Cage-fighting kids? The real problem is the kneejerk reaction

Why bother with putting things into context when you can just point and screech?

What is it about the story of "cagefighting kids" is it that we find so shocking? Is it the kids-as-entertainment aspect? Is it the fighting? Is it the age of the participants? Or is it the cage?

Perhaps what's needed here is a way of learning self-defence against a kneejerk -- it's a particularly brutal weapon, when used by an advanced practitioner like the Daily Mirror or the Metro, and fans of martial arts have found themselves on the defensive thanks to headlines like CAGE OF INNOCENTS or CHILD CAGE FIGHTERS. How do you block it? And is there some way of sending in a counterpunch?

Gareth A Davies, the Telegraph's expert on combat sports, shows the value in speaking to experts who actually know what they're talking about. He points out that it was not mixed martial arts taking place in the arena, but jujitsu; and while he condemns the setting, he is irritated by the moral outrage. "Take away the cage, the ring card girls, and put a gi on the boys, and there would have been no interest in the news pages in this story. What it is not -- is mixed martial arts," he says.

Is that needless hair-splitting? I don't think it is. These weren't children punching and kicking each other in a free-for-all. They were taking part in an exercise with strict rules. Whether you think that's suitable entertainment for an adult audience -- some of whom had been drinking, the Mirror tells us in a somewhat pearl-clutching tone -- is up to you. Perhaps there's something, also, about the cage that makes it seem sordid, or wrong. Not that the cage was involved in any way other than to mark the boundaries of the arena, as far as the children were concerned.

Mixed martial artist Rosi Sexton, meanwhile, aims to set the record straight. "As it turns out, one of the boys and his parents are good friends of mine. He's a great kid -- polite, well mannered and dedicated to his sport. His parents are also wonderful people, totally devoted to their son and very upset at the way this is being portrayed," she writes. But is anyone listening?

As ever, though, a bit of context from an expert like that does tend to take the edge off a good tale, doesn't it? Why bother with putting things into context, or explaining the value of combat, self-defence or martial arts to children, when you can just point and screech? KIDS IN A CAGE! Shock! Outrage! CHILD CAGE FIGHTERS! Get angry now!

What that approach does, though, is to dehumanise the participants somewhat. Those are real children in that arena, with families who love them and care for them, no doubt. They're not out vandalising or causing trouble; they're involved in something which requires discipline and hard endeavour in order to bring a reward. Have we heard from the parents of the boys involved? Do we want to? Do we care what they have to say -- or are we just keen to be outraged and upset by what we see, or what we think we see, that it doesn't matter what's actually there?

We see what we want to see, and it seems we're keen to be outraged. But behind the anger and the fury, the real stories are a little less sensational than we're led to believe. If you're going to get angry, at least get it right about why. Otherwise it's just shadow-boxing.

 

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media

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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.