Obsessive Disclaiming Disorder in email communication

If I don’t know what you’re thinking, I know what you should be thinking: This is 1999, and you’re reading an article mistakenly dated twenty years hence. But unfortunately, despite our developmental blindness to them — together with their invisibility within the legal system — the pestilence of email disclaimers really does continue to menace perfectly sufficient signatures. Indeed, the contagion looks set to outlive polio.

A recent post in my LinkedIn feed referenced an email from HMRC with a 17-word message, and a 493-word disclaimer. Admittedly, HMRC’s a soft target for purported battiness, but it’s far from alone in practising a rite that might have excused itself from the digital party, in quiet embarrassment, two decades ago.

The eccentricity is now into postgraduate age and, despite a generation of public abuse and humiliation — without chalking up a single precedent of legal efficacy — looks set to endure. It’s a small mercy that these textual tumours remain an email-centric phenomenon, but the same fact serves to heighten their absurdity.

The disclaimer still has something of a spring in its step; it certainly outpaces contemporary human evolution in its generational diversity. Like a Heston Blumenthal chip, there’s always room for improvement; there’s always a legal chef willing to bear the challenge of pursuing it, and always a quavering executive, or government mandarin, with an appetite for garrulous legalese in lieu of actual risk assessment. 

Western visitors to Korea are often baffled and amused by lingering anxieties over the risks posed by… electric fans. Not, you might think, the risk of a child squeezing a tiny finger through the mesh and losing it to a high-speed rotational blade. But the risk that, if inadvisedly left on overnight in a closed room, it might be the end of you. 

Some say its fatal mechanism is hypothermia; others say hyperthermia; others, still, suggest an increase in carbon dioxide concentration. Scientists, I mean. Yes, it’s a subject that’s still a worthy topic for research funding. Government warnings are intended to reduce the risk, particularly during the summer months. In the meantime, newspaper reports dovetail with parochial rumours: ‘Man, 88, mysteriously found dead at home. Coroner’s report inconclusive. A neighbour discovered the body. A fan was reportedly left on in the room.’ Or something to that effect.

Bible readers shouldn’t underestimate the entertainment value of the speck in your brother’s eye. But, getting back to the beam in our own: Through no greater lens than the email has the employer looked upon its employees so inexplicably askance. Why doesn’t HMRC consider it similarly judicious to post a 493-word letter after closing a phone call? Why are businesses so insouciant about leaves of blank headed paper lying around the office, yet clamour for legal counsel in trembling voices when an employee hits New Message in Outlook? Why don’t they legally vaccinate their text messages?

Unparalleled in its ability to stir atavistic fears of institutional misrepresentation, only email must be chastened by these mystical incantations. While organisations continue to rabidly communicate unguarded through platforms old and new — from telephone calls, meetings, and text messages, through to Google Hangouts, Slack, and Facebook Workplace — many continue to cower in foreboding at the thought of transmitting an email without a prayer of protection.

The Enlightenment was supposed to present an existential threat to superstition, not merely to trade its mechanism from the spirit world to industry. The scourge of email disclaimers is, after all, only a marginally more benign indictment upon human rationality than trial by ordeal. What other flavours of callow groupthink, and contemptibly blind imitation, haunt the meeting rooms of our nation’s commercial and governmental institutions?

China is a cultural equal, not a student for moral instruction

The title of Gideon Rachman’s Financial Times op-ed, Xi Jinping faces his moment of truth in Hong Kong, is undoubtedly as much aspiration as observation, such is the English-language media’s ideological commitment to denouncing the Chinese system of government.

Colonisation by force to support an illicit drugs trade contributed confoundingly to Hong Kong’s wealth and standing today; but the willingness to forgive and forget our own inscrutable lack of political probity is seldom extended to our competitors in global affairs. Raising millions out of poverty is ‘whataboutery’ if you’re an unloved regime, whilst moral ambiguity in our own policy record seldom prohibits the end from justifying the means.

GDP per capita in mainland China has seen startling growth over the past decade, but remains modest; and there are 1.5bn citizens to provide with security, healthcare, social services, and retirement income — all of which will be more important to them than the media circus of a western election. Perhaps the political innovations of the self-styled free world have something to contribute to that project; perhaps they don’t. Ultimately, it’s for China, and its citizens, to decide.

