Shouting arson in a crowded theatre: rape reports, reputations and reasonable suspicion

Greta, over on her blog, has a summary of statements made to date against Michael Shermer.

As of this writing, August 20 2013, 12:19 Pacific time, according to Jason Thibeault’s timeline: We have one unnamed source reporting that Shermer, to use her own phrasing, coerced her into a position where she could not consent, and then had sex with her. We have one unnamed source reporting that this first unnamed source told them about this incident shortly after it happened, and was visibly distraught. We have one unnamed source reporting, not that Shermer assaulted her, but that he deliberately got her very drunk while flirting with her — a story that corroborates a particular pattern of sexual assault. All of these are people PZ knows, and whose reliability he is vouching for.

In addition: We have a named source, Carrie Poppy, stating that she knows the woman who said that Shermer coerced her, that she knew about the assault, and that she’s the one who put her in touch with PZ. We have one pseudonymous commenter, Miriamne, reporting in 2012 that she was harassed by Shermer. We have one pseudonymous source, delphi_ote, reporting that they personally know a woman who was assaulted by Shermer. (Important note: These other reported assault victims may be the woman who said that Shermer coerced her, or they may be different people: since they’re unnamed or pseudonymous, we don’t at this point know. It’s deeply troubling in either case: these are either multiple independent corroborations of the same assault, or they’re multiple independent reports of different assaults.) We have one named source, Brian Thompson, saying he personally knows a woman who was groped by Shermer.

In addition: We have one named source, Elyse Anders, reporting on behavior from Shermer that wasn’t assault but was inappropriately and uninvitedly sexual. We have another named source, Naomi Baker, reporting on behavior from Shermer that wasn’t assault but was inappropriately and uninvitedly sexual. We have a pseudonymous source, rikzilla, reporting on behavior from Shermer that wasn’t assault but was inappropriately and uninvitedly sexual. To be very clear: By themselves, these wouldn’t be evidence of anything other than creepiness. But added to all these other reports of sexual assault, they corroborate a pattern.

It’s quite a list. I’m prepared to say now that personally, in light of all these accounts and their consistency, contextualised by the compelling rarity of false reports, I find the case against Shermer significantly plausible and not to be dismissed, if ever it justifiably could have been, as baseless gossip. It may not meet criminal standards of proof required in court – not being a lawyer, I can’t speak to that – and certainly doesn’t provide grounds to conclude with no time for new data or room for doubt that he’s guilty of what’s been reported. It does, however, provide grounds in my view for a reasonable person at least to entertain that suspicion, and more than sufficient grounds for investigations to be made.

In terms of our community’s reaction, to comparable situations elsewhere as well as to this one, whether criminal standards of proof have been met is not the sole point of concern. When a serious question mark overhangs an individual’s prior conduct, event planners – conference-holders especially – have to decide whether they want them present. That judgement call, whichever way it goes, means gambling with the potential safety of their attendees. As in Pascal’s scenario, there is no way not to bet.

If as a conference official I received the range of reports above stating someone’s behaviour was abusive, severely unethical or inappropriate, I would not be comfortable inviting them to my event. Could I be certain? No. But I’d have to err on one side or the other. Personally, my choice would be to err on the side of caution, apparent likelihood, and not placing someone among my guests whom a reasonable person could suspect had raped. If it transpired the allegations were all false, falling within a tiny number of such reports (which I don’t deny is possible) – if it turned out those making them conspired at great personal risk to smear someone blameless – then in my opinion it would still, at the time and with the facts at hand, have been the most responsible decision.

What statements we have don’t warrant certainty and may or may not meet legal standards of proof. But they do meet what standards we need to ask ourselves, ‘Should this person attend our conference?’ or ‘Should we invite them to our group?’ – and to answer these questions reasonably, if provisionally. This does not amount to pitchfork-laden mob rule; it does not amount to vigilantism; and the evidence we have, while many no doubt would welcome legal proceedings, should not in my opinion be deemed wholly meaningless in the absence of court action.

The ‘Take it to court or else’ approach – the all-or-nothing suggestion that until and unless a trial is held and a guilty verdict reached, no statement can ever be more than idle gossip or demand concern – is naïve and illogical. We know only a tiny percentage of rapes end in conviction. Refusing to entertain, even hypothetically, the notion someone may at some point have raped because no court has deemed them guilty is likely to mean ignoring almost every instance of rape in the real world. It evokes, too, the ‘Just tell the police’ response to conference harassment.

I wouldn’t want legality to be the sole requirement for conduct at my event, and reporters of harassment don’t always want punitive action anyway (they might just want a sympathetic ear; they might want organisers to look out for them throughout the conference, have a private word with someone who’s bothered them or keep an eye on that person; they might want to be placed with a friendly, reliable group or companion during social hours, so as to feel less stranded). But things like expulsion from conferences do not, in any case, require criminal convictions or the standards of proof those demand. Innocent-till-proven-guilty, with no shades of intermediate, probabilistic grey is how court systems work, rightly, when incarceration or registration as a sex offender is on the cards; it’s not how the rest of the world, where degrees of reasonable suspicion exist, has to work – and the idea accusations less than totally airtight must never be made is a dangerous, damaging one which silences a great many victims.

Last year a guest in my friend’s house raped her. She was paralytically drunk, unable to stand up or speak coherently, when he had sex with her. (It doesn’t matter why she was drunk, whose fault this was or what she’d previously said. When someone is so drunk they can’t talk, sex with them is rape. This isn’t complex.) The following day, when I’d gone with her to file a report, police officers asked if she knew him, if she’d done anything to suggest attraction to him, and whether there’d been friction between them – all of which was irrelevant. She was made to choose, in the space of an hour, between pressing charges or dropping everything; she had no chance to seek legal advice, consult family members or even sleep on it. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that she let it go.

We had, as it happened, fairly incontrovertible evidence both that the man in question had sex with her and that she wasn’t able to consent. A public solicitor would, I’m quite sure, have told her as much, but she wasn’t allowed a professional’s legal view. The all-or-nothing message she got that unless and until taken to court, her report could mean nothing at all – that she had no right to be taken seriously by anyone before that point – was exactly what stopped her pursuing it. (One officer’s worldweary comment that rape was ‘just something that happens‘ didn’t help.) If you’re only willing to treat reports as plausible or act on them, even provisionally, once court procedures are in motion, I sincerely hope no victim ever needs your support: most only come forward, including via legal action, when reasonably sure what they say will be listened to rather than dismissed.

Ignoring plausible reports, refusing to act on them even provisionally since no legal verdict has been reached, has major consequences. When at school, another friend had a sister in the year below her whom, while on a school trip at the aged fourteen, another student raped. Their parents, once informed, told both police and the school, where during breaks and over lunch, my friend’s sister was so visibly distraught that teachers isolated her inside an empty classroom. This prompted a two month withdrawal from attendance and ultimately a change of schools. The student who raped her and denied anything had happened, meanwhile, saw no consequences whatsoever, since the school’s head teacher ruled that while investigations were ongoing, no action would be taken.

No course of action existed which presupposed neither that the victim told the truth nor that she hadn’t – again, authorities had no way not to bet. I presuppose the former here because I trust my friend, but also because again, only a few reports of rape – the clear exception to the rule – are false. Given this and the girl’s obvious terror, beside the prospect of leaving a pupil among the student body who’d raped, wouldn’t suspending or isolating him while investigations continued be a more conscientious choice? Like conference organisers, they had to make a judgement call: it should have been quite clear whose account provisionally to believe. (Teachers, after all, are paid to be judges of character: I don’t accept a 14-year-old girl could feign trauma, with no clear motive, well enough to fool experienced school staff.) If the report did turn out to be false – one of a tiny, exceptional few – it would still, again, have been the best approach to take given the facts they had. A choice between which student to expel certainly wouldn’t be a comfortable one – but nor, in my view, should it be such a hard one ethically.

When I say things like this, I hear responses like ‘Yes, but couldn’t this all just stay behind the scenes? Couldn’t conference organisers communicate, discreetly, amongst themselves? Someone’s reputation is at risk!’

I have three replies.

The first one is, that happened. Since the current wave of allegations broke, corroboration and agreement in most cases have rippled back – sometimes in the format ‘That happened to me too’ and sometimes in the format ‘I’ve heard that too’. (In one particular case, six people I know told me, independently of one another, that they’d witnessed or been told of the individual’s serious misconduct.)

