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Charlotte Simpson is a writer and radio producer.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Imagination Stories

"Mummy, tell me about what happened to Cinderella after she got the job at the otter sanctuary."

Sometimes my big girl doesn't want me to read to her at bedtime. She wants what she calls an "imagination story". She's into literary sequels: Further Adventures of Mary Poppins, more doggy escapades at the Dalmation Plantation, that sort of thing.

I never know where we're going. I'm normally so sleep-addled I rely heavily on the input of my three-year-old commissioning editor. Forget the principles of narrative structure - sometimes I'm three inconsequential cul-de-sacs in before I've even thought up an inciting incident. She doesn't mind so long as there are plenty of orphaned furry animals in need of emergency healthcare from a passing squadron of vet-fairies.

But the freedom to ad lib, smiling down on the small, avid face of my firstborn brings out something terrible in me: an itch, a tick, a compulsion. I know it’s ghastly but I just can’t leave it alone. The imagination story brings out my deep-seated urge to hector. I know that the morality tale is about as appetising as a bran sandwich but here's the thing: she doesn't listen to me all day long. This child feigns deafness like a short, marmite-smeared Daniel Day Lewis. And yet, eager to draw out the bedtime hour until just before dawn, she's agog. She's finally listening and I've got a lot to say.

My girl endures stories in which I unsubtly harangue her to: tidy up more; count her blessings, show more gratitude to her exhausted parents - that sort of thing. She knows the drill:

Mummy: So what did you think about the selfish kitten?
Ally: (with attempted sincerity) He was mean. He should be kind. He should share the cat-toys more.
Mummy: Yes darling. Well done. You can have another story.

Unfortunately for Ally my didactic spirit has now flowed forth beyond the confines of our home. Maybe I've spent a little too long mourning the passing of dear old Tony Benn this week. Here is a truncated synopsis of last night's story:

After Cinderella qualified as a specialist wildlife vet she had a long and fulfilling career at the otter sanctuary but eventually she and the prince decided to start a family. They had triplets and, although it's never easy having even one child (and best left until you have the maturity, support structures and financial wherewithal to cope) they did better than most because they lived in a palace and they had lots of servants on the minimum wage to do all the cooking and shopping and cleaning and they had three nannies on hand to take a baby each whenever Cinderella wanted a bit of me time. (That’s right darling, Mummy and Daddy can't afford servants or nannies, can we? That's why we'd like it if you and Stella watched a bit more television sometimes.)

As the triplets grew up they wanted for nothing. They never had to tidy their bedrooms because the servants did everything for them and they never had to share their toys because they had at least three of everything. And they had all the most luxurious toys and every treat they could ever imagine because they were so rich. But, by the time they were about four, Cinderella was getting worried about them. They never said please or thank you, they treated the servants like dogs and, if they didn't get what they wanted as soon as they yelled for it, they threw themselves into the floor and screamed and kicked and sobbed.

Cinderella and the prince had a long chat and realised that their extravagant lifestyle and unearned privilege was spoiling the children. They abdicated their royal titles, established a food bank in their old palace to feed all the poor families in the kingdom and decided to live on Cinderella’s perfectly respectable salary. They moved to a nice '60s semi and Cinderella gave the ex-prince all her best housework tips from when she was exploited by her stepmother. So he stayed happily at home looking after the household while Cinderella went out saving otters. The ex-prince started a course run by Jobcentre Plus to find out what sort of part-time job he could aim for and what training he'd need to do to be able to secure it on merit – but in the end he never completed the course because, much as he enjoyed his life at home with the kids, he found it impossible to get anything done. The children gradually became nicer and more respectful of one-another and in the evenings the whole family shared ideas about how to build a fairer society. 