Foreign observers should chasten their assumptions regarding the extent to which Hong Kong activists’ democratic principles align them against the politics of the motherland. Popular support for one country, two systems, isn’t a strategic compromise for near-independence; citizens of Hong Kong don’t share with their international supporters such a unifying consensus that Xi-ism is fatally flawed.

To the extent that western democratic principles are encoded in the Basic Law, as part of the handover, or remain a broader source of inspiration, there is a soft power in play. That will have to suffice. Supporting activists as a vehicle to frame media narratives around Xi, in terms marked with interminable calumny, suggests a goal other than analysis — and one that risks needlessly extending to the western grassroots the antipathy currently felt by the most hawkish among their leaders towards a credible competitor.

Self-congratulatory narratives in the west help people forget that all governments rule ultimately by consent; and, indeed, varying degrees of authoritarianism are afforded acts in every nation’s founding story — very often the most celebrated ones. It’s right to advocate for suppressed minorities in China, but American observers, by example, might have the humility to recall that the same year the nation was listening to the Beach Boys’ Surfing’ U.S.A., the Governor of Alabama was blocking three African American students from enrolling in a white school. If we’re to embrace that history as part of a process, why the absence of a process that’s permitted to other nations without the cost of moral invalidation?

The columnists and readers maligning the Chinese system of government in putative solidarity with its oppressed subjects in Xinjiang, or on the streets of Hong Kong, may find themselves on the right side of the moral divide more by an accident of their rhetoric, than by its true purpose; better known abroad than our political freedoms is our proclivity to use the language of social justice as a Trojan horse for proclaiming ideological superiority. The avoidance of truly civilisational conflict with a resurgent China will rest, in this nascent phase, on the willingness of European civilisations to cut the didactic bullshit, and treat the emerging superpower as a genuine cultural equal.

Has liberalism outlived its purpose?

Vladimir Putin’s right, in his illuminating interview with the Financial Times last month, to present Donald Trump as more symptom than cause in changes to the political tide. But, whilst there’s a clarity and candour to Putin’s suggestion that the benefits of globalisation in the US have accrued exclusively to the population’s moneyed margins, it’s inadequate alone as a truly generalised account for the growth of populism elsewhere.

Despite broadly favourable outcomes in recent European elections, nativist discourse is in unquestionable ascent beyond the US. From advanced Anglo-Saxon economies with growing inequity in wealth distribution, through impoverished states in South Asia facing food and water insecurity, and on to the social democratic utopias of Northern Europe, with their advanced education systems and cradle-to-grave welfare states, various brands of nationalism are powering through the electoral gears.

The 21st Century strongmen bear limited resemblance to their 20th Century postwar forebears: rather than the top-down imposition of autocracy on a suffering population — through homegrown coup d’état, or one engineered by cynical Nixon Doctrine alliance — the new generation of aspiring dictators is being ushered in from the bottom-up by a global constituency of nativist tribes, increasingly fervent to delineate themselves from one other, and doing so in comically similar language.

The insidious polarisation of grassroots populations threatens a truly global liberal order more than the actions of the cartoon villains they elect. The issues by which people choose to identify themselves are cleaving the body politic in two; while working class nativists and middle class metropolitans compete over attendance numbers at street protests, the allied polemicists of each gather on both sides of the debate and do little to advance it. The internationalists are trapped in a fruitless cycle of exposing populist non sequiturs, blind to the fact that the movement’s adherents had started with the conclusion and worked their way back to the reason.

Hope rests on the return of real politics: informing voters, and persuading them. Eisenhower’s valedictory address referenced the threat of the incipient and cynical alliance between business, the military, and government; the new threat is the subsumption of politics into the public relations and marketing industry of the digital era.

Electioneering now involves merely canvassing public opinion, and then navigating it. The old guard of mainstream corporate media points to the threat of Russian interference, over-reading a minor subplot in a greater odyssey: Politics by the fissile materials of audience segmentation, and the related innovations in marketing intelligence of the digital age, reveal and reinforce the ideological fault lines in the population; the socially radioactive effluence of populism is the true cost of the method.

North Korea is not the only unpredictable partner in the world’s most contentious rapprochement

What will the US promise in return for disarmament? How far can the US be trusted to deliver on those promises? How resilient would any US concession be to a change in administration?

Observers wishing to take their cynicism seriously — over the world’s most contentious rapprochement — will have to read beyond the headlines, which instead focus exclusively on North Korea’s history of duplicity and lapsed promises.