It’s obvious that for the last few years, these discussions have gone on under the radar – in fact, much of last year’s drive for anti-harassment policies was prompted by Jen McCreight’s comments that several female activists swapped anecdotes about certain male skeptics’ behaviour. Given the rapid explosion of public namings which followed Karen Stollznow’s disclosure, it seems to me things may by this point simply have come so far – behind-closed-doors revelations and private statements spread so widely – that accusatory floodgates were bound to open sooner or later. If harassment and assault had, under the surface, grown so prevalent such a deluge could be released, doesn’t that suggest we needed to address them earlier? Might those hushed whispers and private comments, just perhaps, been insufficiently effective? (See also reply number two.)

After Jimmy Savile – a veteran British broadcaster, if you hadn’t heard the name – died in October 2011, reports from people he molested and raped as children poured in by the hundred. He may, it’s now thought, have been one of UK history’s most prolific sex offenders. Why did this happen only after his death? Because while he lived, his reputation was at stake; because victims, no doubt, were afraid to smear a much-admired celebrity; because many feared reprisals, equally doubtless, from a multimillionaire’s legal staff. In view again of the speed at which reports emerged, it seems certain confessions, accusations and intimations made the rounds in private before Savile died, as they did in skepticism till recently. Consider: how many of his crimes might have been prevented, and how many people saved a major trauma, had the kind of scandals broken decades back which are breaking for us now?

My second reply is that frankly, we cannot always rely on institutions to take action. The BBC, we know now, failed for years to act against Savile; the Catholic Church failed for decades to act against child-raping priests; my friend’s school failed to act after her sister’s rape; it seems reasonable to conclude based on statements like Carrie Poppy’s and the apparent extent of this problem that skeptical organisations too have failed to act. If things had never reached the point where we now find ourselves – and in many cases, they wouldn’t have if organisations had trusted and supported victims – that would, agreed, have been quite wonderful. Most people who’ve spoken out of late (prompting a barrage of condemnation, bullying and legal threats) would I’m sure also agree. Unfortunately, things have reached this point. Didn’t something more need to be done? And if not this, what?

My third reply, the one I feel matters more than anything, is the following:

Reputations matter, but no reputation matters more than stopping sexual violence.

Plenty of reputations have been endangered recently, and not just Michael Shermer’s or the other leading skeptics’ accused. Individuals’ reputations – PZ Myers’, Carrie Poppy’s, Karen Stollznow’s – are on the line. Organisations’ reputations – the JREF’s, CFI’s – are on the line. Our entire movement’s reputation, and that of atheists at large, is on the line.

I am convinced none of this matters.

At least, I’m convinced none of it matters more than addressing, for the sake of our community, things like rape, harassment, assault and abuse. Damage to reputations is serious; this is more serious still.

If there’s one common lesson from the Savile affair, the Catholic Church’s history of sex abuse, the rape of my friend, the rape of my other friend’s sister, the allegations currently overrunning skepticism – it’s that sometimes, when fires in a crowded theatre are being lit or a reasonable onlooker might think so, shouting arson is defensible even if that means naming as arsonists the guests of honour in the royal box.

We share a communal stake in our movement’s safety, especially at events and conferences, and when reasonable suspicion (even if not demonstrable certainty) exists that someone’s actions there endanger others; when off-the-record conversations, on-the-record reports and open secrets have failed to prompt resolution, surely there comes a point when public statements are justified – even if making them threatens that person’s public image? Surely in certain circumstances, concern for the public safety of our movement – not based, necessarily, on certainties, but based on reasonable suspicions and reports that seem overwhelmingly unlikely to be lies – can trump individuals’ PR concerns? Isn’t there a case for the principle of public interest here?

I don’t, in the end, believe this debacle will ruin atheism’s image. I accept that, in the short term, religious critics may use it to snipe at us – but what right, anyway, does religion have to take swipes at sex abuse controversies? On the contrary, I smell an opportunity.

If two or three years down the line from now, we’ve taken painful steps to clean up our act; if the scandals breaking today have been seen through to their conclusions, with appropriate investigations made and sufficient measures taken where necessary; if guidelines for the future are established which set out clear, well-defined ethical boundaries of accepted conduct, and we rise to the challenge of fixing our community – then religion will have lost, definitively, a major fortress in the culture war. We will, as an organised community of atheists, have shown we take sexual and social ethics seriously, and done in ten years what the Catholic Church failed to accomplish in two thousand.

Isn’t that a challenge worth embracing?

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Bonding with history: Skyfall’s postmodern 007

[Warning: spoilers!]

We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

So recites Judi Dench’s M midway through Skyfall, quoting Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’. As Thomas Newman’s soundtrack swells and Daniel Craig’s Bond tears on foot through Whitehall, it’s clear the text points to him as much as post-imperial Britain: like Ulysses, better known by his Greek name Odysseus, this film’s Bond is an aging sea dog come home, world-weary, after being lost in action, his kingdom fallen into disrepair. Skyfall, Bond’s own odyssey, is the franchise’s most strongly intertextual entry, classicist touches woven through its story. Even the famous Walther PPK, now fireable solely by him, is recast in Homeric terms, mirroring the bow only Odysseus is capable of drawing, proving his identity; Bond too is defined by his prowess as a marksman, not what it was since his exile – ‘Is there’, Javier Bardem’s villain asks during a shooting contest, ‘any of the old 007 left?’ – and it’s only in the film’s third act, when finally he regains his expert aim, that we know for sure Bond isn’t dead. (If the antique parallels seem contrived or unlikely, director Sam Mendes read English at Cambridge and co-writer John Logan penned Gladiator twelve years before.)

M’s speech namechecking Tennyson is itself a defence of old-fashioned, clandestine espionage. Earlier, as future successor Mallory worries MI6 are viewed as ‘antiquated idiots’, he admonishes her, ‘For Christ’s sake, listen to yourself. We’re a democracy, and we we’re accountable to the people we’re trying to defend. We can’t keep working in the shadows. There are no more shadows.’

‘You don’t get this, do you?’ M replies. ‘Whoever’s behind this, whoever’s doing it, he knows us. He’s one of us. He comes from the same place as Bond, the place you say doesn’t exist: the shadows.’ When interrogated at a government inquiry, she says this:

Today I’ve repeatedly heard how irrelevant my department has become. Why do we need agents, the double-0 section? Isn’t it all rather quaint? Well, I suppose I see a different world than you do, and the truth is that what I see frightens me. I’m frightened because our enemies are no longer known to us. They do not exist on a map, they’re not nations. They are individuals. And look around you: who do you fear? Can you see a face, a uniform, a flag? No. Our world is not more transparent now, it’s more opaque. It’s in the shadows. That’s where we must do battle. So before you declare us irrelevant, ask yourselves: how safe do you feel?

That Skyfall should be Dench’s final Bond film seems fitting, since this perfectly inverts the modernist aesthetic of the Pierce Brosnan era, in whose opener GoldenEye she first appeared. (Both films, incidentally, are named for Bond’s infant homes – in the latter case, the Jamaican house were Ian Fleming first conceived of him.) When Casino Royale rejigged the series continuity, depicting 007’s first mission, producers impressed by Dench’s M reportedly kept her on despite this complicating the timeline; to view her in GoldenEye and Skyfall side by side, it’s clear her two Ms are very different characters. On first meeting Brosnan’s Bond in 1995 that M – formerly a finance executive, dubbed ‘evil queen of numbers’ by Michael Kitchen’s Tanner – famously called him ‘a sexist misogynist dinosaur, a relic of the Cold War’, while the Craig era’s M has by contrast been a spymaster for decades, even declaring in Casino Royale that she misses the Cold War. By Skyfall M has come full circle from dogged forward progress to nostalgia, and so has the franchise.

Just as the First World War prompted literary modernism, so the USSR’s collapse prompted GoldenEye and films that followed – in a world where things had fallen apart, establishment and status quo crumbling in on themselves, they reached for innovation. Brosnan’s Bond wore a European businessman’s Brioni, wielded gadgetry more colourful than ever at the dawn of the online age and embodied the Blair governments’ fetish for New Britain: this 007 scaled the Millennium Dome, rappelled down the side of the Eden Project and worked at Vauxhall Cross, the new, nineties home of MI6, with Samantha Bond’s more PC Moneypenny, romantically emancipated and (in GoldenEye at least) dating someone else. In Tomorrow Never Dies and Die Another Day, Bond’s love interests (Michelle Yeoh and Halle Berry) were fellow agents from China and the U.S., whom he, filmmakers seemed overkeen to show us, was adept at satisfying sexually. As women of colour, in both cases, became his lovers, so MI6 grew interracial, Colin Salmon’s Charles Robinson replacing Tanner as chief aide to M.