Ally was enraptured. To paraphrase Stewart Lee: “Was it entertaining? No. But I agreed the hell out of it”.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Why Cameron couldn't be more wrong about sport in schools

So on the day that Mervyn King warned the double-dip recession could drag on for another three years and George Osborne promised to focus on the economy “110%” (he really did say that), what David Cameron wanted to talk about was PE in schools. Capitalising on the Olympic success that has nothing to do with him, the Prime Minister unveiled his new strategy for boosting the nation’s wealth by winning record quantities of gold. He wants sport in state schools to be more like it is at Eton. He told LBC Radio we need “more competition, more competitiveness, more getting rid of the idea all-must-win-prizes and you can’t have competitive sports days”.

Where did this ‘all-must-win-prizes’ myth about state schools come from? You hear it a lot from privileged right-wingers for whom the idea of real equality of opportunity is so threatening they shout it down with the lie that the left wants surgeons with one GCSE in textiles. It certainly wasn’t my experience of the state education system. It’s true that at university I was struck that my independently-educated peers seemed to have genuinely competed with their chums over Latin grades whereas at my school I’d felt the pressure to avoid the swot label by being scruffy, scowly and not actually very swotty. But the one area where competition ruled, both at my primary and secondary schools, was sport. It was horrible.

Yes we always did that thing where two strapping athletes got to pick the teams; yes my ranking in this Darwinian popularity contest throughout twelve years of compulsory education was consistent if nothing else; but the real trouble began when the ‘game’ started. Team sports, we’re told, are wonderful for the social and moral development of the young – and let’s not forget their eventual employability – because they teach children to cooperate, to share, to work for the common good. Really? So what about when one mal-coordinated loser is letting the team down? The brutal truth, as any wolf-pack knows, is that sometimes it’s in the common good to leave the weaklings for dead – or tear them to shreds so they don’t ruin things for everyone else.

The ghastly team-picking pantomime doesn’t even get the feeble to lift their game. I tried hard. Or at least I did for the first few years. When that didn’t help I tried the armour of feigned indifference (doesn’t work either). But I find encouragement and support to be more motivating than derision – I’m funny like that. And anyway the people who were picked last were weak in a wide range of ways. Of course the chronically slow, wheezy or chubby weren’t top of the league – but neither were the children who were unpopular for other reasons. At my husband’s school the boy who was always picked last had big glasses and was poor. Nice.

My overriding PE memories are of scathing comments going unchecked by teachers – indeed sometimes coming from teachers – and, as anyone who’s ever faced low-level bullying would recognise, the constant feeling of being unwelcome. Adult bullies usually manage to save the eye-rolling until their victims’ backs are turned, children don’t bother with such niceties.

The sad thing is that now, as an adult, I understand how important exercise is to staying healthy. I mean really important. Last month a report in The Lancet suggested a lack of exercise causes as many deaths as smoking. And in this country the people most likely to die from inactivity and obesity are the poorest. Now I’m really happy that the UK has done so incredibly well in this Olympics. Honestly I am. I’ve never enjoyed watching any sporting event before (and yes that is because the legacy I got from school PE was to hate sport) but, like many nay-sayers, I’ve been sucked in by London 2012. From Danny Boyle’s left-field, self-effacing opening ceremony; to how gratifyingly wrongly the Daily Mail read the public’s mood with its nasty little ‘plastic Brits’ campaign; to, of course, the magnificent achievements and the gracious humility of our competitors. It’s been a joy to watch. But, let’s be honest, the nation’s future sporting success is not the most important issue here – not for schools anyway. Their job is to make sure that everyone picks up the habits they need to lead a healthy life. And to make sure that no-one, no matter how unlikely they are to ever win a race with more than one competitor, is put off exercise for life by the miserable imprint of how enforced school ‘games’ made them feel.

