Arianne Shahvisi

Arianne Shahvisi is writing a book on the philosophy of social justice.

From The Blog
9 December 2021

Boris Johnson has denied that the party took place, but hasn’t bothered to provide an alibi for the evening in question, so it looks likely that when firmer evidence emerges (as it surely will), he’ll frame it as a different kind of gathering. Probably not a ‘business meeting’, because Allegra Stratton has already chortled over that fib in the leaked clip, but some other euphemism. Like most antisocial behaviours, lying tends to be self-limiting: people who lie can’t cause harm for long because they lose credibility, and lying only works if people are inclined to believe you. But as with most things, Johnson is an exception to the rule. He lies effortlessly, without any apparent cognitive dissonance or regard for plausibility, and with little effect on his credibility or popularity.

From The Blog
15 November 2021

The screw, whose miniature steel variety is now among the most numerous fabricated objects on earth, is a combination of two other simple machines.

From The Blog
29 October 2021

In 2017, following a 140-year legal dispute between the government of Aotearoa New Zealand and the Māori people, the Whanganui River was granted personhood. Two years later, the Supreme Court of Bangladesh bestowed legal personhood on every one of its rivers. Earlier this year, the Magpie River in Quebec became a legal person following a campaign by the Indigenous Innu people. Enforcement is awkward, and rights must be realised through human guardians, but the symbolism of these recognitions is radical and far-reaching. They destabilise conceptions of nature as a store of commodities. Personified rivers are granted the right to flow, the right not to be polluted, and the right to sue. While rivers elsewhere are gaining moral recognition, England’s are full of shit.

From The Blog
9 August 2021

On hot days, a friend and I used to sneak away from school and dodge through a gap in the fence to the golf course next to the playing field. There, on the manicured grass, we would roll up our shirts and trouser legs and lie in the sun until we were weak with sunstroke. By the sixth form, I’d progressed to year-round bottled sunshine: golden cans of pungent foam that dyed my skin a glorious shade of bronze within minutes. At university, a baffled boy pointed out the streaks and I added my fake tan to the list of things that lost their currency outside Essex. Last summer, when my neighbours concreted over their lawn and unfurled lurid rolls of synthetic turf, I bit back my own aversion to fakeness. They passed us their unwanted compost bin over the fence, cheerily announcing they’d have no more garden waste.

From The Blog
9 July 2021

As ever, government policy dovetails with the tabloid press. Last week, the Daily Mail complained that ‘it is clear that the Royal National Lifeboat Institution – the registered charity so many of us help fund through donations, garden fetes and collection boxes – is regularly sending its vessels into French waters to bring in migrants.’ In response, the RNLI issued a patient statement reminding Britons that a lifeboat institution really does have to save people from drowning.

From The Blog
24 June 2021

Growing up in a household in which Kurdish and Farsi were mixed in with English, I sometimes struggled to tell which words belonged to which language. When I was four or five, I was about to remark to classmates that the colour of a particular wax crayon was ‘gorgeous’. I stopped mid-sentence, suddenly aware that I’d laid my own trap. ‘Gorgeous’? That seemed very obviously Kurdish. (Even now, the sibilant /dʒ/ in the middle sounds suspiciously flavourful.) It felt like something my father would say with a smile before taking a photo of us. I chose a plainer word. I was ashamed, and had already taken to hiding the ‘other’ part of me.

From The Blog
2 June 2021

Angus Wilson once described Aldous Huxley as ‘the god of my adolescence’. When I read those words as a teenager, I was sure I’d one day want to borrow them. It’s a hundred years since the publication of Huxley’s first novel, Crome Yellow, and I’ve been rereading his books at twice the age I was when I first encountered them. 

From The Blog
13 May 2021

Regardless of its dubious etymology, ‘Everest’ – a hyperbolic adverb raised to the superlative degree – is a fitting appellation for an extreme, lawless world in which ordinary moral conduct is suspended. Above eight thousand metres, acclimatisation is impossible. (The highest human settlements are at five thousand metres.) Everest stands at 8849 metres, which means climbers are effectively dying in a queue and must get to the summit and back before they succumb. If the person ahead of you keels over or goes blind, it isn’t unusual to step over them and carry on. Should someone else’s oxygen canister jam or explode, you wouldn’t be the only one keeping quiet about your spare. Climbers pause for a rest beside the body of ‘Green Boots’, thought to be Tsewang Paljor, who died in a blizzard in 1996. All this is normal on the ‘roof of the world’.

