Sexual Overload: Is it Screwing with Our Heads?

In 2006, three psychologists made a startling discovery. Just being in the presence of money, or even visual cues that remind us of money, makes people more selfish and unwilling to co-operate. Even though such behaviour offered participants no actual financial gain, the connotations of capitalism and its attendant self-interest was enough to significantly alter their short-term attitudes and behaviour.

Other studies have shown similar patterns. A team at Duke University found that exposure to the Apple brand caused people to exhibit more creativity in a task than participants shown logos less closely associated with creativity. Chen-Bo Zhong and Katie Liljenquist explored the way in which the metaphorical concept of cleansing our sins to absolve ourselves can be triggered with visual cues, finding that participants were drawn towards physical cleansing products after experiencing a sense of moral shame and felt diminished guilt or obligation to others after undergoing a physical cleanse.

Merely referencing an ideology, a pattern of behaviour or an accepted metaphor embedded in language can have an astonishing effect on preferences and behaviours. And sexual language is no exception.  Continue reading →

Adventures in Berlin: In Search of Cool

We finish our fifth beer in the shabby-but-charming Zum Schuster Jungen and sink sleepily into our chairs. This is a no-nonsense pub, selling no-nonsense German grub: the remnants of three pork knuckles, one fried fish and four gooey stacks of sauerkraut wallow, unfinished, in our greasy plates. Behind the bar, two sturdy Teutons raise an eyebrow at our defeat.

Nestled amid the posing, self-conscious cool of modern Berlin, the pub is a peculiar anachronism: a relic of the pre-unified East, where both flat caps and floral wallpaper are worn without irony. Part of me wants to abandon our quest for the avant-garde and settle in here for the night, but the choice is made for us by a robust waitress who indicates that we should give up our table for newer, hungrier arrivals. We hand over our money and haul ourselves into the street.

“Hang on,” says Joe, pointing at a nondescript building on Eberswalder Strasse. “I think this is it.”

Continue reading →

Nothing to Hide: Hypocrisy, Sensationalism and the Media Feeding Frenzy

Channel 4’s shockingly biased documentary and the collapse of the News of the World amount to the same thing: the shameless moral arrogance of a self-serving media machine.

In 2009, after nearly three decades of conflict, the Sri Lankan civil war was brought to an end. There has been intense speculation as to what took place in those final months, with both the Sri Lankan government and the insurgent LTTE accused of war crimes by the international community. To make matters worse, Sri Lanka’s prevention of overseas journalists from entering the war zone and ongoing suspicion of the Western Media means that there are no independent accounts of the these events.

This, as multitudes of journalists have been keen to point out, does not exactly help the Sri Lankan government when it claims adamantly that it has nothing to hide. However, making an extraordinary bad PR move is not the same as being automatically guilty of all crimes levied or invented, as Channel 4’s documentary Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, aired on the 14th June, would have us believe.

Armed with the unexamined testament of a handful of unidentified people claiming to be witnesses and some deeply distressing but largely unattributed (and in some cases doctored) footage, Channel 4 declared that they had absolute and unequivocal proof that the Sri Lankan government had launched a full blown genocide upon the Tamil population in the LTTE occupied North and East of the country.

No explanation was offered as to how this footage came to be in the hands of the producers. No attempt was made to incorporate the accounts of Sri Lankan army or government representatives, or even civilians who may have had a slightly different take on events. Allegations sourced through hearsay about government policy were recycled without bothering to provide sources, evidence or any attempt at analysis; facts were instead replaced with highly emotive but largely irrelevant horror stories about botched operations on children in refugee camps and lingering, voyeuristic images of naked female corpses. Bizarrely, for a programme seeking to ‘expose the truth’, the documentary also heavily insinuated that President Rajapaksa is an autocratic dictator, when in fact his democratically elected leadership of the country has never been contested.

As investigative journalism by the BBC and Al Jazeera, has shown, it is likely that the combined actions of the Sri Lankan army and the LTTE brought about a far greater number of civilian deaths than has so far been admitted. It has also been revealed that, having initially denied bombing in ‘no-fire zone’, the army has now conceded that it did shell within this area, leading to damage to a Red Cross Hospital and resulting deaths, on the grounds that the LTTE was deliberately firing from, and keeping heavy artillery in, this location. Tamil witnesses have reported that shelling came from both sides, leaving them trapped in the firing line, whilst the UN has concluded that at various stages during the war the LTTE deliberately used Tamil civilians as a ‘human shield’.