Are schools really incapable of making physical activity appealing to those children who will never be man of the match? We all know how to play. Games – real games – are about the experience of playing – nothing more. We all have that capacity in us, although for some it’s been dormant for a very long time. As a teenager who loathed PE and everything that (I thought) it stood for, I still remember having a whale of a time doing physical warm-ups at a Saturday drama club. Dashing around playing ‘stuck in the mud’ and such-like was sometimes, although I wouldn’t have admitted it, more fun than the acting bit. The difference was the atmosphere. The ethos of community drama groups is one of participation and trust – absolutely the opposite of competitiveness. That’s what I’d like to see more of in PE lessons in schools. Of course there should be opportunities for the super-sporty to compete against other schools but the nurturing of the strong shouldn’t be at the expense of the weak. If the culture of PE departments is all about finding super-stars of the school hockey team or the next Jessica Ennis – then we’ll create a two-tier system where all of the teachers’ expertise is focussed on the kids who are probably going to stay fit their whole lives no matter what because they love it, while the children whose parents have never kicked a ball around with them, the ones who don’t have any adult in their lives setting an example of the benefits of an active, healthy lifestyle, feel alienated and ignored.

It’s a disgrace when talent is wasted. Just as the brightest children need to be challenged to excel, so too do the most gifted athletes. Different children are motivated in different ways. For some competition with peers is a useful spur. But, if you listened to the stories of high-fliers in all walks of life, I think you’d most often find that their greatest competitors are themselves. Yes the athletes want a gold medal; the novelists want to win the Booker Prize; the research scientists want to be the first to make the great discoveries; but you don’t reach the point where you’re anywhere close to achieving such things if you’re too busy watching what other people are up to. The real motivator is the knowledge of what you know you’re capable of. And that sort of confidence comes from, amongst other things, top-class teaching – not an education culture that just leaves the wolf-pack to spur you on. If David Cameron was really serious about helping the next generation of athletes – he’d listen to what the current generation has to say. Is their success down to having had the good old-fashioned opportunity to kick other people down on the way up, or would they rather call for more resources, more specialist coaches oh and maybe for successive governments to stop selling off school playing fields?


Sunday, 17 June 2012

A redefinition of nothing at all

This redefinition of words business: the churches that have suddenly taken a keen interest in preserving our language as well as our sexual purity seem to have forgotten that word usage develops all the time. Have a look through the OED - there aren't many words whose meanings haven't changed over time. The causes of these changes are usually lost in time but we can often pinpoint them to new technologies or changes in social mores. For centuries 'computer' meant 'a person who makes calculations or computations' and it wasn't used in its current meaning of 'a device or machine for performing or facilitating calculation' until the 1860s. I guess recently published dictionaries have to include an endless list of new functions now. Words stretch to encompass the needs of the community of speakers. Did we redefine the words 'vote' or 'democracy' when women were finally enfranchised after a democratic history going back to antiquity that only extended the vote to powerful men? Of course not - we just agreed as a society that the thing that the word represented would now have a broader scope because we made a political decision to advance equality.

Religious understandings of marriage have tended to exclude gay people but the practice has changed dramatically over time. Plenty of examples of polygamy in the OT but we're now fixating on the 'man and the woman' bit of the 'timeless' definition rather than the 'two people' part which is far from eternal. The other thing I want to say about language is that, as all minorities with a history of persecution know, it is deadly in its capacity to hurt. When people say 'there's no need to redefine marriage' - I want to ask who says? Clearly if you're happily married to a partner of the opposite sex you might not perceive a need. But how equal would you feel if you were excluded from using the one word that is most associated in our culture with lifelong loving commitment? When I got married I was moved by the history of the institution and particularly by the writing about marriage - both literary and religious, ancient and modern, that is part of my culture. For some gay people, it's hurtful to be made to feel foolish for wanting to share in that tradition. Shakespeare didn't write a sonnet that begins 'Let me not to the civil partnership of true minds / Admit impediments.' It wouldn't have scanned. Imagine if we said that any black person couldn't get married they had to get 'black-married' or some nonsense like that. The divisive use of language on this issue is very upsetting for some people - I'm really saddened by the lack of compassion I'm hearing from some people of faith on this issue. The 'there's no need' argument totally ignores the feelings of a large minority of people in our society.