The urge to modernise was, in the end, what alienated fans and almost tanked the series – particularly via 2002’s CGI-laden, bullet-time-ridden Die Another Day. Bringing Bond and his setting up to date meant bringing it away from Fleming, whose hero was an anachronism even at the time of his invention. Bond is an Eton old boy and naval Commander, pitched in Live and Let Die – written in the prelude to the U.S. civil rights movement – against criminally violent black people, and against cat-eating Koreans in Goldfinger. (‘Bond intended to stay alive on his own terms’, Fleming writes. ‘Those terms included putting Odd-Job or any other Korean firmly in place, which in Bond’s estimation was lower than apes in the mammalian hierarchy.’) He is the gamekeeper, as Den of Geek’s James Peaty writes, of an Empire whose absence his creator gravely mourned, and which is being fast deserted by the world around him. With his colonial instincts, ‘corrective’ seduction of Pussy Galore – her name originally refers not to what she has, but what she gets – and rage at fifty years of female emancipation, Bond is written as a man out of time, or steadfastly refusing, at least, to move with it.

The same could easily be said of him in Skyfall, which makes a point of its heroes feeling out of date. ‘You know the rules of the game’, M tells Bond. ‘You’ve been playing it long enough.’

‘We both have,’ he replies. ‘Maybe too long.’

It’s not just MI6 here which faces being deemed antiquated. Bond himself is older and slower than when we saw him last, ‘made weak by time and fate’ like Ulysses, struggling to stay in what Mallory calls a young man’s game. He is matched, moreover, against Bardem’s technoterrorist and with Ben Whishaw’s millennial Q, who chides him as a mere triggerman in the age of cyberwarfare. Bond’s argument, M’s, and the film’s as a whole is that triggermen today are needed; that as espionage and global conflict post-9/11 have been individualised (Silva, the film’s villain, rigs national elections from his solitary lair), so shadowy, individual cloak-and-dagger spies have become relevant again. Where keyboard warrior Q is tricked by Silva, after all, it’s Craig’s low-tech, antediluvian 007 who finally undoes him. The Brosnan era argued Bond could be modern, keeping up with a world turned on its head; now that the world has turned again, and late nineties modernity itself seems dated, Skyfall suggests Bond is needed because he’s old-fashioned.

It’s not by accident that this film uproots all its own most contemporary elements. At the outset, M and Tanner (now played by Rory Kinnear) supervise Bond in Turkey from Vauxhall Cross, all flatscreens and gizmos – the same gizmos, it turns out, which allow Silva to access MI6’s computer network and destroy the building, prompting a change of scene to underground Churchillian bunkers of 18th century origin. Bond only gains the upper hand, in the film’s third act, by isolating himself and M on a Scottish moor, no servers or cables in sight: between the restoration era house of the film’s title, the 1964 Aston Martin unearthed to journey there and the family rifle with which Bond finally shoots straight, nothing in Skyfall’s climax belongs to the present. Here, too, Dench – sole remaining cast member from the Brosnan years – is written out, replaced by Ralph Fiennes’ Mallory, whose gender and background return us to Fleming’s M. Like Tennyson’s Ulysses, declaring ‘Some work of noble note may yet be done’, Bond returns to adventure at the film’s close, finding himself back in M’s oak-panelled, leather-doored office of old. (HMS Victory even hangs in painting on the wall, touching multivalently both on Bond’s and MI6’s revival – the ‘grand old war ship’, in Q’s words, may not after all be ‘ignominiously hauled away to scrap’ – and the vessel which ‘puffs her sails’, calling to Ulysses in Tennyson’s poem.) Eve, previously a field agent in the vein of Brosnan’s leading women, is revealed to be Miss Moneypenny, seated at the familiar desk to flirt with 007.

Skyfall is a truly postmodern Bond film, a metafiction about the series’ own continued relevance, by far its most thematic and thoughtful entry. Ironically, I wonder if as a standalone film on its own terms, this stops it working as successfully – if in its reliance on the intertextual, it sacrifices self-sufficient storytelling. Did I, for example, want or need particularly to find out about Bond’s childhood home? Isn’t he, on a certain level, more interesting as a killer with no clear provenance? It’s a wonderfully indulgent moment as a fan, moreover, to rewatch Bond, M, Tanner and Moneypenny in the courtroom sequence, Fleming’s most familiar lineup reunited in a pitched gun battle, but I also have to wonder: what were Eve and Mallory doing in this film, other than awaiting unveilment in more famous roles? Aren’t we, by suspecting this, perhaps distracted on some level from their self-contained characterisation, just as we might have been had Sean Connery, as considered at one point, played groundskeeper Kincade instead of Albert Finney? Just as the elements of classic Bond here – the DB5, say, or M’s office – feel somehow hollow in diegesis, stripped of their meaning in the series’ broader context, these characters never quite seem fully formed and immersive, as did Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale and her interplay with Craig’s Bond. Likewise, Silva’s relationship with him never seems quite as real as that of Mads Mikkelsen’s blood-weeping Le Chiffre.

Where some knocked Royale as a great film but unsatisfying Bond film, I wonder if the reverse applies to Skyfall. (I’ve a great deal of time for both, and more regard than most for the much-derided Quantum of Solace in between, but still think Royale edges ahead.) How will the old-school aesthetic re-established by the close of Sam Mendes’ film serve Bond 24 on his directorial return? How will the new-old world of oak panels, secretarial flirting and mission dossiers stamped TOP SECRET serve its plot, when these things’ purpose is no longer just semiotic? I’m not sure. One thing is certain, though: after reflective, thought-provoking Skyfall, I trust that Mendes can deliver.

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‘Trans people are real people. We are not an agenda’ – Zinnia Jones on CNN

Following Chelsea Manning’s coming out, Zinnia’s been all over the media. See below her appearance on CNN, under her meatspace name Lauren McNamara – noting in particular how host Jake Tapper persistently refers to Manning by her previous, male, name and pronouns.

As it turns out, much went on behind the scenes between Tapper, Zinnia and partner Heather. Over on her page, they’ve a jointly-written post about the follow-up.

After my appearance, I tweeted to Tapper to express my appreciation that I was able to be on the show and discuss this case. Several of my followers took note of this, and rightly criticized Tapper for persistently misgendering Chelsea. Tapper responded that this was not his decision, and that it was a matter of CNN’s policy.

Later that day, my fiancee, Heather, made a post on my blog explaining how stressful her day had been due to dealing with people’s attitudes toward my segment on CNN. While she had been sitting at the doctor’s office with our two sons, my segment was airing on the TV in the waiting room. Some older people waiting there seemed to be laughing at the very idea of trans people, and she confronted them about this. She also found it awkward and unnecessary that, as our children were watching, Tapper referred to me as previously being a “gay man”.

Heather:

I explained that I can’t stop people’s anger – that people get angry and vent, but what I’m trying to do right now is to get productive about the language that’s used on television so that we can avoid inciting that anger in the future. I told him that I’m older than Lauren and remember the time whenrespectful treatment of a person such as myself, a lesbian, would have meant discussing me as somebody with a problem that couldn’t be helped, or as being a product of some sort of childhood sexual abuse – but that has changed, and this is how that change happens.

Jake replied that he spoke with a trans activist who said there were 250,000 trans people in America. He said that’s not that many, and that even the LGB community, “of which you are a part,” has trouble accepting trans people and that I should know that. I told him that yes, I was aware of this problem, and that if media sources like CNN could be guided toward resources for respectful language like the GLAAD style guide, then the common narrative might change.

In what I felt was a very condescending tone, Jake responded that he was sure the higher-ups were quite aware of the style guide, thank-you-very-much – but that, and he didn’t want to offend anyone by saying so, he thinks we can all agree that groups like GLAAD had (here, he struggled to think of an inoffensive word) an agenda.

Jointly:

This may have begun innocently enough as a group of people failing to understand an underrepresented and largely invisible minority group. Though Tapper and CNN’s higher-ups believe that excuses and summarizes the whole of the problem, that’s not the case. By now, several mainstream news outlets such as MSNBC, NPR, and The Guardian have already chosen to recognize and respect Chelsea’s gender. The continuation of this neglect no longer indicates innocent ignorance. Since Chelsea’s coming out, CNN and its partners in this neglect have actively made several distinct decisions to dismiss the voices and identities of transgender people.

