Saturday, 27 August 2016

Rant about Hollywood directors, German models and victim support

CafĂ© Society, the new Woody Allen movie, has come out.  It is apparently “an amusing little picture”.  I’ve not seen many of his movies, but I really enjoyed Match Point.
These days when I see some publicity for an Allen movie I am always reminded not of his undeniable skills as a movie maker, but the fact that according to his adopted daughter Dylan Farrow he sexually assaulted her when she was a child.  These allegations surfaced two years ago, were hardly mentioned in the media on this side of the Atlantic and subsequently disappeared from the public gaze completely.  But even at the time they were making the rounds in the media I was struck by how many Hollywood movie stars came out to defend him.  As if they knew whether the allegations were accurate or not.  To get past this problem time and again attention was drawn to the fact that Mr Allen has never been convicted of anything.  Which to my mind was and continues to be irrelevant.  And if I may be forgiven a smidgen of professional superiority, it shows to me that people who use it do not understand how the criminal justice system works.
There is a difference between the standard of proof that is required in civil and criminal cases.  A civil matter needs to be proven “on the balance of probabilities”.  If an event on the evidence is more likely to have happened than not, then the court will find it to have happened.  In criminal matters the standard is MUCH higher: it must be proven “beyond reasonable doubt” that the defendant is guilty.  In other words, even if the court were to think, hypothetically, that it is more likely than not that a certain Mr Allen sexually assaulted a certain Ms Farrow, it would still render a verdict of not guilty, unless it was almost certain that this had occurred.*
Sexual offences pose particular problems within the criminal justice system.  Most rapes occur between two parties that know each other, and the victims rarely put up a significant physical fight (see for example here and here for some more details).  This leads to the difficult scenario that the only evidence available is the testimony of the victim and the rapist.  In most cases this means that the rapist simply has to be acquitted, even if the court finds the victim’s testimony more credible than the denial of the rapist.  This is unfortunately the way it has to be, because of the grave consequences that attach to a criminal conviction.
This does not mean that the victim is lying and the rape did not occur.  It is for each of us to determine who and what we believe in any given scenario.  Given the obstacles faced by victims in reporting rape, and how little they have to gain by doing so, (see here for an example of police attitude to rape victims coming forward,) I am always inclined to believe a person who says she (or he) has been raped.  I would encourage you to question your reasons if you do not do the same.
As a practical matter, rape victims are unlikely to be interested in my belief in their word, unless they happen to be personal friends, in which case I understand that it matters a great deal.  But this has consequences for the society: there should be an absolute division between the criminal justice system and the assistance and support that is available for victims of sexual assault.  Victims should ALWAYS be believed when they say they have been raped and they should be cared for and assisted accordingly entirely irrespective of whether anyone has been convicted or even accused of the rape.
This simple principle explains why I am so royally upset by the recent case in Germany where Gina-Lisa Lohfink was convicted of falsely accusing two men of drugging and raping her in circumstances that are unclear.  I understand and accept that the accused gentlemen could not have been convicted as the evidence was not sufficient.  But to convict her (and remember here the very high standard that is required for a criminal conviction) is – to use a technical term – FUCKED UP.  It sends a frightening message, does untold damage to future victims of rape and sexual assault in Germany and makes me very, very sad.
* This is also the simple explanation for the different results in the OJ Simpson civil and criminal trials.  It was more likely than not that he committed the murders, which is why he lost the civil case, but it was not proven beyond reasonable doubt, which is why he was acquitted of the criminal charge.

Sunday, 28 February 2016

Rant about Human Zoos and Yoga Enthusiasts

I am currently reading an excellent, yet profoundly depressing, history book called The Kaiser's Holocaust.* I was reading with wonder the description of the European justifications for colonialism from divine superiority of the white people over other races to social Darwinism whereby the very ability of the Europeans to savagely annihilate peoples with their superior fire-power was seen as evidence of the unfitness of such peoples to survive and the justification of their destruction by stronger people, more fit to rule and populate the earth.

Then I came across a description of a phenomenon that startled me. It was not that “freak shows” and “human zoos” were in themselves new to me. We've all heard of the history of shows in European and American cities in the 19th century where captured people were paraded, sometimes even in a fake setting of their “natural habitat”, for white city-dwellers to ogle at and wonder about their “exoticism”. But this time it created an association that pierced the moral superiority that I'd been feeling while reading.

I had recently watched a documentary called “Milking the Rhino”**, which “examines the relationship between the indigenous African wildlife, the villagers who live amongst this wildlife and conservationists who look to keep tourism dollars coming in.”*** Part of the movie is filmed at a Himba conservancy in the Marienfluss valley in Namibia. There is no denying the fact that the traditional Himba lifestyle will seem exotic to a Westener, even the modern, world-travelled generations.