From The Blog
29 April 2021

Part of the trouble is the idea that trees are just wood, wood is carbon, and carbon is fungible. Most of the wood pellets burned in the UK are imported from Canada and the United States, where mature forests which underwrite vast, complex ecosystems are being felled to meet the growing European demand for ‘renewable’ energy. The official line is that pellets are made from offcuts from the timber industry, but scientists and environmentalists report that trees are being felled to go straight to biomass.

Diary: Life in a Tinderbox

Arianne Shahvisi, 18 March 2021

Cladding and insulation are only the most notorious problems faced by those living in new developments. Lax building regulations mean that careless gaps between cladding and internal walls function as chimneys through which blazes can surge. Timber balconies, arranged like kindling over the cladding (and often used for risky activities like smoking and barbecues) are also implicated. Flammability isn’t the only concern. A survey conducted by Shelter in 2017 found that half of newbuilds have serious and costly structural defects. Some have shoddy mortar that crumbles within months, leaving bricks wobbling like loose teeth. A recent audit concluded that three-quarters of developments shouldn’t have been given planning permission. It will surprise nobody to learn that the Conservative Party receives millions in donations from property developers. The government is neither compelling developers to pay for necessary improvements to buildings, nor is it prepared to do so itself. Many leaseholders, particularly those in shared ownership flats, won’t be able to cover the projected costs. There is a very real risk of bankruptcy.

From The Blog
15 March 2021

When I was eleven, my mother sat my older sister and me down and told us a man had attacked a girl in our neighbourhood. From now on we were to be careful walking to and from school. She didn’t use the word ‘rape’ but my sister told me afterwards that was what she meant. It wasn’t clear what we were supposed to do to be more careful, but that wasn’t my mother’s point. She was training us in a grim new way of life: be fearful, be alert, treat every man as a potential threat.

From The Blog
8 March 2021

The argument that nurses are ‘healthcare heroes’ who deserve a pay rise for going ‘above and beyond’ during the pandemic should be resisted. Decent pay shouldn’t be a prize for supererogatory acts. Nurses have long been underpaid, and their work has always been demanding and essential. Discourses of heroism are a poisoned chalice. ‘Heroism’ describes voluntary acts of undue risk or sacrifice. But nurses’ labour through the pandemic was not voluntary. They worked to pay their bills and put food on the table.

From The Blog
19 February 2021

‘A change in the name of the US War Department to “Defense Department” in 1947,’ Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman wrote in After the Cataclysm, ‘signalled that henceforth the state would be shifting from defence to aggressive war.’ I was reminded of this a few days ago, when the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, proposed the appointment of a ‘free speech and academic freedom champion’ for universities, tasked with investigating breaches and issuing fines. The move comes despite a 2018 parliamentary committee report that ‘did not find the wholesale censorship of debate in universities which media coverage has suggested’, and a review of ten thousand student union events which found that only six had been cancelled (four missed deadlines for paperwork, one was a scam, and the other was a Jeremy Corbyn rally arranged without sufficient notice). Williamson is not reacting to a problem; he is reifying the illusion of one. The government is reaching for the fig leaf of a ‘free speech champion’ after a year of escalating authoritarianism in education and culture.

From The Blog
22 January 2021

High streets were the landscapes of my teens, and they are now set to vanish. That would be fine if it also spelled the end of consumerism and an opening for something more decent. Instead, like a resistant bug, fast fashion rages on, from sweatshop to warehouse to doorstep, via a growing precariat of exhausted delivery drivers, alienated on all fronts: from the products they deliver, the means of production, their fellow workers and consumers. The ‘alien object that has power over him’, as Marx put it, is packaged in cardboard and scheduled for next-day delivery. 