Such news agencies have demanded that trans people meet an unusually high standard of proof simply to have their names and genders respected. When reporting on someone like Lady Gaga orVanilla Ice, use of their names is not contingent on court orders showing their legal name or medical records providing evidence of their gender. Yet trans people’s very existence receives much greater doubt and scrutiny. Chelsea is first expected to pursue HRT and surgery even as the same news segment is reporting on her current lack of access to any of these medical resources. They’re clearly aware of the situation she faces, and their use of it as an excuse rings hollow – yet they choose to use it anyway.

Whether CNN chooses to acknowledge it or not, trans people are a part of their audience. We are taxpayers, viewers, consumers, citizens, soldiers, and sometimes prisoners. We are not political debates. We are not an agenda.

Read the whole thing.

Dawkins and Islam: Nick Cohen replies to me at the Spectator

Friday’s post, on die-hard refusal in some quarters even to entertain critique of Richard Dawkins, took to task a column by Nick Cohen, parrying broadsides against Dawkins’ statements on Islam from me, Tom Chivers, Nesrine Malik, Nelson Jones, Martin Robbins, Owen Jones and others.

Half an hour ago, Cohen posted a reply to me and his (/Dawkins’) other many critics at the Spectator.

Alex Gabriel, an atheist blogger, said I had failed to understand that it was possible to criticise Dawkins for being “a dickhead” – to use his elegant language – and to oppose religious fundamentalism too. Of course it is, everyone can be in the wrong. And Dawkins of all people must know that there is no such beast as a sacred cow. All I can say in reply is that Gabriel’s even-handedness may exist in his blog, but it does not exist in modern culture. Look at the bureaucracy, the media, the universities.

To clarify: the title of my post, ‘Don’t be a Dickhead’, was a pun on Phil Plait’s much-debated ‘Don’t be a dick‘ talk from TAM 2010; ‘Dickhead’ (capital ‘D’) serves here as a byword for the parts of Dawkins’ fandom which refuse to hear him questioned: die-hard fans of someone named Richard, that is, as die-hard fans of the Pet Shop Boys are Petheads and die-hard believers, in Dawkins’ words, are faithheads. I wasn’t calling Dawkins himself a dickhead (small ‘d’), nor calling Cohen one – certainly, I think his column was one of the fairer and more relevant apologies for tweets like this – my point was only to suggest the territory Cohen risks entering by saying Dawkins should always be left alone.

To comment: it’s certainly true there are widespread, serious Islam-related problems in Britain – female genital mutilation, say, the Sharia courts system or the harassment and intimidation, yes, of ex-Muslims like Nahla Mahmoud. This does not, however, licence anyone to deny Muslims equal citizenship rights, as figures praised by Dawkins like Pat Condell and Geert Wilders do, to fall back on racist, xenophobic narratives for critique of Islam, as he regularly does, or to excuse leading atheists like him for doing so. In my view, in fact, his rhetoric jeopardises the secularist cause. As I said in my original post about this,

I’m an atheist and a secularist. Within the context of a broader critique of religion, I have no problem saying the architecture of public space, as a prerequisite for democracy and human rights, must be secular; that it’s absurd to think violent, inhumane ancient texts provide superior moral guidance to everyone else’s; that if you claim religious morality based on those texts should be enforced in the public sphere, you deserve to have their contents thrown at you; that the God idea is a bad idea; that Islamism is a regressive, oppressive political movement; that non-Islamist, non-fundamentalist, mainstream Islamic beliefs deserve as much scrutiny and criticism as any others; that they can and should be indicted for promoting sexual ethics based on the whims of an imagined being; that Mehdi Hasan deserved evisceration, not praise, for his article on homosexuality; that cutting apart infants’ genitals is violence and abuse; that subjecting animals to drawn-out, agonising slaughter is unspeakably cruel and religion no excuse; that going eighteen hours in July without eating or drinking is more likely to endanger your health than bring spiritual enrichment; that blasphemy is a victimless crime, and public prohibitions of it antediluvian. I am not ‘soft on religion’; I am not softer on Islam than any other.

But there are still ways to say these things that have racist subtexts and ways that don’t. There is nothing inevitable in facing a barrage of indignation from sensible people when you talk about Islam-related things…

The last thing secularism needs is a clash-of-civilisations narrative. The problem with Islam, as with any religion, is that it makes unknowable claims; the problem with Islamism, as well as relying on those unknowable claims, is that it’s theocratic, violent, oppressive and inhumane. To object instead to either, even by implication, on grounds of being culturally alien, foreign, un-British, un-Western or ‘barbarian’ is to racialise the terms of discussion, accepting ahistorically that the so-called ‘Muslim world’ is theocratic by definitive nature, legitimising the U.S.-led militarism which fuels Islamism’s anti-Western appeal, and enforcing the idea those who leave Islam or refuse to practice it hyper-devoutly are cultural and racial traitors – that to be an atheist ex-Muslim or religious moderate is to be a ‘coconut’, brown on the outside but white within.

There are better ways we can discuss Islam.

There are better ways we can critique Islam.

‘Does Gabriel seriously think’, Cohen asks in his new column, ‘that our society will be able to maintain that it has acquitted itself well?’ To date, certainly not. But keeping our commentary on Islam(ism) couched in the language of epistemology and human rights, away from the anti-Muslim McCarthyism of Dawkins’ Twitter feed, sharpens rather than blunts our critique of it. Perhaps Cohen’s first column didn’t mean to defend those tweets – but by telling us to back away from Dawkins just as his comments came rightly under scrutiny, that’s part of the message it sent.

Smash the closet! 10 alternative coming out tips for young people

SmashTheClosetAugust’s been a good month for comings-out: Raven-Symoné, Ben Whishaw, Troye Sivan, Darren Young, Wentworth Miller, Chelsea Manning two days ago – am I missing anyone? Sivan, Young and Miller have self-identified as gay, and Manning as a woman; the press, annoyingly, have applied terms like ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ to Whishaw and Raven-Symoné, who to my knowledge haven’t specified their identifiers of choice, just as they did to Jodie Foster following her Golden Globes speech early this year.

Most of these announcements were refreshingly cliché-free: in YouTube videos, high-profile media announcements and storylines on primetime drama, comings-out often deploy received, predictable narratives about teary-eyed acceptance, Being Who You Are™ and loving yourself – none of which speak to every queer person’s life, and some of which enforce misleading or damaging ideas. I think it’s time we thought about reteaching gender and sexuality, with more self-criticism and precision, and that’s especially true of our approaches to coming out, and to the closet: shouldn’t we be considering the ways we’ve discussed them, individually and as a culture, and how those might be flawed or insufficient?

Queer theory is bashed as arcane, elitist and irrelevant, but we can’t not theorise what we experience: the closet metaphor, and the popular discourse we’ve built around leaving it, do prompt particular views of identity. I’m convinced exiting the closet isn’t enough: we need to smash it from the outside with new approaches and better ideas. With that in mind, I asked myself – what would I say now to myself nine years ago, on the edge of out? What would I, personally, tell queer teenagers and young people today, in contrast  to popular and predominant tropes?

No single post could satisfy that question, but I came up with a ten-point list of answers.