One particular scene in this fascinating film had totally irked me. It was a discussion between a local conservationist and the owner (or manager) of an eco-tourism lodge that had been set up in the conservancy. The owner (a white woman, of course) was telling the conservationist that he should tell the locals not to whip out their merchandise as soon as they see the jeeps carrying the tourists arriving, but to act more normal, going about their daily business, and interact with the tourists first on a non-commercial basis. She was basically telling him (and the camera) that the white wealthy tourists were coming to ogle at the exotic Himba in their natural habitat, and they should behave like good zoo creatures and succumb to the gaze, rather than try to benefit from these strangers that invaded their village by offering souvenirs to sell to them.

The era of white people wanting to look not just at a lion but also a “Hottentot”**** in their zoos is not over. Now we are just illuminated enough to think that zoos are cruel and wealthy enough to be able to travel to see the lions as well as the Hottentots in Africa for ourselves.

I thought I recognised (and resisted) this tendency in the past. I have always condemned misery tourism to places like North Korea and I was disdainful of the tours that were organised in Windhoek to Katutura, the biggest township, considering them poverty porn. I knew this was not the way to do things, but was I so innocent myself? Are my own interactions with or attitudes towards different cultures any less racist?

It is hard to know what is acceptable these days. On the one hand misery tourism or treating tribespeople as zoo animals is obviously wrong. But on the other hand, we can't be too eagerly embracing other people's cultures either, or we get accused of cultural appropriation. I recently heard that accusation levelled at Western yoga enthusiasts.

I don't think just sticking to our own culture and shutting the doors can be the answer either – and I'm not just saying this as someone who loves her nachos, curry, pad thai, falafels and pizzas and shudders at the thought of a life without the offerings of world cuisine. Understanding others helps us get along, respect others and critically evaluate and sometimes improve our own way of doing things.

So my tentative conclusion is that the key has to be engagement, respect and understanding. I'm not sure I need to know the historical and culinary roots of my nachos in order to enjoy them (hell, I don't know the historical or culinary roots of most of Finnish food), but if I don't love the food for the taste of it or the music for the sound of it or the painting for the look of it – if it rather tastes or sounds or looks exotic to me – then I should investigate further, but in a careful way. I am reminded of the time we visited the hurly-burly of the massive meat market in Katutura in Windhoek and I was watching with a mixture of fascination and horror the way the butchers just hacked up entire animals there, in the open air market, cutting up pieces that were then tossed on the braai and sold to hungry people waiting. I may even have snapped a photo of the forlorn cow head dumped in the corner of the market for flies to feast upon. But I made zero effort to engage or understand why this was the way it was done and what the local people thought of it. I was just another tourists ogling at the exotic customs of the Namibians. Maybe I'll be a bit more aware next time.

*David Olusoga and Casper W. Erichsen, Faber & Faber, 2010.
**David E. Simpson, Kartemquin Films, 2009.
****A very derogatory term that actually originally referred to the Nama people of Central/Southern Namibia, I have also just learnt.

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Rant about Yellow Rides on Tinder

Due to my work I visit Bucharest quite regularly. A fascinating city that I would recommend to anyone. But during the last few trips I have paid particular attention to one aspect of life there that I wanted to highlight here: taxis.

Taxis in Bucharest are licensed, but prices are not regulated. Rather they are freely set by market conditions, and each taxi will have the price/km printed on its yellow side for all potential customers to see.

What I find even more interesting is how taxis are booked. Hailing one off the street is not recommended as there are apparently some dodgy operators around, as is the case in just about every city. Instead, everyone has an app on their phone by which they can book a taxi to their location. Once they have logged a request, a driver will propose to provide the ride. With the proposal you can see the driver's picture as well as scores (1-5 stars) that previous clients have given him and choose whether to accept the offer or wait for another one. A colleague of mine regularly rejects drivers if she does not like the look of them and a new proposal will appear almost immediately. It is almost like being on Tinder (or that is how it appears to someone like me who has never been on Tinder but finds the concept fascinating).

Sounds familiar? I predict that Uber will not even try to penetrate the Bucharest market, as the local players are already playing their game, and with apparent success.

A well-functioning taxi market is in my opinion an essential part of urban planning that aims at reducing car ownership and encourages people to use other modes of transport instead. We simply do not have enough space in city centres for people to park their cars (which is what a privately owned car will be doing most of the time – being parked).

Geneva is trying to address the threat posed to the highly regulated and even more highly priced taxi market by suing Uber and trying to get it banned. Bucharest is taking another route: learning what it is about Uber that customers seem to love so much and shamelessly copying it.

You can guess which approach has my vote …

What is the approach in your city? Something even better?