The acts of the LTTE do not excuse those of the Sri Lankan government, but they do substantially change any attempts to get to the truth of the matter. It is very possible that the Sri Lankan army pursued its course with excessive aggression at the cost of innocent lives. If this is the case, it must, of course be investigated. However, labeling insufficient regard – even criminally insufficient regard – for human collateral as conscious race-related genocide is incredibly dangerous, sensationalist, self-serving behaviour. It may boost ratings, but it does so by manipulating and misleading viewers and, far more importantly, it validates Sri Lanka’s apprehension of Western intervention and threatens rehabilitation efforts in Sri Lanka by reigniting the race hatred, resentment and distrust which inspired the terrorist organization LTTE and brought about the war in the first place.


Moreover, despite calling for a full investigation into the videos it displays on the programme, despite repeated requests and evidence to suggest that the perpetrators could, in fact, have been the LTTE, Channel 4 has so far refused to hand over copies to either the Sri Lankan government or the United Nations. In short, it attempts to take the moral high ground by parasitically propagandizing the troubles of a war torn nation for its own commercial ends, whilst ultimately risking the safety of the very victims it claims to champion. This, it is suffice to say, is hardly responsible, honest journalism.


Of course, Channel 4’s self-interested ‘moral outrage’ is only the tip of the iceberg. Over the past week, the British public’s faith in the integrity of the press has been shaken to an unprecedented degree. Accusations of telephone hacking and bribery, which were widely and repeatedly dismissed by the police force, the press and the government (notably Mayor Boris Johnson, who called this “codswallop”) have not only resurfaced, but have been shown to be far more extensive, and far more sinister, than even the whistleblowers themselves had thought possible.


The result, a spate of arrests and the sudden closure of the News of the World, one of the UK’s longest running and most influential newspapers, stunned the nation. More importantly, a gulf is rapidly forming between popular fury and the reluctance of many politicians, the Prime Minister included, to investigate the accused.

Cameron’s “friendships” with Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson have been well documented, as has the reverence shown to Rupert Murdoch, not only by Cameron but by predecessors such as Tony Blair. However, it is only now that the full extent of his hold over UK politics has been revealed. Despite admitting bribing police, Rebekah Brooks reportedly told senior officials that if they proceeded with her arrest, their private lives would be publicly torn to shreds. In a Newsnight interview on the 8th June, the day after the closure of News of the World was announced, Labour politician Harriet Harman claimed that the last government cowed to the “menacing presence” of the Murdoch empire, altering its own stance and permitting illegal activity to continue, because it was afraid of its power to control public opinion. Meanwhile, on the same programme, NOtW journalist Paul McMullan maintained that those in the public eye, whether consensually or otherwise are not entitled to any degree of privacy – even that guaranteed by law – and that regularly breaking the law in order to gain a scoop on anything that ‘the media’ decides is newsworthy is entirely fair game, and represents a free press. If people have ‘nothing to hide’ he claimed, with breathtaking KGB-style reductionism, they would not mind being spied upon.

Cameron’s refusal to condemn the role of Brooks, Coulson and, crucially, Murdoch, despite this furore and the criminal behaviour that has been repeatedly admitted to, indicates that fear of the media giant still resonates, even in the most powerful circles.

And, of course, it is not just in the UK that Murdoch holds sway. News Corporation has succeeded in building a global empire of ‘thought leadership’ channels spanning print and television in some of the most powerful nations in the world.  An empire which has grown, unchecked, because – ironically – those in a position to challenge this blatant monopolisation of opinion and self-serving news are too frightened that they might become the next victim of Murdoch propaganda, should they intervene.

Revelations of government-media power imbalance and effects on the democratic process and – crucially – the way this is used to control and further business interests has bewildered a public that that proved overwhelmingly credulous when faced with a media machine claiming to be acting in its interests. With influential media figures such as Jon Gaunt still pushing for a more lackadaisical approach to TV regulations that will, he expressly states, allow openly party-biased news reporting (i.e. state-sponsored propaganda) to flourish, it is more important than ever that we as a nation learn to read between the lines, and to question the truth, the motives and the methods behind the journalism we allow to influence, and to inspire, our politics.

A Very Fine Art

This article was written for the dakini Tigers Campaign. Read the original post here.

Last Tuesday, I went to Asia House in New Cavendish Street, to hear Ruth Padel speak about tracking tigers in the wild and her wonderful book, Tigers in Red Weather.  At university I had read a little of Padel’s poetry and several of her books on Greek theatre – but I had no idea she was involved in tiger conservation.

In fact, Padel is something of a tiger conservation expert and speaks very compellingly and beautifully on the subject. She explained the concept of ‘trophic cascade’, the disastrous effect of removing a key animal or plant, especially a top predator, from the intricately interwoven network of living things in any ecosystem. By taking something out of the cycle too abruptly, the precarious balance between all other creatures can be completely disrupted – leading to a catastrophic population decline throughout the entire system. Padel explained this by taking an example of eight living things co-existing in the same forest: a wild pig, a mango tree, a leafcutter ant, a monkey, an owl, a lizard, a mosquito and a frog.