We don't legislate to change the meanings of words, we just do it - that's really how language evolves. The thing is that for most of us that evolution has already happened. I've never received an invitation to a celebration of a 'civil partnership' but I've been lucky enough to be invited to a couple of weddings which happened to have same-sex protagonists. Most of us are already saying 'wedding' and 'marriage' to reflect the wishes of the people involved rather than a vocal religious minority who don't like it. The redefinition - if that's what you insist on calling it - has already happened. I passionately support religious freedom but I haven't seen any convincing evidence that the new legislation will endanger it in any way. It's not the business of the state to tell faith groups what to believe, practise or preach but neither is it the business of faith groups to tell the state what rights to grant its citizens - or to try to tell anyone how to use the English language.

Friday, 11 May 2012

Culture wars

Facebook drew my attention to this blog posting:

http://samisaacson.wordpress.com/2012/05/11/just-a-clump-of-cells/

It annoyed me and I dashed out a response. But then I had second thoughts about posting it . I'm not sure Facebook works very well as a forum for debate. I was about to delete it when I thought I might as well bung it up here. If nothing else it might spur me into writing some more blogs...

My response to Sam Isaacson:

I'm not sure many abortion proponents do say that embryos aren't human though. Don't they just believe that whereas vulnerable people in society do indeed need protection through the law, unborn foetuses aren't yet members of society in any meaningful sense and to try to protect their right to life from the moment of conception would necessarily be at the expense of their mothers' right of self-determination and, in some cases, her mental and physical health? The question of when it might be morally right to terminate a pregnancy is complex but whose decision should it be? Should politicians, law-enforcers and the voting public really be allowed to muscle in on conversations between a woman and her doctor? In practical terms do we want to see desperate women under prison guard to stop them self-harming to induce a miscarriage? Do we want to imprison women as murderers because, for whatever reason, they couldn't bear to be pregnant? The writer says "Abortion should be approached the same way that anyone would approach killing any other human being". Is not feeling able to go through the physical  challenges of pregnancy and childbirth; feeling unable to give a child the love and security it deserves but simultaneously unable go through the enormous emotional journey of pregnancy and birth only to give up a baby to the uncertainty of adoption really comparable to murdering a person? Is making a decision to end a physical process in your own body really the same as the crime of killing a person who breathes air through their own lungs rather than getting the oxygen you breathed through the placenta your body sustains?

Saturday, 25 February 2012

My baby the Guardian-reader


I was asked to write this article for The Guardian after I chipped in to a debate about faith schools from the floor and said to Richard Dawkins that I was bringing my daughter up as a Guardian-reader. It was of course tongue-in-cheek but a kind of shorthand for the idea that, atheist or religious, we're all a bundle of subjective values and it's normal to want to share those with your children.

It's been something of a baptism of fire - right now there are more than 300 reader comments on the Comment is Free site and most of them are hostile. My husband has pointed out that the headline, coupled with the thumbnail picture of Dawkins on the website, has attracted exactly the kind of readers who will then go on to hate what I've written. I think the other big problem is the word-count. 600 words - which is all I was allowed - is just enough space to make a polemical argument so long as you don't clarify or exemplify what you're saying and you assume that your readers will interpret your comments generously. Most of them didn't. Still, great to inspire a debate. Below is the article and below that my comment when I could maintain a dignified silence no longer!





My baby's not a Christian or a Muslim. She's a Guardian reader

But there's no Guardian-readers' academy, so I'll be happy to have values close to mine instilled by a CofE school instead

Richard Dawkins says it's as preposterous to talk of a Christian or a Muslim child as it is to announce your newborn is a Keynesian or a Gramscian Marxist. He's made this argument once or twice before and he said it again on Wednesday at the Westminster Faith Debate on religion in schools.

But if it's indoctrination for a teacher to promote particular beliefs – rather than delivering a poker-faced anthropological survey on the diversity of human creeds – then the same must go for a parent. In Wednesday's debate, Dawkins was clear: learning about religion: good; learning from religion: bad.