It’s unlikely to be lost on the North Korean team that US foreign policy orthodoxy holds the status quo on the Korean Peninsula to best serve its interests. Behind Trump’s entertainingly vainglorious diplomatic grandstanding is a foreign policy establishment manoeuvring to relieve North Korea of its nuclear armaments — without permitting its allies to consider the pariah state no longer a threat.

Peaceful reunification of the Korean Peninsula being in the western alliance’s best interests is the logical conclusion of the propaganda, not the politics. In addition to exposing the Pacific Rim to the greatest of evils for economic planning — political change — a unified peninsula liquidates a key asset in the US’s regional investments: its diplomatic pretext for regional military deployments that are more likely apropos of China. US ambitions of continued power projection in the Pacific risk being frustrated by significant changes in Korean politics; indeed, there’s a material possibility of a unified Korea falling entirely outside of the US sphere of influence, given that China is already the principal trading partner both North and South of the 38th parallel.

Trump’s perception of the North Korean nuclear problem, as one that might be solved by a deal, is exposed to being overturned by a future administration that’s more compliant with established foreign policy wisdom. How readily I can imagine nuclear disarmament being later described as only one phase of the reforms required to normalise relations and maintain sanctions relief: that free and fair elections must follow, or military exercises will resume. And, all the while, Kim’s efforts to cry double standards over tolerance of, say, Saudi Arabian autocracy, will be lost in a cacophony of throat-clearing and sententious platitudes by the inexplicably compliant media over here in the free world.

North Korea might play with its promises. But the degree to which it does so may derive from the degree to which we, the western alliance, play with ours.

If our government promotes the rules-based order, it must be governed by it

In an effort to attenuate some of the mystery surrounding the fabled Oxford interview, the university last year moved to further belie perceptions of priggishness by publishing a student guide to the ritual. The article gets its shirt off in the title:

Should it be illegal to run a red light in the middle of the night on an empty road?

Makes sense to explore the way the aspiring student thinks, rather than to test her memory of the national curriculum. But that’s by the bye: I’m more distracted by the new guide’s inaugural question.

Before being asked, intuition had me venting at the punctilious car in front, stopped, 3am, at the red light of a pelican crossing armed by an absent barfly. But, the question being so convincingly articulated — not in a slurred world-to-rights contest, but by the Director of Admissions of the nation’s Crown Jewels of undergraduate learning — I was suddenly unsettled.

A lay curiosity of post-structuralism that emerged during my own undergraduate years left me suspicious of a binary world. The only certainty about anything seemed to be its uncertainty. Day and night, man and woman, child and adult, government and subject — there was suddenly nothing black and white that couldn’t be better described in shades of grey.

And nothing more so than morality — surely the protagonist in the creation myth of our legal system. In the china shop of human ethics, binary attitudes to right and wrong are the proverbial bull.

But law isn’t morality, however interwoven the pair’s respective origin and nature. They belong to different ontological worlds. Morality exists in some metaphysical world, where nothing is binary; law exists in a more physical world, where everything has to be. Law is the cleaver humanity takes to moral continuum, when morality is transmuted from human psyche into human behaviour.

We’re being psychologically devious with ourselves when we then evaluate the rationality of the 3am traffic-light offence in moral terms. Binary artefacts of law are, by both their nature and design, impervious to arguments premised on the spectral nature of morality. So it is that the law, and the legal process, can deviate from our visceral sense of justice — a sense predicated in metaphysical continua — and seem irrational, obtuse, and inhuman.

And this compromise is the very foundation of the global rules-based order, whose proponents in the Anglo-Saxon world have been licking their wounds since 2016, with Britain’s vote against EU membership, and America’s election of Donald Trump, together with the wider west’s growing trend towards populism: the politics of common sense over complex systems. For those who support the rules-based order — and the primacy of law, and international compact, over corrupt whims of charity and favour — the inexpedience of due process is the cost, for which stability, predictability, and equity, are the dividends.

It is Russia’s dissent from the rules-based system, from the putative extrajudicial assassination attempt in Salisbury, that goes to the heart of political disapprobation across the western alliance: Vladimir Putin, they allege, acting arbitrarily, violently, and dangerously, in flagrant disregard of due process at home and abroad, for personal political profit. The essence of totalitarianism.

Within ten days of Sergei and Yulia Skripal’s discovery unconscious on a park bench, a joint statement was issued by France, Germany, the United States, and the United Kingdom, to say that ‘it was highly likely that Russia was responsible for the attack’ and that ‘there is no plausible alternative explanation’. Trump told reporters that it ‘certainly looks like Russia were behind it’.