  1. It’s all right to get pissed off. This might not seem an obvious start, but think about it: coming out, most of the time, is hard. Potential consequences – harassment, violence, rejection, denialism – make it hard, but so does having to do it in the first place. Your parents most likely taught you from birth that you’re straight, telling you that when you grew up, you’d marry someone of the opposite sex and procreate together, explaining sex as something mummies and daddies do, talking about ‘gay people’ as a them, not a facet of us: chances are, you just assumed you were straight by default, and realising you weren’t was a headfuck. However your loved ones react to your leaving the closet, they’re the reason you were in it to begin with, and the much of what makes leaving it difficult. I’m angry about that. Contrary to depictions of coming out in popular culture – dominated by tears, passivity and self-directed angst – you can be too. It doesn’t mean you hate them.
  2. Instead of ‘coming out’, you can just be outYou know that assumption any given person is straight – even people whose sexual or gender identities aren’t knowable, like babies or strangers? That assumption makes things harder for us. It’s why we have to announce we aren’t cishets to every new person we meet, why we get excluded from social discussions, why we sometimes feel like guests in our own homes. Once we know we aren’t, I sometimes think announcing so in dramatic, deliberate ways shores up the problem: the more shocking not being straight is made to seem, the more straightness gets reified as the default. Consider that, instead of sitting people down to give them the talk or making stressful, emotional speeches, you have the option of just getting on with things – of not formally declaring yourself queer, but not hiding it either. Jodie Foster did just that.
  3. There’s no set narrative you have to follow if you choose a deliberate ‘coming out’, of course – and for some people, that certainly is the best choice. It doesn’t need to be via a phone call, a letter or a sobbing sit-down confession: why not a blog post, a newspaper article, a piece of art? The story you tell might not fit popular patterns: it may not be true you’ve never had any interest in, or positive experiences with, the ‘opposite sex’; that if you’re trans*, you feel you were born in the wrong body; that you always knew you were different somehow. You may not feel different at all, which is fine. Anything you feel, in fact, is fine. If you don’t feel vulnerable or upset when you come out, you don’t need to be – you can be happy, confident, indifferent or angry and confrontational. There are reasons you might be any of these. All emotions here are valid.
  4. Identities needn’t be something you areWe’re constantly told being gay or straight (not to mention anything between or beyond) is just the way we are – that we’re ‘born this way’, that’s it’s ‘who we are’ or connects somehow to our finger length or number of older brothers. Identifiers like ‘gay’ and ‘bisexual’ are, in the end, just identifiers – words like ‘Whovian’ or ‘Directioner’ that we use as social emblems when we feel they best describe us, and very much the products of specific cultures. (There weren’t gay men or lesbians in Victorian London, but there were Uranians and sapphists; there weren’t gay and straight people in the 1600s, just some people who practised sodomy and some who didn’t.) Identities can therefore change – I’ve identified at various points as straight, bisexual, gay and (currently) queer – which can get interesting. Don’t let people tell you you’re really anything but what you say you are: you get to articulate your sexual or gender identity however works for you, and plenty of room exists for flexibility and creativity. If there aren’t words that express how you feel, make new ones up – we’ve done it with sapiosexual and protosexual and gynosexual - or, if you’d prefer, discard labels altogether. They are, after all, only labels.
  5. You don’t need anyone else’s approval. The ‘born this way’ argument, that we entered the world with predetermined sexual identities and have no choice in any aspect of our sexuality or gender, is pitched to apologise for us – to suggest that since we’ve no control over it, we can’t be judged morally or psychologically for not being cisgender and straight. Like plenty of popular coming out narratives, this doesn’t speak to everyone: personally, for example, I fit perfectly the image deployed by homophobes of someone who could engage solely in straight relationships but chooses not to. The argument we should be making is that in sexual and gender-based terms, people have autonomy, and no aspect of their sexuality or gender – include whatever choices might be involved – needs anyone’s approval or permission. The only consent I’ll ever need is my partners’, and you don’t need to defend your identity from the judgement of family, friends or authorities. Their judgement isn’t valid anyway.
  6. Telling religion to go fuck itself is okay. I’ve seen strong urges in LGBT discourse to reclaim religion: Lady Gaga singing God made us queer, LGB organisations working keenly with faith groups, suggestions Jesus was gay (no, really); I saw ‘encouragement’ at university for LGBT students to find churches that accommodated them, or pursue readings of scripture that got round its homophobic and transphobic aspects. While, being an atheist, I don’t find a nice God any less silly than a nasty one, I’m glad if personally this helps you through the night. On the hand, if you find yourself leaving your faith on top of coming out, you’re entitled to support, not pressure. I see LGBT people pushed toward liberal religion, in particular, in the U.S., where churches can bear huge social and community power, and religiosity is treated as a sign of sexual morality. It’s a reasonable conclusion their power isn’t deserved or legitimate; that an essentially random set of sexual and gendered taboos, based on unknowable ideas about theoretical beings’ whims, isn’t a good basis for ethics or social structure. If you decide religious bodies have no place dictating your sex life or gender, however nicely, you don’t need to feel bad about that.
  7. It isn’t your job to educate people. Straight people are going to get stuff wrong, and say things that piss you off. They’re especially likely to do this if you live outside the gay-straight binary – identifying for example as bi- or pansexual, asexual, queer or questioning – and cis people are almost certain to if you’re trans*. Much of the time, they’ll get defensive when you’re pissed off and insist you explain where they went wrong, but it isn’t your duty to school them, leading them by the hand through everything they need to understand but don’t, when you don’t want to. Schooling people takes patience, and can be emotionally demanding. We live in the age of Wikipedia and Google: not knowing about things has ceased to be an excuse, and if people aren’t aware of things they need to be, they don’t get to demand your time and effort helping them to understand. If you’d rather not deal with that, tell them to go and look up the Genderbread Person, Queeriodic Table or the Gender Wiki.
  8. You don’t have to wait till ‘it gets better’. You know all those YouTube videos, the ones Dan Savage started, with happy, successful LGBT people saying how nice their lives are to support and encourage queer youth? If I’d seen those when I was a teenager, stuck on a cycle of violence, harassment and self-harm, it would have done nothing at all for me, except perhaps make me feel worse still. When education is institutionally queerphobic, it’s an empty promise in false solidarity for someone to say that, since their personal life is now wonderful, you should assume yours will be too someday, sitting through further years of misery and torture while you wait. Someday be damned: you deserve safety and justice here and now. You are allowed to demand them from people tasked with your care, even if it means being angry, confrontational and aggressive.
  9. It’s not just you, even if it seems like that. Remember those points in (1) and (4) about our teaching people they’re straight, and identifiers just being identifiers? I’ve got a feeling most people are less straight than they see themselves as being, and those who identify as LGBTQ much rarer than those who’ve had, or could have, some queer experience. It’s easy to feel you’re the only one in your family, school or town who isn’t a cishet (trust me, I’ve been there), but the odds are, it isn’t so – and moreover, your being out might prompt other people to leave their own closets behind. Even though you might not see that happening, bear it in mind if isolation or loneliness are getting to you; openness and liberation about gender and sexuality are self-perpetuating, and once you’re out, you might start changing people’s thinking.
  10. You get to be part of something awe-inspiring. Being queer or trans*, especially once out, has its share of downsides – things can get difficult. At the same time, there’s a huge community of people who’ll be on your side, and that community, much of the time, is amazing. Collectively, we’re fucking with world’s preconceived assumptions about sexuality and gender, and that’s pretty exciting. We’re positive about sex in all its wild and wonderful forms, beyond mainstream sex education’s procreation-centric, cisheteronormative scripts; we’re home to incredibly varied relationship forms, beyond the heteromonogamous nuclear family; we’re traditionally relaxed about gender roles and open to warping, twisting and reinterpreting them – even doing this to gender itself. We have our own forms of language, literary genres and whole art forms, our own contributions to political and social thought . Much of this was born out of oppression and marginalisation, of course, but that doesn’t stop it being valuable or beautiful – in fact, isn’t generating ideas that disrupt and challenge social conventions, and building communities that do that, a pretty great response to getting stepped on by them? Our culture’s far from perfect much of the time, but it’s still an amazing one to have at your fingertips.

You don’t have to spend your life in the closet, no – but nor do you have to leave it a certain way, in line with expectations or stereotypes. You might even find that, as you emerge, it creaks and buckles till the door hangs smashed and swinging limply from its hinges, never again to shut.

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Don’t be a Dickhead: fisking Nick Cohen’s defence of Richard Dawkins

Earlier this month I wrote a blog post called ‘Yes, Richard Dawkins, your statements on Islam are racist‘. Currently, it’s the most-read thing I’ve ever published.

The post argues Dawkins uses racialising, xenophobic language (‘alien rubbish’, ‘Islamic barbarians’ etc.) to mount a clash-of-civilisations critique of Islam(ism) – a misguided one which empowers the neocon right and the racist far-right; that we have to read this language in the context of his praise for figures like Geert Wilders and Pat Condell; that he homogenises ‘Muslims’ as a whole into a single hyperdevout, hyperconservative mass; that he singles out Islam in specific contexts where there’s no good reason to; that there are better ways we can discuss it, including critically.

It does not argue, at any point, that Dawkins is at heart ‘a racist’; it does not argue Islam is a race, or all criticism of it racist; it does not judge anyone ‘guilty by association’. (What it says, on the last count, is that if people like the EDL retweet you – if what you say can be so easily co-opted by such people – you should rethink your rhetoric.) I know for a fact that he read it shortly after it went up, then, making all the above complaints, returned to tweeting the same kind of material with added fervour.

