I find myself in the strange position of supporting Edwina Currie over the rest of the world

I can’t help but find the wave of media articles lambasting Edwina Currie for her thoughtless tweet about the Italian Paralympians terribly depressing. Not because of what Currie said, I had thought we were years passed having to care about anything she had to say in any case, but because I think the coverage is part of a rather counter productive trend.

While the insensitivity of her tweet is quite obvious to many, it is clear from her comments that it isn’t obvious to her, and that she in fact still doesn’t understand what it is that she did wrong.

What also seems apparent is that she didn’t mean any harm. She thought she was saying something nice, in the same way as Boris Johnson did when he expressed his enthusiasm for wheelchair basketball over ‘so called real basketball’ in a Channel 4 interview. A clumsy but well intentioned comment that I also saw roundly criticised by some on Twitter.

I can understand why those who have been hurt by cuts to benefits, the ATOS fiasco, and the portrayal of disabled people in some sections of the media, have been quick to jump on these faux pas and hold them up as further evidence of Tory antipathy towards the disabled. But I think taking this stance comes a cost.

In completely ignoring the fact that these comments, as well as a lot of the insensitivity directed at people with disabilities, are born of the speaker’s lack of understanding of disability, and of the fact that the language we use when discussing disability issues has changed along with social attitudes.

Edwina Currie is nearly seventy-eight years old. For the vast majority of her life is was deemed perfectly socially acceptable to refer to people with physical disabilities as handicapped or crippled, and people with intellectual disabilities as spastics. When she was born it was normal for people with disabilities to be excluded from society and for children born with disabilities to be hidden away.

Now you might say that someone in her position should know better but there are many of her contemporaries who are not media savvy and who have no regular contact with people with disabilities. These people have had no particular reason to notice that the words that we use to discuss disability have changed. And even those who are aware of the shift may not be quite aware of what things are and are not appropriate to say.

Most people have at least one older family member who would fall into this category. They aren’t bad people, they would never intentionally wish to cause hurt or offense, but they will sometimes make statements that make us cringe and it won’t be at all obvious to them why. All they know is that it used to be a perfectly acceptable thing to say.

We need to be engaging and educating these people not attacking them. If we teach them they may learn, but when people are attacked they become defensive.

And when people feel defensive they retreat back to what feels safe and familiar. Prejudiced attitudes which reinforce the negative feelings that they have just experienced, in relation to whatever other minority group they have just been talking about, seem increasingly appealing.

I’m concerned that many such people will see the reaction to Edwina Currie’s tweet and do just that. Revert to their old attitudes and the old language, because they are afraid to try to say the right thing for fear of getting it wrong, and being shouted down for it.

My mother does this a lot. She complains frequently that she’s not allowed to say anything about people from different backgrounds to herself anymore, and she feels prejudice towards them as a result.

It frustrates me and I find it ridiculous. She can say whatever she likes, it’s just that someone is likely to then exercise their own right to say whatever they like and disagree with her.

But she gets this idea from seeing stories such as this one about Edwina Currie’s tweet in the media.

By all means throw the book, the whole library, at people who are intentionally offensive or discriminatory.

But my mother is only fifty-four. There are twenty-three million people who are over the age of fifty in this country. We can’t afford to alienate a significant number of them by knocking down anyone who hasn’t quite caught up with the rapid pace of the social and linguistic changes that have taken place here over the last twenty years.

The Real Social Olympics

I thought the idea raised in the Weekly Writing Challenge of London being called the social Olympics was quite interesting.

I think the description of 2012 as having been the social Olympics was pretty apt, not as is suggested in the prompt because of Twitter or social networking, but because it brought the nation out in a fit of the good old-fashioned kind of socialising.

Twitter may have registered more Tweets in one day during the London Olympics than during the duration of Beijing 2012, but that’s hardly a surprising statistic when you consider that in 2008 it had just 6 million accounts. During this Games a significant proportion of its 140 million registered users were collectively live tweeting the events.

And yet London 2012 never felt like a social media affair to even the same degree as an episode of Question Time. It may be down to the sample of people who I’ve chosen to follow on Twitter, but there’s a definite sense of people settling down to debate, or just plain argue, during certain current affairs programmes. Tweets are crafted to interact with the content of the show and to form a part of the online conversation.

It wasn’t the same thing with the Games. For all the huge volume of Tweets that they generated the content was, perhaps necessarily limited to commentary, updates and either praise or commiseration for favoured athletes. An extension really, of the massive, seemingly national, conversation that was taking place in real life. And most definitely secondary to the consumption of the traditional media – television and radio.

For me the Olympics demonstrated how wrong those who posited social media as the death of television, radio, print media and even local community were.

The Olympics were a very visual spectacle. From the magnificent opening ceremony, through seventeen days of fantastic sporting events, to the world’s biggest after-party which London put on last night, the only way to truly appreciate the Olympics was to park yourself in front of the nearest television screen and watch them.