Looks like? Highly likely?

I’ve no idea whether Jeremy Corbyn’s much maligned requests in parliament for actual evidence of Russian involvement were ideologically motivated — a lingering sympathy of the old communist homeland, for which he’s occasionally accused — but it’s frankly irrelevant. When did it become de rigueur for the proponents of the global rules-based order to deride a request for evidence?

Our leaders must decide whether they’re for rules, inexpedient as they may be, or for caprices. They cannot challenge Russia on its abuse of the former, whilst leveraging the expedience of the latter. If the self-proclaimed leaders of the free world diminish the onus probandi in the judgement of an interstate felony to ‘looks like’, then the global rules-based order risks standing, above all else, for what leftist states across the globe have always claimed it stands for: Bigotry.

Gender & the Holy Spirit

The gender identity debate today strikes me as reminiscent of the 11th Century ecumenical debate over the Filioque. East and West Christianity were irreconcilable over the question of whether the divine identity of the Holy Spirit was that of the Father, rather than the Son, or something in between.

In their rush to excommunicate one another, church leaders lost sight of some key facts about the Holy Spirit. First, that we made it up. And, second, that we also made up the Father, the Son, and the entire concept of divinity.

The prevailing public debate, that we see both in the liberal mainstream press and trending in social media, doesn’t strike me as the last gender identity debate in advanced societies. Having shot its load establishing a more nuanced understanding of rigid gender stereotypes, dominant LGBTQ discourse tends to embrace the resultant spectrum. Sympathetic column inches have been dedicated to the mainstream’s treatment of those minority groups that choose to occupy previously unchartered areas of the spectrum. The focus has centred upon where we are on the spectrum, rather than on the true nature of the spectrum itself.

Future societies might focus instead upon some deeper truths about gender: crucially, that we made it up. Not only ‘gender identity’, but ‘assigned gender’, too, the relative frequency of ambiguous genitalia exposing biological sex as an uncertain dichotomy. That is to say, the biological assumption underpinning the distinction between cisgender and transgender is also unstable — sufficiently so to prohibit biology’s effort to fully withhold its charge from the clutches of the social constructionists.

The gender debate has continued to diversify, from challenging disparities in social power into expanding our understanding of its essence; it is undergoing a transformation from binary opposition to continuum. The elephant in the room remains the question of whether it might one day simply cease to exist.

The medieval European churches served an organisational function for the societies they emerged from. Questions over the true nature of the Holy Spirit had implications for the integrity of the doctrine. Gender has similarly served an organisational function for humanity, but remains an article of faith about our true nature. As successive generations inherited a gendered world, so did they refine the social lens through which we see the world — in ways that exaggerate the gender distinctions established by our forebears.

A surprising number of British men affirm with a nod, safely reassured, when reminded that the men’s 100m world record is 0.91 seconds faster than the women’s. That 0.91 seconds means that ‘men run faster than women’ (love). But any of those guys that couldn’t run more than 50m at full sprint might struggle to explain exactly what relevance the statistical reference has to their own identity. They might also struggle to explain why the supposed beneficial implications of that split-second advantage don’t seem to accrue equally to those of West African descent — who did almost all of the legwork in breaking the 10-second barrier — as they do to ‘men’ more generally.

The nature of these questions has a long heritage in the feminist literary canon, but I wonder how many arbitrary metrics of gender difference derive from innovations founded not merely to establish male precedence, but to establish gender itself.

That growing numbers of people are choosing to wrest control of their gender identity is closer to a Lutheran protest than to atheism. In the brouhaha over how we present ourselves, many on both the liberal and conservative sides of the debate choose not to question whether the gender emperor is actually wearing any clothes. The male and female cultural mainstream has become accustomed to questions of gender identity centring around how they see a gender-fluid minority; in a later reckoning, they may face the greater challenge of tackling the way they see themselves.

Anti-Semitism & the Labour Party

People seem to be very tribal. Travelling the world, it’s hard not to conclude that they’re almost all racist. Not necessarily vindictively so, but often even that. Even among the swelling ranks of Corbyn supporters, denouncing straw-man Conservatives for intolerance and xenophobia, it’s not uncommon to find surprisingly ethnically homogenous friendship groups, and a tendency to avoid substantive conversation — or, even, eye contact — when faced with someone speaking English as a second language.