That’s when things got busy.

Tom Chivers, at the Daily Telegraph, cited my post in an article called ‘Please be quiet, Richard Dawkins, I’m begging, as a fan‘.

Nesrine Malik, at Comment is free, wrote that ‘Richard Dawkins’ tweets on Islam are as rational as the rants of an extremist Muslim cleric‘.

Nelson Jones, at New Statesman, asked ‘Why do so many Nobel laureates look like Richard Dawkins?

Martin Robbins, also at NS, said ‘Atheism is maturing, and it will leave Richard Dawkins behind‘.

Owen Jones, at the Independent, asserted ‘Dawkins dresses up bigotry as non-belief – he cannot be left to represent atheists‘.

Then, finally – after these and probably a good few other salvos I managed to miss – Dawkins published a piece called ‘Calm reflections after a storm in a teacup‘, which near-epitomised the idea of doubling down. (It also persistently attacked the claim Islam is a race – a straw argument none of his critics here made, which most of us explicitly disavowed.)

Throughout all this, I heard regularly from the Dickheads – an army of online devotees who will never, ever hear anything critical of Dawkins said, no matter how nuanced or moderate. They accused me of hating freedom, being morally relativist, being left wing and long-winded (fair enough), dividing the atheist movement, knowing nothing about Islam, being racist, being PC, being ‘young and naïve’, being an ‘offensive little shit’, being in league with Mehdi Hasan. (Mehdi Hasan and I have no association whatsoever. We do not know each other. We have exchanged perhaps four or five tweets in the last year, such is the depth of our alliance.)

It’s as dehumanising to deify someone as to demonise them, and it’s one thing to like Dawkins while not thinking he’s perfect, but another to reject or try to silence anything negative said in relation to him. Secularity is not strengthened by being uncritical or unscrutinising of its press-appointed leaders, and the foremost of those deserve more scrutiny, not less. This is why Nick Cohen’s recent Spectator column, ‘Richard Dawkins attacks Muslim bigots, not just Christian ones. If only his enemies were as brave‘, which I’ve seen shared enthusiastically all over the place, grated on me – to the extent I thought it deserved a fisk.

It’s August, and you are a journalist stuck in the office without an idea in your head. What to write? What to do? Your empty mind brings you nothing but torment, until a thought strikes you, ‘I know, I’ll do Richard Dawkins.’

Dawkins is the sluggish pundit’s dream. It does not matter which paper you work for. Editors of all political persuasions and none will take an attack on Darwin’s representative on earth. With the predictability of the speaking clock, Owen Jones, the Peter Hitchens of the left, thinks the same as Craig Brown, Private Eye’s high Tory satirist. Tom Chivers, the Telegraph’s science blogger, says the same as Andrew Brown, the Guardian’s religious affairs correspondent. The BBC refuses to run contrary views. It assures the nation that ‘militant’ atheism is as fanatical as militant religion — despite the fact that no admirer of The God Delusion has ever planted a bomb, or called for the murder of homosexuals, Jews and apostates.

It’s certainly true much critique of Dawkins has been lazy and irrelevant – the charges, for example, that his views on religion must be invalid since he couldn’t recite to order the full, almost-never-used title of The Origin of Species (analogous, apparently, to Christians not knowing which book opens the New Testament), or because his ancestors at one time owned slaves. This does not, however, mean any critique of his rhetoric is worthless, and it seems extraordinarily self-defeating for atheists and secularists to dismiss it from the off. (See also Tom Chivers’ own response to Cohen.)

Sharp operators could sell the same piece a dozen times without changing a word. Read the papers, and you will suspect that is exactly what sharp operators have done.

Yes. I’ve read it. It’s a boring, neither-here-or-there piece. But the arguments against Dawkins’ tweets on Islam aren’t about how he’s shrillstridentaggressive or any of the usual things. They’re about his language being counterproductive and enabling racists’ agendas. Most of the people who’ve rebutted it most strongly – Chivers, Martin Robbins, Alom Shaha – are out-and-out movement atheists with vested interests in taking religion, including Islam, to task. They just want to do it better.

Cultural conservatives have always hated Dawkins for challenging traditional Christian beliefs. The liberal-left is fine with knocking Christianity, but it hates Dawkins for being intellectually consistent and tweeting — yes, that’s right, tweeting — against Islam too. Many of the charges against his inappropriate tweets are extraordinary. Jones denounces Dawkins for tweeting ‘Who the hell do these Muslims think they are? At UCL of all places, tried to segregate the sexes in debate’. If Jones can’t see what is wrong with segregation, then not even an equality course for beginners can save him.

Certainly, many parts of the British left (not usually the liberal parts) fail to acknowledge the Islamist far-right or counter it. This is a problem – but it doesn’t mean that when opposing things like segregated debatesanything goes. Owen Jones isn’t defending separate seating for men and women, he’s objecting to the phrase ‘these Muslims’ with its ring of xenophobia, as in ‘all these Muslims, taking our jobs’. Object to Islamism; object to Hamza Tzortzis; object to his so-called Islamic Education and Research Academy. But call them that, referring specifically to them, rather than conflating them with ‘Muslims’ as a whole. (Cohen, in fact, seems next to acknowledge this issue…)

But let me try to be fair. Dawkins has also tweeted against all Muslims — not just sexist god-botherers at University College London. I accept that generalising about Muslims can incite racism. It is all very well atheists saying that religion is not the same as race, because you are free to decide what god if any you believe in, but cannot choose your ethnicity. But try telling that to the persecuted Christians, Shia and Sunni of the Middle East. Their religious persecution is no different from racial persecution. I would go further and concede that Dawkins’s critics had other arguments that weren’t wholly asinine, were it not for a telling detail. They never stick their necks out and defend real liberal Muslims and ex-Muslims who are being persecuted in Britain right now.

Yes we do. I do, Alom does, Owen Jones does – in fact, most of the people I know who’ve criticised Dawkins’ comments more than anyone else and shared my post with particular enthusiasm are ex-Muslims.

They stay silent because they are frightened of breaking with the crowd, of the faint threat of Islamist retaliation, and of absurd accusations of racism. Journalists want the easy life. They want targets who cannot hurt them. Dawkins has never hurt a fly, so he’s all right. Looked at in a certain light, however, the enemies of Nahla Mahmoud might not be.

I signed the petition to protect Nahla Mahmoud. [Edit: I signed it, in fact, three and a half weeks before Nick Cohen did (the same day he responded to this post).] So should you, if you haven’t heard about her being threatened. This does not mean I have to shut up and marvel at everything Dawkins says – especially on Twitter.

I have picked on her, not because her case is unusual, but because it is so typical. She is a Sudanese refugee who became a leading figure in the British Council of ex-Muslims. Earlier this year Channel 4 gave her one minute and 39 seconds precisely to talk about the evils of Britain’s Sharia courts in Britain. In these institutions, a woman’s testimony is worth half that of a man’s, a man can divorce his wife by simple repudiation, and women who remarry lose custody of their children. One minute and 39 seconds may not sound long enough to list their vices. But it is one minute and 39 seconds longer than the BBC has ever given her.

Nahla described how she grew up under Sharia. She was ‘always dealt with as a second-class citizen, always bought up to believe that I am an incomplete human being [who] needed a man as a guard.’

She was shocked to find the same system here in her land of refuge. ‘Muslims have been living in Britain for hundreds of years and never needed sharia courts,’ she concluded. ‘Everyone should have equal rights and live under one secular law.’

She and her family have suffered for her simple moral clarity. Salah Al Bander, a leading figure in the Cambridge Liberal Democrats, went for her. (I was going to write, ‘who, surprisingly, is a leading figure in the Cambridge Liberal Democrats’ — but given the Liberal Democrats’ awful attitudes towards women and Jews, nothing they do surprises me anymore.)

Al Bander posted an article in Arabic on the Sudanese Online website (one of the most widely read sites in Sudan and throughout the Sudanese diaspora). He called her a ‘Kafira’ (unbeliever) who was sowing discord. These are words with consequences — particularly when Al Bander added, ‘I will not forgive anyone who wants to start a battle against Islam and the beliefs of the people…’ After mosques and Sudanese newspapers took up the campaign against her, religious thugs attacked her brother and terrified her mother. Nahla told me she is now ‘very careful when I go out’.

I understand that the Cambridge Liberal Democrats have had an inquiry and decided that Al Bander’s words were misinterpreted. My point is that women like Nahla are being terrified and abused every day in Britain. I have seen Richard Dawkins speak up for them as a matter of honour and a matter of course many times, but have never heard a peep of protest from his opponents.

