the spectacular failure of the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit, protest marches in isolation have little impact on political wrangling. Vocal organisations such as Greenpeace and innumerable studies have made it clear for years that the public support for climate action is already there. Rather, it is the recent increase in extreme weather events such as Typhoon Haiyan and Hurricane Sandy, with their devastating economic and humanitarian consequences, which finally has leaders waking up to the reality of failing to act.

Yet we simply cannot afford to wait for the rising sea levels and drought to have arrived on our doorsteps before our leaders are galvanised into action. Therefore, in order to enact reform, the public will to have to start pushing for it harder and faster than ever before. When world leaders renege on their promises, we need to keep mass campaigns like the People’s Climate March going to show them that the public will not stop demanding change.

Fortunately, the People’s Climate March is by no means the only environmental action currently making headlines. Across the world, the campaign for fossil fuels divestment – the withdrawal of funds from fossil fuels investments – is picking up speed. In a striking and symbolic move, the heirs to the Rockefeller oil fortune divested from fossil fuels this week. In Britain, Oxfordshire County Council and the British Medical Association are leading the way. The University of Glasgow may soon follow suit; however, despite pressure from student action groups, the University of Edinburgh is hesitating on the brink of action. Stalling such as this from institutions everywhere is why we cannot let the momentum of the moment slide.

Protest marches do a crucial job in raising awareness, and proving to politicians that climate change is still very much on the minds of voters is arguably half the battle. However, the unfortunate truth is that governments remain too self-interested to take action on climate change until the consequences become too real, and too painful, to ignore. Politicians may finally be waking up to reality, but we need grassroots action to keep them on their toes until actual change, and not just the will to change, is visible through genuine action throughout the establishment.

It was correct of Cameron to laud the achievements of Paisley’s career

Published in The Student Online 20/09/2014.  It can also be read here. 

Since the death of Ian Paisley last Friday, the former First Minister of Northern Ireland, he has had his political record lauded across the establishment, including by David Cameron. Yet this has perhaps painted the monolith of Unionist politics in a more magnanimous light than he deserves. After all, the tangled history of Northern Ireland is undeniably one of atrocities committed on both sides, and we should not forget how Paisley helped prolong the conflict, despite his eventual move to heal those wounds. As founder and leader of the dominant Democratic Unionist Party, Paisley was an instrumental figure during the Troubles, with his hard-line stance standing in the way of democratic progress. His campaign against the peaceful partnership proposed by the Sunningdale Agreement of 1973 arguably provoked one of the bloodiest attacks of the conflict, and this is merely a single case where his pigheadedness reinforced the brutal deadlock suffered by Northern Ireland for decades. As a strong advocate of both religious intolerance and the criminalisation of homosexuality, Paisley also held many personal opinions entirely anathema to the values of the United Kingdom today. Yet on the wake of his death both his bigotry and his political failings are being brushed under the carpet, in what initially appears an unreasonably rose-tinted move.

However, Paisley’s shortcomings are overshadowed by a startling turnaround towards the end of his career, that constituted a significant contribution to securing a peaceful future for Northern Ireland. In 2005 Paisley’s DUP entered a coalition with Sinn Féin, allowing the second largest party into government for the first time. This was both a difficult and morally ambiguous decision due to Sinn Féin’s close links with the IRA, the republican terrorist organisation responsible for much bloodshed. But by co-operating with Sinn Féin Paisley was instrumental in creating what a century of conflict had failed to achieve – a Northern Ireland where both unionist and republican views are respected in politics. Paisley’s Sinn Féin coalition proved that the obstinate and prejudiced establishment had finally conceded that however morally indefensible the actions of the opposition, it would be foolish, dangerous and undemocratic to continue to ignore the voice of republicanism.