From The Blog
12 January 2021

In my first year of secondary school, a science teacher began a lesson on nutrition by asking us to tell her what we ate for dinner so we could categorise the components of our meals into their correct food groups. She looked aghast as child after child muttered ‘chips and beans’. For some, ‘chips and beans’ was cover for something less wholesome and dependable. The teacher quickly abandoned the exercise and instead reverted to the mythical meal on the ‘food wheel’ poster Blu-tacked to the wall, a testament to our parents’ failings.  

From The Blog
5 January 2021

In 1484, Pope Innocent VIII issued a papal bull endorsing the ‘correcting, imprisoning, punishing and chastising’ of witches, who stood accused – among other crimes – of devising and applying methods of contraception that ‘hinder men from begetting and women from conceiving’, and creating abortifacients which ‘ruin and cause to perish the offspring of women’. The population of Europe still hadn’t recovered from the ravages of the Black Death and other disasters; it was critical that women be punished for these nascent forms of birth control.

From The Blog
26 November 2020

‘Blue Collar Conservatives’ is a caucus of Tory MPs chaired by Ben Bradley, the MP for Mansfield, who self-identifies as working-class even though he went to a private school where the fees are nearly as much as the annual salary of someone earning minimum wage. Bradley’s misrepresentations don’t stop there. For such a young politician (he was born in 1989) he has an impressive record for dishonesty. In 2016, he claimed that a nearby council had spent £17,000 employing call centre workers in Mumbai. When challenged, he admitted the claim was pure invention, contrived to convince people the council was wasting money. (And if you’re going to tell a fib, why not build in a racist dog whistle?) In 2018, he tweeted that Jeremy Corbyn had ‘sold British secrets to communist spies’, a lie that cost him £15,000 in damages. Luckily for this ‘blue collar’ fabulist, two wealthy Conservative donors swept in to cover the cost of his blunder. Corbyn asked that the money be divided between a homeless charity and a food bank in Mansfield.

From The Blog
29 October 2020

Dying of Covid-19 is by all accounts so awful, agonising and lonely that, as the saying goes, one wouldn’t wish it on anyone. But, more important, I wouldn’t wish Trump on anyone: his swaggering mismanagement of the pandemic has led to the avoidable deaths of up to 210,000 people (and counting).

From The Blog
7 October 2020

The oilfield at Baba Gurgur, near Kirkuk, has been burning for at least four thousand years. Its name is Kurdish for ‘Father of Eternal Fire’, and it’s a possible site for the furnace into which Nebuchadnezzar casts Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. Kurdish women used to travel to Baba Gurgur from miles around to pray that their child would be a son. Elsewhere, incandescent foetal sex rituals are on the rise. In Western cultures, ‘gender reveal’ events often involve setting off fireworks with pink or blue colorants. Last month, a spark from a gender reveal party in El Dorado, California set a neighbouring forest ablaze.

From The Blog
8 September 2020

Until I learned of their prognosis, I was one of the four in five people who could not identify an ash tree. Now I see them everywhere. I have opened my curtains to a sprawling ash every morning for years; all day long I overlook a straggly individual from my desk. Both are healthy, but I’ve added them to the list of things to worry about.

From The Blog
19 August 2020

Bribing people to congregate during a pandemic and spend money so that others don’t starve is the mark of an economic system that doesn’t work, and a government that lacks the imagination to do better.

From The Blog
10 August 2020

The ancient town of Hasankeyf has been wiped off the map. Nestled on the bank of the Tigris, it was one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in the world, its artefacts dating back 12,000 years. You can still find it online and admire photographs of its spectacular ruins, or of the thousands of human-made caves that studded its limestone cliffs, but in real life it’s gone.

From The Blog
15 July 2020

At the end of the first chapter of Émile Zola’s 1887 novel La Terre, a sower looks on encouragingly as an adolescent girl helps a thrusting bull to mount and ejaculate into the enormous cow she has walked over from a nearby town. The book is full of sex, violence and sexual violence; its first English publisher was prosecuted for obscenity. A few years earlier the Daily Telegraph had denounced Zola’s writing for its ‘unnecessary and offensive grossness’. The BBC’s striking new miniseries, I May Destroy You, written by and starring Michaela Coel, neatly observes Zola’s three principles of naturalism: faire vrai, faire grand and faire simple. The plot follows Coel’s character, Arabella Essiedu, and her friends as she pieces together the events of a night out that ended with someone spiking her drink and raping her.