But religions are so much more than the atheists' caricature. They are a massive and ancient body of human wisdom. Some of it seems mad or twisted today but their vision of how to live is richer than the collected works of any moral philosopher. Their inspiration may or may not be divine but there's surely some authority in the millions of souls who have grappled with these teachings. Philosophy has always struggled to move from an "is" to a "should". Facts alone won't tell us right from wrong.

It's natural to seek inspiration as we ponder how to live. The recent Ipsos Mori poll commissioned by Dawkins's own foundation found that our values are influenced by various sources. But to mature as a moral being we need to encounter serious conviction – to see what people can achieve and the sacrifices they'll make for what they believe in. If I met Martin Luther King I'd want him to really preach at me. Yes, there are lots of dreams out there, but I'd just want to hear about his.

I don't want to just give my daughter some kind of impartial overview of different perspectives. It's not just my parental right to teach her my values, it's my responsibility. I will teach her to stand up against bullying and prejudice and to treat others with respect, equality and kindness. I'll teach her that social justice is worth fighting for and rampant materialism is depressing. I'll teach her to buy free-range eggs and, goddammit, I'll teach her to read the Guardian and not the Daily Mail!

I can't quite say that my two-year-old is a Guardian-reading child (although she is very advanced) but I certainly plan to bring her up as one. Children's capacities for moral thought need to be stimulated when they're tiny. If I keep my values from her until she's 18 then I'll leave her exposed to mobs and ideologies that are driven by hatred, ignorance or vested interests.

There's personality and tribalism in the values we take hold of. And atheistic secularism is no more neutral than Catholicism. Let's all nail our colours to the mast and tell our children what we think. I'll search for a school that's as close a match as possible to my values. I'd love to send my daughter to a Guardian-readers' academy but until I find one I'll probably make do with the local CofE school. I'd rather she came home inspired by the teachings of Jesus than by some watery code of responsible citizenship drawn up by a committee of civil servants.

    
Below is my response on Comment is Free. I don't have enough space to post all the reader comments here (even the nice supportive ones) but you can read the whole lot here: http://gu.com/p/35ypb/tw


     
CharlotteSimpson

25 February 2012 7:31PM

I've just taken a break from a busy afternoon's baby-indoctrination to glance through these comments. I must admit I'm shocked at the level of vitriol here - particularly directed towards the bits that were meant to be tongue-in-cheek.

I absolutely stand by the thrust of my argument that:

1. It's a parent's responsibility to teach their children right from wrong and inevitably we do that from our own perspectives. There is no neutral or objective morality.
     
2. I would like to find a school that, broadly speaking, backs up the morals I teach my daughter. Of course I don't want her to go to a school that preaches creationism or homophobia but neither do I want one that can't deal robustly with racism or bullying. The label 'Guardian-reader' is a shorthand for the bundle of values that are important to me.

Many of the respondents here have made the most enormous leaps in their reading of the article - particularly in their assumptions about how I bring up my daughter.

My daughter (you know, the one who's very advanced - so glad you all picked up on my irony there by the way) demonstrated a powerfully strong will before she could sit unaided. Indeed all the toddlers I know are so feisty and individual that you'd be on a fool's errand to try to indoctrinate them.

Sharing your passions and beliefs is not indoctrination. Indoctrination happens when children aren't listened to, when they're not encouraged to voice their views or to dare to disagree. But having the chance to meet adults with strong passions and convictions - be they teachers, grandparents, vicars, family friends, whoever - is a wonderful and inspiring way for a child to explore and question what they really believe. And yes I'd ideally like to make sure that most of those people come broadly from my stable - I'd like the odd firebrand Islamic radical or Jan Moir disciple to be outnumbered by those with nice community-spirited, egalitarian beliefs.

My daughter is part of a family where she witnesses debate and discussion and learns by observation that it's OK to have opinions but it's also OK to disagree. When she's old enough to join in the debate she'll be very welcome to. I'll be delighted if she can take me to task where I'm wrong. Taking it to extremes though, I wouldn't be delighted if she joined the BNP - although she would of course be free to do so and I would still love her if she did.