Failing that you could listen to the commentary on the radio.

But the drama, the competition, the achievement, the disappointments, the gripping tight to the edge of your seats anticipation of the greatest sporting spectacle on earth could not be even semi-adequately conveyed through the medium of Twitter. Or Facebook, or any other website.

And this all comes from a woman who hadn’t used her TV to watch anything other than DVDs, Blu-rays or iTunes for well over a year before the Olympics came round.

Even newspapers did a better job of capturing the spirit of the Games with their daily medals tables and full page spreads of action shots and beaming winners.

And it was this traditional media consumption that the real ‘social Olympics’ centred around. For the last two and half weeks there has been a palpable vibe across the country. The Olympics seemed to have made us collectively happier. Reminded us that it’s no bad thing to be British, and that we can actually be good at something when we put our mind to it.

Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony remade Proud Britains of people who hadn’t thought that we had anything to be proud of any more. Or who had somehow thought that national pride was no longer allowed for us.

In addition to that it put us on a high that saw us all primed and ready- invested in the sporting drama that was to come, courtesy of Team GB.

And it got everybody talking.

And I mean everybody.

Something good was finally happening and we wanted to actually talk to each other about it.

People who I’ve never spoken to in three and a half years of working in the same office have, over the last fortnight, provided me with a full update on whatever events they’d just been watching every time I walked into the kitchen.

Strangers in queues have passed on news of new medal wins that their friends have just texted to them.

And I haven’t completed a single financial transaction that hasn’t involved someone asking if I’d seen Jess Ennis, Mo Farah or Bradley Wiggins’ wins.

It has generated loads of conversation amongst the people I actually know as well.

I can’t remember talking about much else at a friend’s birthday party on Super Saturday.

And I think it has been a first. Or, at the very least, the first in a long time. The three previous Olympics barely registered with me. There was none of the big national conversation that’s made this Games so special.

Which is why I was pleased to see that the results of the WordPress survey are so far overwhelming supporting the view are that the Olympics was not a social media event. It would be a shame to reduce the magic to just another Twitter story.

Close But No Cigar

I know I’m not the only one who feels that David Cameron rather spectacularly missed the point in his comments about UK sport earlier. He suggested that too many schools fulfilled their target of including two hours of sport on the curriculum by having the pupils take part in activities such as ‘Indian dancing’ and that what needed instead was competitive sports.

He believes that if we insist on more competitive sport in school Team GB will be able to build on its medal success in successive Olympics and other competitions.

There are two problems with this proposition.

The first is the suggestion that the national gold medal tally should be the main focus of our sporting culture.

Gold medals are nice, and I agree with the Prime Minister that the atmosphere in the country throughout this sporting competition has been fantastic. Everywhere you go lately it seems that complete strangers are passing each other news of our latest medal. This is wonderful, and I’d love to see it continue. However, I think that we have a far more pressing problem to address when it comes to our sporting culture.

We have an obesity crisis in this country. Sixty per cent of our adults and thirty per cent of our children are estimated to be over weight. If more of them were to take up activities such as Indian dancing it might help to tackle this. The priority for most people at this stage isn’t winning, it’s becoming fit enough to even take part in the first place.

The second issue I have with the Prime Minister’s thinking that if we push more school pupils into competitive sports it will deliver a massive boost to the nations sporting achievements. It’s not that simple.

My school forced us to do lots of competitive sports. We had to play hockey, netball, basketball and rounders. I sucked at all of them. Not because I’m not competitive as a person. I’m incredibly competitive when it comes to Scrabble, Monopoly, the art and writing competitions that I enter, I’m competitive about my team being the best at work.

Anything I give a damn about basically.

But I never had a shred of competitiveness about hockey, netball, basketball or rounders. Because I hated them, I don’t have a shred of natural skill at anything that involves a ball, and resented having to play them. And making me play more of them wouldn’t have made an iota of difference, either to my own ability or to the picture of Great British hockey, netball or rounders.

I was actually pretty good at swimming and athletics, and had I had the opportunity I like to tell myself I’d have been able to do something with that, but I never had the opportunity. My school had no teams for that.

I also found when I was older that my favourite sport was Muay Thai Boxing – that’s pretty competitive, but I can’t see too many schools adopting it.

And think this is the route of the problem with Cameron’s argument. If you look at Team GB’s medal haul we’ve mostly done well at sports that are never going to be incorporated into schools. I mean, as a nation, we’re awesome at rowing and equestrian events, but how many schools have access to either a river or enough horses to teach riding lessons?

We need to encourage kids, and adults for that matter, to try lots of things and to discover what sporting activities it is that they really enjoy. I’m not aware that anyone’s ever achieved a gold medal in a sport that they hated. But if the government insists that schools have to focus solely on the competitive element, they’ll carry on teaching the same old things. Then kids will continue to hate them, and Olympic excellence will continue to be the preserve of the lucky few who happen to stumble upon the sport they love through other means.