We should be grateful that even a man as militant and unreasonable as Paisley had the moral courage, at the crucial moment, to put his beliefs behind him in order to secure peace and stability for his country. After so many decades of violence, his decision was undoubtedly for the greater good. Paisley may have been small-minded, but whereas his bigoted beliefs belong to a different era, it is his legacy to Northern Ireland which matters today. Neither side involved in the Troubles is guiltless, but it took one man to concede to compromise in order to put those troubles behind. It was thus correct of Cameron to laud the achievements of Paisley’s career without dragging up his earlier failings. A generation on from the Troubles, we can only regret that both sides did not lay down their weapons sooner. Northern Ireland today is by no means a politically united country, but it is a stable and relatively peaceful one. And for that, we have Paisley’s legacy to be thankful for.

Blame the Industry, Not Just Miley

Published in University of Edinburgh’s ‘The Student’ on 15/10/2013

Take a minute to imagine something: Chris Brown grinding against a wall while wearing only his underwear; Olly Murs rolling on the floor, in a see-through spangled leotard; Flo Rida, slut dropping and slapping his ‘big booty’. These make utterly bizarre and inappropriate images – and yet for women in the music industry, this sort of behaviour is all par for the course. Fortunately however, this issue is at last getting the attention it deserves.

In response to Miley Cyrus’ infamous hammer-licking video for Wrecking Ball, Sinead O’Connor last week urged the young singer not to let herself be ‘prostituted’ by the music industry. Claiming to do so out of concern, O’Connor also acknowledged Miley’ talent, but her advice was not taken gladly and Miley justly lost much public sympathy after mocking O’Connor’s former mental health struggles on twitter. Coupled with her controversial VMA performance last month, this has secured Miley’s place as the current focus of debate about the sexual objectification of women in the music industry.

There can be no doubt that the sexually explicit performances of Miley and other artists not only reinforce the vicious cycle of exploitation within the industry, but encourage the objectification and degradation of women in everyday life by teaching young adults that a girl’s sex appeal is more valuable than her personality. Yet Miley’s staunch defence of her behaviour suggests that perhaps surprisingly, she is no victim of a management determined, as O’Connor’s says, to ‘pimp out’ their fresh new talent. Presumably in full control of the provocative material she produces, her goal is clearly both to gain as much media coverage as possible and to distance herself from her squeaky-clean past as Hannah Montana, by portraying herself as an ‘adult’.

So why have Miley’s attempts to ‘own’ her sexuality provoked so much outrage, when Rihanna, Britney and others are similarly provocative without comment? On the surface, it seems down to the fact that Miley’s overt determination to be outrageous comes across as obnoxious, but there’s also something more sinister at work here – the virgin-whore complex still displayed by parts of society. This is essentially the misogynistic categorisation of women who express their sexuality in any way as ‘whores’ or ‘sluts’. It’s interesting to note that while Miley’s self-degrading performances are promoting the cycle of internalised misogyny, so too are her critics by slut-shaming women who express their sexualities in ways they don’t like. Many of the attacks on Miley stem from objection to her transition from the ‘good’, virginal Disney star into the ‘bad’ sexually active performance artist. This is of course ridiculous; Cyrus is a grown woman with the right to control her own body. But it doesn’t change the fact that the way she chooses to demonstrate her control has crossed a line, to the point where she’s paradoxically promoting the very attitude she’s trying to transcend.

It’s depressing that stripping off and twerking is what female artists believe will bring them popularity and respect, but we must consider who it is that has taught them this lesson. As the consumers of pop culture, our attitude is a major part of the problem. The more the public welcomes artists whose ‘talent’ is clearly down to how much flesh they put on display rather than the quality of their voice, the more the industry will provide them.

If we want the exploitation of women in the music industry to end, then we’re going to have to stop listening, and start doing the talking. In an ideal society, the public wouldn’t judge Miley Cyrus for choosing what to do with her body. But more importantly, in an ideal society, Miley Cyrus wouldn’t need to be sexually provocative with her body in order to get attention in the first place.