I won't be able to comment any more this evening because it's time to get the baby out of the bath: tonight's bedtime story is Jonathan Freedland's analysis of the Lib Dem's looming demise.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Michael Gove Appoints New Chief Inspector of Poets

I had the pleasure of speaking to John Burnside this week – who’s won both the T.S Eliot Prize and the Forward Poetry Prize for his latest poetry collection Black Cat Bone. He has a most unusual method of writing: he doesn’t. He goes out for long walks and composes his poems – many of which extend over several pages – entirely in his head. Lots of writers talk about writing as being really the process of rewriting. The published text might well be the 43rd draft. Not so for John. He says making poetry is akin to working with hot metal. He holds the nascent poem in his head, shaping and turning the words until they are a perfect fit. If they’re right there’s no danger he’ll forget them. When he writes his poems down to send to his publisher that’s it: first and final draft. The metal has gone cold and hard.

And today I talked to a former music teacher. She told me about the Ofsted inspection she failed. Anyone who’s ever taught will surely remember the lessons that didn’t work – the times when no-one was listening, when even the keenest student couldn’t quite see the point of it all and the insurgents could barely muster the motivation to revolt. This wasn’t one of those lessons. She knew it was good. Her bottom-set year eights were belting out gospel songs in three-part harmonies. But her teaching was ‘unsatisfactory’ because the inspector noticed she wasn’t using a lesson plan. She was unprofessional enough to focus her attention on the people she was educating rather than a script. ‘No lesson plan! You wouldn’t cook a meal without a recipe, would you?’ exclaimed the head afterwards. Er… yes actually.

So, based on my skeletal and one-sided knowledge of the story, I can see that the inspector had to fail her. Anyone working under the auspices of Ofsted should know what’s expected of them and if they don’t meet the requirements then they’ll be penalised. If I break a rule I shouldn’t complain when I’m punished – but I do have every right to question whether the rule is a good one.

It got me thinking about how glad I am that some kind of Ofsted equivalent hasn’t yet found its way into the studies and studios of other creative people. If a committee of illustrious arts professionals were to come up with a checklist of best practice for the writing of literature, I can imagine them instructing the writer to show evidence of the process of drafting and redrafting. And well they might – most good writers do it. But not John Burnside. Would his indelible compositions be deemed ‘unsatisfactory’? ‘It’s not that you can’t write, John. But we really need to see evidence of good practice.’ I hope the day never comes when John Burnside is made to provide the literary world with a paper trail.

Most creative people just don’t work like that. Now as someone who once worked as a surly administrator in an office of ‘creatives’ I certainly know that no-body’s incapable of booking their own train tickets or sending their own emails. Creativity is no excuse for laziness and of course there are wonderfully creative people who are also very organised. But more often than not the two don’t go together. 

We need people who are great at rules – people who help to build and sustain order in their jobs and in society and who know where to find the receipt for a faulty cheese grater they bought five and a half months ago. Institutions can’t thrive in a climate of chaos and good corporate compliance helps them to treat people fairly, make sure everyone gets paid when they should, and ensure that poor performance is challenged. But we also need people who are spontaneous, anarchic and visionary. So far, thank goodness, we seem to have accepted that artists are allowed to be just that. But there are few other professions left which haven’t already been subdued by excessive regulation.

Even the superb childminder who sometimes looks after my 19-month-old daughter is burdened with reams of Ofsted form-filling. Fine, give her a CRB check for what it’s worth. But beyond the most basic steps of child protection, I don’t want it. I’ll take my chances that I can decide who best can care for my toddler. If childminders want to buy into an Ofsted inspection system to give themselves extra credibility with parents then let them – on a voluntary basis. But don’t drive away those warm, energetic, surrogate-granny figures who give children the most excellent and attentive care but, through lack of confidence, ability or a filing cabinet, don’t do paperwork well.