From The Blog
27 June 2020

On hot weekends when I was child we’d go to the paddling pool in Burnley’s Thompson Park. We’d drive over from our house in Accrington and leave the car near Burnley College, where my father taught photography. On the way home I’d beg for a detour past Turf Moor, the home of Burnley Football Club.

From The Blog
22 June 2020

‘The readiness of the English to apologise for something they haven’t done is remarkable,’ Henry Hitchings writes in Sorry! The English and their Manners (2013), ‘and it is matched by an unwillingness to apologise for what they have done.’ Boris Johnson presents a classic case. He’s the sort who’ll gabble apologies on entering a room or sitting in a chair, an upper-class tic that gives the impression of excessively good manners. By mumbling vague apologies and failing to individuate his words, Johnson creates an aura of harmless stupidity that makes him seem like a friendly, slovenly underdog to a nation with a soft spot for incompetence.

From The Blog
11 June 2020

Perhaps the oldest bronze statue in the world is the Dancing Girl, a 4000-year-old, 10 cm figure found in 1926 at the Mohenjo-daro archaeological site in Sindh, in what is now Pakistan. In Sindhi, Mohenjo-daro means ‘mound of the dead men’. The statue – now in the National Museum in New Delhi – depicts a gangly teenage girl whose body language looks remarkably modern: insolent and unimpressed.

When I studied in Oxford a decade ago, I often passed under the stone statue of Cecil Rhodes on the front of Oriel College before I turned down Logic Lane to the philosophy department. Rhodes meant nothing to me in those days. My eighteen years of education had not once mentioned colonialism, and my head was often down as I trudged through the streets, falling into the common error, noted by Alan Bennett, of ‘confusing learning with the smell of cold stone’.

From The Blog
30 May 2020

Cummings’s disregard for the new social contract is another data point in support of the hypothesis that the repudiation of protective measures is gendered. As with other risky behaviours, men are more likely to break lockdown rules. A study published this month shows they are also less likely to wear face masks. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, many men believe they are less vulnerable to contracting or dying from the virus; others worry that masks are shameful or will be interpreted as a sign of weakness or subjugation.

From The Blog
19 May 2020

One of the central motifs of Orientalist painting is the Eastern market, with sunbeams cutting through dusty air onto opulent fabrics, bright piles of fruit, pyramids of spices, and enigmatic stall-holders (the genre has its own subsection on Wikipedia). The modern analogue is the holiday photograph of the exotic bazaar or mercado. There’s one of me in a souk in Palestine, feigning shock in front of a shark impaled on a giant fishhook, reminiscent of a scene from Jaws. As with other Orientalist representations, these images have a dual effect: they express desire and fascination, on the one hand, and repulsion and condescension on the other. Foreign markets are both alluring and horrifying.

From The Blog
13 May 2020

Laurel and Hardy reruns often played on Iranian television when I visited as a child. Wholesome, black-and-white slapstick didn’t need to be censored. In the Kurdish version, Oliver Hardy’s voice was dubbed by my uncle, Hashim Shahvisi, who was for decades a popular radio presenter. A year ago, he was in hospital in Tehran with an unspecified illness. My father spoke to relatives every day without getting any closer to finding out what was wrong.

From The Blog
17 April 2020

On the glass of a bedroom window, one of the students across the road tallies ‘days inside’ in red lipstick, the letters oriented to be read from the street. My desk faces this window and its cheery running total that, with no release date in sight, lacks the sense of scratchings on the walls of a prison cell. An uncertain, unwelcome freedom awaits, with promises of economic collapse, unemployment, austerity and, for many, the long, potholed road of grief. Still, it is a comfort to see signs of life in another household, and to know someone is counting as though these were normal, individuated days and not a continuum of lost, fretful time.

From The Blog
27 September 2019

Even if the BBC’s decision is taken to apply only to the constraints on Naga Munchetty’s professional role as a journalist, it sends a message that people of colour working in television must approach racism in public discourse as a matter of abstract interest, to be handled neutrally.

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