Essentially (this is a little abridged) after millenia of gradual adaptation, the eight living things are neatly balanced in their shared environment: the wild pigs scratch the earth on the river bank for food, leaving water-filled holes in the mud that make perfect places for frogs and mosquitoes to lay eggs. Some of the mosquito larvae is eaten by tadpoles. The frogs provide food for the owls that make their nests in the mango trees. Monkeys also live in the trees, where they collect and eat the mangoes, spread the seeds as they go and in doing so help new trees to grow. Leafcutter ants collect the fallen leaves to eat and to ’feed’ the fungus they use to incubate their larvae. Lizards rely on the leafcutter ants for food.

Then humans come to the forest and hunt all the wild pigs. Suddenly, there are no muddy holes in the bank for the frogs to lay their eggs. This suits the mosquitoes – they can lay their larvae anywhere damp and, now that none of this is being eaten by tadpoles, they grow in number. The frogs must either die out or leave to find somewhere to lay their eggs, and the owls leave, too, to find other food sources. There are now so many mosquitoes that they are plaguing the monkeys, so the monkeys move on. With the monkeys gone, there is nothing to spread the mango seeds and over time, the mango trees die. Without the leaves from the mango trees, the leafcutter ants can’t eat or breed, and they also leave or die. The lizards have no ants to eat and so they move on, too. Eventually there is nothing left but mosquitoes.

The same principle is true of any ecosystem, and certainly applies to tigers. Tigers are often seen as indicators of a healthy, functioning forest and throughout Asia have been depicted as powerful guardians – of the jungle and of the spirit. Asia House’s Tigers in Asian Art exhibition, which I was lucky enough to take a look around after the talk, vividly displays this clear common theme. One of my personal favourite pieces is a painted Begali story scroll, depicting a series of scenes of a solitary woman who has to give birth whilst journeying through the jungle. She is shown at first heavily pregnant and then nursing a baby boy, watched over throughout by the eyes of a protective tiger.

Another of the exhibition’s striking artefacts was a solid gold tiger head, decorated with emerald eyes and a ruby collar, which once formed part of  Tipu Sultan’s throne in the late 18th century. Dubbed “The Tiger of Mysore,” Tipu Sultan was by all accounts a fearsome warrior, famous for his assertion that ”it is better to live for one day as a tiger than a thousand years as a sheep” and for posing a particular problem for the invading British forces, by whom he was eventually killed in battle in 1799. He was also famous for ‘Tipu’s Tiger’, a huge, rather sardonic music-box style creation which depicts a tiger mauling a British colonial soldier to death; as you turn the handle on the box, the tiger growls and mauls, and the soldier moans in his death-throes. It’s absolutely brilliant.

During the evening, I also got talking to the exhibition’s curators, including Betty Yao, who has invited me to the Tiger Forum being held at Asia House on 7th December. This will be the only event of its kind in London, reporting on the outcome of the International Tiger Summit and discussing how we can, and must, progress in order to give tigers a fighting chance for survival. It was heartening to meet others striving for the same goal – especially as Asia House represents an important cultural link between the UK and countries across Asia. Here’s hoping that this is indicative of a shift in attitudes towards saving tigers, especially in China and its surrounding nations.

Something that Ruth Padel pointed out, which I found fascinating, is that to make a symbol of something is both a benefit and a curse. Many of the key reasons that tigers inspire beautiful artworks and passionate responses – their awe-inspiring beauty and power, their fierceness and independent spirit – are precisely the same reasons that they have been hunted, made into trophies, eaten and drunk by people who come to see them purely as symbols that can be attained and absorbed into oneself. It is crucial to understand that tigers are magnificent, but they are only so when respected in their own field, understood not simply as an image of strength but as a living thing with an intrinsic right to existence. Their magnificence cannot be owned, only admired.

Whilst putting together our book, we have tried to remain mindful of this. We have wanted to avoid simply pulling together images of tigers as lovely to look at and symbols of strength, but to go a step further and to really explore the life of the tiger, its needs and development – to follow the cubs as they grow up and learn from their mother what it is to be a tiger. We have endeavoured at all times to show these animals as rooted firmly in the context of their environment and as belonging exclusively to this. In short, we have sought to celebrate the tiger without making it into a symbol. When we come to take our book and its content to the media around the world and especially in Asia, it is precisely this message which we hope will, ultimately, save the tiger from becoming an historical artefact and instead be seen for what it is: a key element of a vibrant landscape, which we cannot allow to disappear.

Tigers in Asian Art is on until 12 Feb 2011, at Asia House, 63 New Cavendish Street, London W1G 7LP.