But it’s in schooling that the crisis is really looming. What could be more important than educating our children? And what is more creative than capturing a child’s imagination; making your passions grow blossom in the mind of another? There are wonderful teachers who manage to excel within the constraints of the compliance culture that Ofsted has bred but there are many others who’ve given up and found something else to do. And more still – including me – who would love to teach but just don’t want to do a job in which so large a proportion of the workload is about proving to an external regulatory framework that you’re doing a good job.

Whatever I work as, I don’t think it should be my job to prove I’m doing what I’m meant to do. That’s a distraction from actually doing it. It’s my boss’s job to monitor my performance. Does Ofsted think that heads don’t know which teachers are worth keeping? (A clue: they’re often the ones who end up leaving because they can’t bear the system any longer.)

My greatest fear is that schools will become dominated by the rule followers –they’ll lose the diversity in their teaching staff and turn into homogeneous institutions where everyone is good at paperwork; places where you’ll seldom find the boldest and most exciting thinkers because they don’t feel welcome there. Schools need to support all types of children – those who will one day become the followers and enforces of rules: police officers, actuaries, Ofsted inspectors – but also those who will never flourish in education until their imaginations are ablaze. I believe that teaching is a truly creative art that can’t always be formulated into a one-size-fits all ‘best practice’ by a committee.

I want teachers to know their subject, love it, inspire and enthuse their pupils and to do all that without allowing any child to come to any physical or emotional harm. That’s it. A tall order but also a simple one. Great organisation, well-structured schemes of work and clear lesson plans are probably useful for most teachers but some people like to do things their own way. Let’s let them.





Saturday, 24 September 2011

Why capital punishment is always, always wrong

This week the international campaign to persuade the State of Georgia not to execute Troy Davis failed. He was pronounced dead at 23:08 on Wednesday evening. The lethal injection took fifteen minutes to kill him.

The calls for clemency had centred on evidence throwing doubt on his conviction for the murder of a police officer. Mark MacPhail was shot dead in 1989 as he tried to defend a homeless man who was being beaten up in a Burger King car park. By anyone’s standards the murder was a cowardly attack on a good man. To fear that the State of Georgia has punished the wrong person for the crime does nothing to condone it or to disregard its hideousness. But even if Troy Davis were guilty – as many thousands of executed murderers surely must have been – the death penalty is abominable. There can be no exception.

Too much of the public discourse on capital punishment is pragmatic: is it or is it not an effective deterrent? How can we be sure that a conviction is sound? Doesn’t the state undermine its own value system if it kills killers?

But where are the moral voices in this debate? Why do the liberals only throw their support to the Troy Davises whose convictions are shaky? The photos released by Amnesty International of Troy Davis in prison show a thin, bespectacled black man. He looked young, vulnerable and gentle. American society produces many victims, his picture seemed to say, not just those who are hurt by criminals. Hundreds congregated outside the prison where he was killed, praying for a last-minute reprieve. I added my voice to the campaign and felt terribly sad when I heard the news of Troy’s death.

But why do we weep only for Troy? Is state-sanctioned killing only wrong when its target is someone who’s easy to care about?

Another man was executed for murder this week – in Texas. In 1998 Lawrence Russell Brewer chained a disabled black man to the back of a pick-up truck and dragged him along a road until he died. Brewer was a member of a white supremacist gang. There’s no suggestion that his conviction was unsafe. And, unsurprisingly, there was no vigil outside his prison.

Liberals always struggle to tolerate the intolerant. Brewer’s was the sort of crime that really gets under the skin of people like me. He’s not the kind of person we want to ally ourselves with. But we need to stand up and make the case that capital punishment is morally wrong – no matter how dreadful the crime and no matter how watertight the conviction.  In making any argument we must attack our enemies’ strongest bastions. It’s too easy to go for their weak points. (Too easy to win the battle intellectually that is. Tragically for Troy Davis, it’s doesn’t help to win the argument if those in power aren’t listening.)