For much of European history, Jewish communities were a major — if not the principal — target for racism. They’re not any more. They’re certainly not in the UK. Members of the white British Generation X know exactly whom the most nationalist, bigoted, and isolationist elements of society have goaded each other to tease, bully, deprecate, or tyrannise over the past thirty or forty years. And the targets are all more recent immigrant communities.

It’s not everything, but it’s not nothing, for me to say that at school through the 1980s and 1990s, I happily don’t recall a single incident of Jewish schoolfriends being a target for racism. By contrast, then and since, I can’t begin to recall the number of incidents that have left me winded over racism targeted at South Asian, Afro-Caribbean, or East Asian friends, partners, or even strangers.

In the South East of England, I had a harder time for being thin than my Jewish friends had for being Jewish. Other friends had a way harder time for having acne, or for being gay. Without doubt, experiences would have been different, and worse, for Jewish children living in more culturally homogenous enclaves, geographically adjacent to — but socially detached from — other British communities. Mine is an idiosyncratic account but, being the direct experience of over 40 years in provincial England, one that is hard for me to completely dismiss as a test of attitudes outside of particular regional flashpoints.

That there is a specifically anti-Jewish racism penetrating the UK body politic — something different to the racism that depressingly menaces relations between all communities — is a notion I’ve not experienced. That, I must emphatically convey, is not to claim that the crime has not been committed, but rather a confession that I can’t offer myself as witness to it.

That this particular strain of social pathology in endemic within the Labour Party membership — to an order that almost defines it demographically against the Conservative Party membership — seems an even more eccentric idea. It is, at best, a happily anachronistic anxiety. At worst, it’s a political device.

Many of us grew up with no axe to grind in the Middle East, had uninformed parents that were unable to make head nor tail of Middle East politics, and a mainstream media narrative that attributed the woes in Israel to a terrorist called Yasser Arafat, who hijacked planes, bombed civilians, and cackled at his victims’ demise like a cartoon villain.

Those of us that went on to discover that the region had a somewhat more complex past and present, unwittingly also went on to discover a second expanse of unchartered territory: that is, being on the receiving end of accusations of racism. Except not for the name-calling, teasing, or bullying that we’d witnessed on racial lines at school, but: for publicly demurring over Israeli government policy.

And right here is, for any newcomers to this political domain, a baptism of fire: A surprising number of people support security policies in Israel that are so dramatically deleterious to Palestinian civic life that they would be unconscionable in Britain. And yet to criticise those policies, with no agenda beyond challenging a friendly nation to manage criminality with more civility, can put you in a uniquely invidious position. Protesting against issues such as ‘detention without trial’ — uncontroversial if levelled at, say, North Korea — weaves you into a discursive tapestry that, by merely following the path of your conscience, can leave you depicted as the xenophobe.

Ever present in this ethical and political labyrinth is the shadow of the Holocaust, and it’s easy to appreciate why. But the unprecedented, industrial scale of human suffering inflicted upon European Jewry less than a hundred years ago is not, first and foremost, a Jewish tragedy: it’s a human tragedy. Any greater ethnolinguistic affiliation I might have with the British prisoners of war working on the Burma Railway, than I do with Jewish families summarily murdered in Eastern European death camps, counts for nothing when reflecting on their fate. They’re all my cousins, and the horrors they endured rank equal to me — in empathy, in sorrow, in opprobrium, and in fact.

Any other view would be a benign version of the ethnic, cultural, or religious exceptionalism that, in its most malignant form, mandated the atrocities in the first place.

And, given how easy it remains to imagine, in flashpoints across the globe, the word ‘Jew’ being displaced by ‘Yazidi’, or ‘Rohingya’, or even by ‘gay’, the relevance and poignancy of our collective memory of the Holocaust is not set to diminish any time soon.

Ethnocentric fascists in the early 20th Century framed, and then blamed, ‘other people’ for society’s problems in an act of political expediency that won them a mandate, at the cost of millions slain. Each time lobbyists invoke pejoratives reserved for those ideologues — purveyors of among the most evil doctrines ever to have terrorised humanity — to institutions as benign as the modern-day Labour Party, another pillar of the history’s potency collapses.

The misuse of history’s most important lessons by the most conservative elements of Israel’s political defenders, in order to silence its most vocal critics, is squandering one of the most valuable pedagogical assets that humanity owes posterity.

Illustration © 2017 Rikki Hewitt