Well then, listen more closely. Clearly this is a terrible, stupid turn of events that needs addressing – but attention to problematic things is not a non-renewable resource, which can only go toward one thing or the other. It’s possible to fight the Al Banders of the world while also pursuing better discourse around them on our own sight; useful, in fact, I’d say. (Also, Dawkins doesn’t help matters for moderate Muslims, especially moderate Muslim women, by erasing them – referring to all who practice their religion in blanket terms as violent, fundamentalist, abusive theocrats.)

One day there will be a reckoning. One day, thousands who have suffered genital mutilation, religious threats and forced marriages will turn to the intellectual and political establishments of our day and ask why they did not protect them. The pathetic and discreditable reply can only be: ‘We were too busy fighting Richard Dawkins to offer you any support at all.’

Not so – but I care less about ‘one day’ than the here and now, and here and now my feeling, to paraphrase Phil Plait, that no one in this movement is beyond critique or above reproach. Don’t be a Dickhead.

Dear BBC News: please adjust your coverage of Chelsea Manning

Dear BBC:

I enjoy having you around. You make things like Sherlock and Doctor Who and In the Flesh, and I don’t even have to put up with ads. That licence fee’s a good idea. Most of the time, you make me happy.

That’s why the coverage of Chelsea Manning’s recent announcement by BBC News disappointed me.

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When someone comes out as transgender, they aren’t saying what gender they want to be, they’re saying what gender they are. This should have been clear to you, I would have thought, from her statement (quoted in your report), ‘I am Chelsea Manning. I am a female’. Not ‘I want to be a female’, but ‘I am’. It is completely inappropriate to state ‘Bradley Manning… has announced he wants to become a woman’. Chelsea Manning – known previously as Bradley to the public – has announced she is one, and your use of her prior name and pronouns implies otherwise, as if being a woman demanded more than self-identifying as such. It doesn’t.

Regarding, specifically, the pronouns you use (‘He wants’, ‘He said he had felt’, ‘He has’, ‘He could’), Manning’s public statement – the very one you are reporting – included the words, ‘I also request that, starting today, you refer to me by my new name and use the feminine pronoun (except in official mail to the confinement facility)’. That would be ‘she’, then, wouldn’t it? Misgendering the person whose coming out as trans* you are reporting, within that report, when they’ve specifically and plainly asked you not to? Not good, BBC, not good – especially since it appears you’ve gone out of your way to start as many sentences with ‘He’ as possible.

If you want to see coverage similar to yours, which gets these very basic things right on the whole, look up MSNBC’s report. Either way, please amend the name, pronouns and phrasing used in your own news piece to reflect the reality of Chelsea Manning’s gender: if you’re stuck, remember that you’re writing about a woman. (For further help, see Trans Media Watch’s style guide for the press.)

I look forward to seeing changes made.

@AlexGabriel

P.S. The rest of you can make complaints to BBC News online here.

Polyamory: our partners may be countless, but they still count

Remember Craigslist Mom from earlier this summer, who sought a ‘sugar baby’ for her son through an online ad?

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I wanted at the time to write an open letter to her. So much was wrong with her advert that I ultimately struggled.

We need to lose virginity as a concept - having sex doesn’t involve losing anything, or confer, as Craigslist Mom assumes, some magical new status – and what makes her link it with nerdiness anyway? We know it’s a myth women in scant clothing are at greater risk of rape; I wouldn’t be surprised if, following investigation, there turned out to be zero correlation between frequency of sex in teens and traits deemed un-nerdy (sportiness, confidence or popularity, say). Being a nerd, after all, is in Laurie Penny’s words ‘about making things and fixing things and taking things apart to see how they work’ – sex being a case in point. It’s not by chance that all the sex workers, sex writers and sex educators I know are enormous nerds: nerds read Wikipedia articles on positions and anatomy; they learn words for identities, relationship styles and fetishes non-nerds don’t know; they meet other nerds through iPhone apps and Star Trek fan clubs, then have nerdy sex that’s fulfilling and fun.

We need to lose classism and slut-shaming. (God forbid a Harvard student and a woman paid for sex might form a connection or stay together in the long run.) We need to lose, or at least be very careful with, ‘seduction’ culture. (Plenty of people will want sex with you, whoever you are. When someone doesn’t, respect that and move on. Pestering, pressuring or coercing them till they give in isn’t romantic. It’s harassment.) We need to lose parents’ sense of ownership over their children’s bodies. (Even benevolent forms of this – ‘It’s okay with us if you like boys, son’ - can be annoying. I own my body, and need no one’s permission but my partners’. Of course it’s fucking well okay.)

But when I come back to Craigslist Mom’s advertisement, one thing bothers me above all else: how does she know her son hasn’t had sex?

She says he’s never had a girlfriend; what she means is he’s never done the teenage boyfriend-girlfriend mating dance, with steps like meeting the parentsgoing to prom and – on primetime American teen dramas – popping the question. Sex does not just happen in this context. Perhaps he’s had friends with benefits; perhaps he no-strings-attached encounters with online contacts; perhaps he’s fumbled about with girls in the back row at the cinema. (What constitutes ‘sex’ precisely, anyway?)

Perhaps he doesn’t like girls. Perhaps he likes boys, or people of other genders, or any combination of the above, and they’ve done any of that. (Gay teenage partnerships practically never follow the come-for-dinner, meet-the-parents narrative.) Perhaps he isn’t sexually or romantically interested in anyone, or almost anyone, which is entirely fine and does not need fixing. Perhaps he’s been with people before one way or another, but doesn’t want to be again; perhaps he’d like to be in future, but not right now. Perhaps his main sexual pastime is masturbation, reading erotica, writing it, cybering through Skype or online message. Perhaps he’s seeing, or has seen, a range of people non-exclusively, none of whom meet narrow ‘girlfriend’ criteria.

I know there’s a good chance that Craigslist Mom doesn’t exist – that she was an attention-seeking practical joke, designed to rile the Twitterati or, more worryingly, expose women who responded. The ideas and presumptions she represents, though, are wholly real, and should be taken seriously. I’ve seem some of them from my own (altogether very preferable) relatives.

Last year, I said to one that monogamy didn’t interest me. ‘You’re not in a long-term relationship’, they said as if to explain. The reverse was true: I wasn’t in one exclusive partnership because monogamy doesn’t appeal. When you’re poly, many long-term relationships can happen at once – you don’t stop seeing your dentist when you visit your GP – or, at the very least, a single/taken dichotomy begins to crumble. For most people, the mark of a relationship is exclusivity with one other person: having more than one partner or fewer means you’re not in an LTR, and saying when one starts or ends is very simple. Things get much blurrier, by contrast, when monogamy’s not a prerequisite.

Last week, after saying I don’t want kids or marriage, a different relative asked, ‘You don’t want any kind of relationship, then?’ I ended up telling them I’m happily single (by which I really meant ‘with no primary partner‘); what I should have said was that I’ve been in various relationships, often several at once, which never caught my family’s notice. When you’ve multiple partners none of whom fills the role of girlfriend-coming-to-dinner, as might have been the case for Craigslist Son, your relationships can often go unnoticed – but they are relationships. If you don’t know of one person I’m seeing, it could mean I’m seeing more than one, not fewer.

I’m neither gay nor straight; I don’t identify, in general, as bisexual. I live, in other words, under sexual erasure. When because I’ve no visible girlfriend or boyfriend, it’s assumed I’ve no sexual or romantic links, more gets piled on. Heteromonogamy isn’t singledom’s sole cure – nor is it necessary, as Albert Camus put it, to love rarely in order to love much. Embracing the many, for poly people, counts just as much as finding the one: our partners may be countless, but they still count.

“If you think rape is a problem, talk about it right.”

[Content warning: discussions of harassment, sexual violence, domestic abuse and victim blaming, both here and in the OP.]

Jonathan Lindsell of the Haywire Thought blog has a post about rape, and how we discuss it. If you’ve heard the phrase “rape culture” and been mystified by it, this post is for you.

It says a variety of essential things, like…

We don’t hear about perpetrators. Headlines always read “Woman raped in Hartlepool”. “Government statistics show 24% students victims of abuse”. Unless the perpetrator is famous or politically sensitive then reporting is passive – such and such a molestation was committed. Such and such a sexual assault was reported. Potential victims are at risk of abuse – no men are at risk of raping.