For many, we’re told a majority in this country, there can be no justice for the murdered unless their killers’ lives are taken from them; to talk of the human rights of murderers is an insult to their victims. It’s as if we need to do something – make some great gesture – to give vent to the tremendous sorrow and revulsion that we feel when people do ghastly things to others. If we don’t respond with the ultimate punishment then we clearly aren’t taking the crime seriously enough. Those who say that the death penalty is uncivilised – those who search for the humanity in even the most vicious criminals; who reach tentatively for some kind of redemptive response to evil – often stand accused of caring more about the perpetrators of crimes than their victims.

But where will taking an eye for an eye lead us? Surely there’s enough suffering in the world without deliberately inflicting more. The desire for revenge is quite natural but it is seldom helpful. Ask any relationship counsellor for the secret of a happy marriage and they’re unlikely to suggest that you make sure you avenge everything your partner ever does to upset or irritate you.

Nobody I’ve loved has ever been murdered. I can’t imagine how I would feel if they were. I hope I wouldn’t abandon my beliefs and cry for blood – but quite possibly I would. So would I be right? Does being the victim of a horrible injustice guarantee you the moral high ground? Of course not. In fact at the height of the natural grief and anger that a bereaved person feels, I think it’s their prerogative to throw rationality to the wind. Those who have lost loved ones through crime have a very clear focus for their rage – but terrible heart-rending suffering is always with us. Families are ripped apart by cruel diseases and natural disasters. These families feel rage too but they don’t have the right to manifest it with a dramatic act of vengeance.

Moral convictions are as much about gut instinct as rational argument. Deep down I will never support the death penalty because I don’t believe that it is ever right to injure another person with the primary intention of  killing or hurting them. We might wound someone in self-defence when our first aim is to incapacitate them. A doctor might amputate a limb when not to operate would hurt the patient more. And soldiers or civilians may be injured in military action when they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. All these injuries are unfortunate but we would not hold the perpetrator morally responsible if the surrounding circumstances showed they had no alternative. But there is something so totally different about causing deliberate harm to another for no end other than ‘because they deserve it’. We do not have to execute people. We can protect society through permanent incarceration. It is the deliberate and quite needless infliction of suffering and death.

When the State of Texas executes someone by lethal injection they make a record of their final statement – they note down what they say as they die. Here’s an example. Steven Woods was executed this month for murdering a 21-year-old man and a 19-year-old woman and then stealing their car keys and a mobile phone. These are his last words:

“You're not about to witness an execution, you are about to witness a murder. I am strapped down for something Marcus Rhodes did. I never killed nobody, never. I love you, Mom. I love you, Tali. This is wrong. This whole thing is wrong. I can't believe you are going to let Marcus Rhodes walk around free. Justice has let me down. Somebody completely screwed this up. I love you too, Mom. Well Warden, if you are going to murder someone, go ahead and do it. Pull the trigger. It's coming. I can feel it coming. Goodbye.”

This is a record of a person dying. He didn’t need to die. He wasn’t ill. He was strapped down and injected with poison. If guilty, then Stephen Woods committed an appalling crime. His victims didn’t deserve to die. They died innocent and he died convicted of murder.

But I believe that my hatred of capital punishment doesn’t show that I am soft on murderers or lacking in compassion for victims – rather that I abhor murder. I believe that violence, sadism and brutality are the lowest and most repulsive elements of human behaviour. Every murderer who can close off their compassion as their victim pleads for mercy has behaved in a way that I honestly can’t describe and don’t even dare imagine. Many murderers must have believed, in their own twisted world-views, that their victims deserved to die. Some probably imagined that their actions were right. And as their victims cried out in desperation they closed their ears. They showed no compassion. Their inability to show pity for their victims is surely what separates them most from normal society.

Because society is not made up of murderers. We do not and we should not close our ears to cries of pain and desperation – whoever they come from. Suffering is a moral evil. It should never be caused as an end in itself. I can’t read those final statements of prisoners gradually succumbing to the trickle of poison through their veins without thinking of people in the room with them who just stood by and watched and wrote down what they said.