This gives the impression rape is something that ‘just happens’. It comes out of the sky and ruins lives like a fair-weather thunderbolt. It’s a freak event. Abuse occurs in the same random nature as tyre punctures. It sneaks up on you like cancer – the unlucky woman ‘suffers rape’. You look through history – whole races and cities find themselves in this unenviable but actor-absent situation: The Rape of the Sabine Women, The Rape of Nanking. Nobody in day-to-day life ‘does’ rape. Rape just happens.

And…

Most rapes (up to 90%) are committed by people the victim knows – family, neighbours, friends, colleagues.  Reporting doesn’t acknowledge this, let alone address it. We ignore that men and [people of other genders] are sexually assaulted. The media have a narrative, a nice easy story. You, the reader, already know the framework. It’s a fable in a way – a morality tale: Young attractive woman goes partying, drinks too much and walks home alone in the dark and is attacked by a stranger. Or in the club by the man she’d just met, with whom she flirted outrageously. Or in the park where she was out running in her tight sports-shorts and push-up bra.

… We know that’s a myth. A realistic narrative might read: Irritable husband comes back from work and shouts at his children then when they are in bed rapes his wife. Or: At a family celebration the elder cousin touches the younger cousin and forces them not to tell. There is no easy-to-follow fable. In reality, sex crime doesn’t fit neat patterns.

And…

We don’t consider whether or how much we ourselves contribute to a rape-friendly culture. Only a tiny percentage – as low as 6.8% of recorded rapes and 1.1% of the estimated total end in conviction. Whether the way we (and I’m addressing all sexes, genders and persuasions) discuss bodies, actions and preferences contributes.

… The only times we hear a lot about the criminals are when they are in minorities. They are comfortably far away, They are explicitly ‘not us’ when ‘us’ is the white middle class largely male cadre that dominates Fleet Street, Westminster and the law. So it’s fine to talk about celebrities like Jimmy Saville or Garry Glitter – you might have harboured misgivings about them even before Operation Yewtree. They form the opposite case – all we hear from victims are titillating/grizzly details that prove the celebrity’s monstrosity and unique Other-ness. … These vile men lived lives so glitzy and removed from our own that we need not see their actions as a reflection on our own lifestyle. It’s fine to talk about Catholic Priests and public school masters. … Crucially, they are monsters totally unlike me and my friends. … It’s fine to talk about the Rotherham child abuse ring. “They’re immigrants, aren’t they? … It’s equally fine to talk about India then – India is comfortably far away.

We need to understand that rapists are not unspeakable monsters. They are like you and me. If we can only imagine rapists being unhinged psychopaths, then in court all that the defence barrister needs to do is show what a nice, normal human being the accused is, and the jury accepts that the accused cannot be guilty.

And…

When we read a passive verb, we’re linguistically programmed to look for a reason. … We’re desperate for clues: Was she a virgin or a slut? (There’s no middle ground.) Did she kiss him? Has she ever kissed anyone? Is she married? Is she an atheist? Was she sexually active? Was she partying? Had she taken all necessary precautions not to be raped, including but not limited to: telling a friend she was leaving, asking a Man to chaperone her, calling home, calling the police, carrying a whistle, carrying pepper spray, practicing Taekwondo, wearing an electrified girdle, carrying an automatic machine gun?

OR. Was she basically up for it? Was she like the Steubenville girl? Did she have condoms in her purse? The pill? Perfume? Why was she in the club/field/festival in the first place if she didn’t want it?

And…

Statistics exist. You almost certainly know a rapist, unless you are a recluse. Several, actually. That’s a nice thought. Cycle through the mental facebook of your friends, family, colleagues and neighbours, then people you interact with in tiny ways, commuters, supermarket customers – consider how many of them might have sexually assaulted. I hope you don’t know any molesters, but you probably do.

And…

If you think that gender violence is a problem, talk about it right. Demand equal focus on the criminal. I don’t mean we should ignore the victim, but that we need to keep the whole situation in mind. Not just to aid convictions and support victims to understand that their ordeal was not their fault, but so we learn to ignore the enablers of rape culture and construct a society where the current brutality is unacceptable.

Read the whole thing. Trust me, it’s worth it.

You want sex? So stop asking for coffee

If you weren’t aware by now that arguments about harassment are burning through the skeptosphere again, you can’t have been paying much attention. I won’t be entering that fray myself just yet, except to say – in general terms, in principle – that reports of abuse or harassment should always be taken seriously and investigated. For the moment, in fact, I’ll stick to discussing the issue in general terms, in principle, for reasons I hope are obvious.

The one event I will name is the one to which these spats always return.

Reliably, at least one person will say a version of the following whenever ‘Elevatorgate’ comes up:

For goodness‘ sake, he only asked her for a coffee! Why would she think that was a sexual advance?! He even said ‘Don’t take this the wrong way’. What a professional victim – she must just have been desperate to be offended.

There’s a great deal that response ignores: that the proposition was made in the small hours of the night, in an enclosed space; that it followed the part of the average conference schedule most associated with pass-making; that the man in question invited Watson back to his room – that is, his bedroom – rather than somewhere ‘coffee’ could mean nothing else. It’s the kind of conduct most effectively excused, as Stephanie’s pointed out before, by cutting all contextual detail.

This post though isn’t about Elevator Guy or any other individual. Revisiting that incident just crystallised a feeling that’s played on my mind a while. That feeling is this:

We need to stop asking people for coffee.

Not that we should stop asking people for sex, in appropriate contexts, at conferences and elsewhere; not that we should stop asking people on dates. We need, specifically, to stop saying ‘for coffee’. If that sounds prudish or odd, let me explain.

Some months back, a friend got an online message from a stranger who’d found him in an online student group. The sender, having seen his comments, asked if he was ‘up for a coffee’. It took my friend three days, and hours of advisory IM exchanges, to know how to respond.

Exactly what was ‘a coffee’ in this case? What invitation had been made? Was this coffee and socialising, as in German Kaffeeklatsch? Was it a coffee date? Socialising, with the option of dates to follow? With the option of dates and/or sex? Of no strings attached sex, specifically? A date with the option of staying friends?

‘Coffee’ is popular, I think, due to this ambiguity. It works both as euphemism and get-out clause, putting sex or romance on the table with plausible deniability. Ask to hook up, and your neck is on the line; ask them for coffee, and rejection can be parried with face-saving assurances you ‘didn’t mean it like that’. (Ewan McGregor, in the film Brassed Off, walks Tara Fitzgerald home after a night out. ‘D’you want to come up for a coffee?’ she asks. He doesn’t drink coffee, he says. ‘I haven’t got any’, she replies.)

The trouble is, that ambiguity puts the other person’s neck on the line. Inviting someone neither to dating or sex, nor to a meetup, but to something that could plausibly be either puts on them the burden of interpretation – of negotiating properly an advance chosen for its ambiguity. My friend didn’t want to hurt a stranger’s feelings, but returning their message was a minefield. Guess wrong – that a sexual or romantic invitation was a purely social one, or vice versa – and he faced huge chances of creating awkwardness. He’d no doubt have felt bad if that had happened, but the deck was stacked against him. To avoid taking a social risk themselves, the other person put his feelings at risk by making him guess what they meant.

We’re all somewhat culpable for how what we say will likely be construed; part of communicating well is being hard to misinterpret. It doesn’t matter, in the end, what Elevator Guy meant to say; his job, especially where and when he said it, was to think about how it would sound. When you’ve said something used often as an overture to sex, you’ve no right to blame or guilt-trip somebody for taking it that way. Doubly so if you said it because it’s used that way. Triply if you said it hoping to hide behind its vagueness if they turned you down.

It’s not just about coffee. That’s a prime offender, but the attitude behind it – indirectness about what we want, expecting others to divine it magically and blaming them for guessing wrong – has implications for our wider sexual culture. I don’t think it’s by chance behaviour reported as harassment – unwelcome touching, inappropriate comments, furtive photographs – can often be presented as benign. Central to solid sex-positivity is stating clearly what we want or like. Not doing so means if and when we breach someone’s boundaries (as can happen with the best intentions), the message they get is that their feelings don’t count, and they’ve just ‘misunderstood’.

If it’s sex you want, ask – appropriately, in appropriate contexts – for sex. If it’s a casual date, then ask for that. If it’s fine-ground aromatic Italian espresso, well, all right then – ask for coffee. The rest of the time, steer clear, and say what it is you’re after.

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