‘Mild paedophilia': Richard Dawkins’ molestation comments in depth

NB: contains personal reference to molestation/abuse, statements trivialising them.

Camp Dawkins have been after me since this morning, claiming that post misrepresented him, took what he said out of context or misunderstood his point.

I don’t think any of this holds, and I’m conscious too that I’ve heard clarifications from him before. When he told Rebecca Watson to shut up since FGM and stoning exist, people replied that didn’t mean nothing should upset her; he clarified – actually arguing something quite different – that he meant since Elevator Guy didn’t physically assault her, she had no reason to think ‘coffee’ meant ‘sex’. When he tweeted ‘All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though’, the tweet (and his general commentary about Islam) were criticised; he clarified, in a lengthy, wilfully ignorant, defensive screed, what he actually meant.

This isn’t fair play. Dawkins is a professional communicator and globally read writer: his job is to say to things clearly, from the off. For a long time, in fact, he was paid specifically to teach ‘the Public Understanding of Science': when many in the press, the public and his own community read his comments on sensitive matters (ones far less complex or mysterious than science facts he’s explained with ease) and reach certain conclusions, he and his acolytes don’t get to write them off simply as mass misapprehensions. Being apprehended right the first time round is well within his skill set; the onus should not be on the rest of us correctly to divine his intent.

This being said, I do want to be fair, and it’s true my prior post makes only so much reference to the context of his comments. With that in mind, I’m going to scour through the interview in which he makes them to the Times, published by RDFRS, and give my thoughts precisely on what he says.

The following is the passage from the article which deals with the issues at hand. I’ve cut the introductory paragraphs and extract from his book which follows, since I don’t think they’re relevant, but you can view them at the source.

Let’s begin.

Dawkins is fascinated by the way today’s transgressions might have been viewed differently not long ago. For instance, as a junior academic he went to the University of California at Berkeley for two years in the late Sixties, which gave him a ringside seat at the Summer of Love. He relates one vivid memory in his new memoir, An Appetite for Wonder:

“I was walking along Telegraph Avenue, axis of Berkeley’s beads-incense-and-marijuana culture. A young man was walking ahead of me, dressed in the insignia of the flower-power generation. Every time a young woman passed him, walking in the opposite direction, he would reach out and tweak one of her breasts. Far from slapping him, or crying, ‘Harassment!’, she would simply walk on by as if nothing had happened… Today I find this almost impossible to believe.”

Which side is Dawkins coming down on here? On the face of it, the one which says deems this unacceptable: ‘impossible to believe’ has a distinct ring of outraged shock, and the next sentence (below) claims – while paraphrased from unknown comments – that he’s glad this wouldn’t now be allowed. (So he presumes, at any rate: five minutes browsing @EverydaySexism‘s feed might stop it seeming such a clear thing of the past.)

On the other hand, isn’t there a subtle romanticism to this account? In the heady days of incense, flower power and marijuana, ‘tweak[ing] one of her breasts’ sounds rather harmless, almost sweet – is that how the women in question would describe it? Instead of ‘tweaking’, as in a consensual sexual setting, might we not refer to ‘groping’, ‘assaulting’, ‘uninvited touching’? Something about ‘crying, “Harassment!”‘, too, feels hyperbolic, conjuring imagery of hysterical, overemotional women exaggerating infractions against them. This could just be my imagination – I’m not totally sure it isn’t – and it’s possible his comments in the past are biasing my reading here – but one could also say ‘informing’. Dawkins is talking here about a teacher’s assaults not being all that bad, notoriously told Rebecca Watson what happened to her wasn’t all that bad, and has a record of pointed innuendo toward anti-harassment rules. This colours my reading, and I don’t see why it shouldn’t.

He says he’s pleased how things have changed on the harassment front in the past 40 years. But on other occasions when that shifting moral zeitgeist rears its head – as boys, including him, are molested or beaten at his various boarding schools, for instance – he fails to be outraged. One master at his public school, Oundle, he writes, “was prone to fall in love with the prettier boys. He never, as far as we knew, went any further than to put an arm around them in class and make suggestive remarks, but nowadays that would probably be enough to land him in terrible trouble with the police – and tabloid-inflamed vigilantes.”

‘Nowadays’ – here, again, a flavour of reactionary nostalgia which typifies the red top press as much as pitchfork-wielding fears of paedophilia. (British tabloids, for readers overseas, have certain ever-present bogeymen: political correctness, one; standards of health and safety, another; child protection measures, likewise.) Never mind police: intimate touching and sexualised remarks from teachers in positions of trust do constitute harassment and abuse, just as they would among adults. What of it if this teacher ‘never went any further’? Children’s bodies are their own, just like anyone else’s, whether or not further infractions followed. Consequences for the man involved would have been fair and appropriate, not ‘terrible’ – that word describes his conduct, in my view, much more than any repercussions from police.

Is he guilty of rationalising bad stuff just because it’s past? “I am very conscious that you can’t condemn people of an earlier era by the standards of ours. Just as we don’t look back at the 18th and 19th centuries and condemn people for racism in the same way as we would condemn a modern person for racism, I look back a few decades to my childhood and see things like caning, like mild paedophilia, and can’t find it in me to condemn it by the same standards as I or anyone would today.”

My earlier comments on this passage stand:

That he insists the past not be assessed by present standards – a line we’ve all heard once too often, I’m quite sure, in religion’s defence – seems incongruous, since he’s carved out an atheist career doing just that. The God Delusion, damning of Yahweh, calls him a homophobic, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; the book, and Dawkins’ commentary since writing it, attack religious morals as out of step with modern secular ethics; his condemning William Lane Craig’s defence of scriptural genocide, for instance, would never yield to a ‘That was then, this is now’ defence. Why does he then mount just such a defence of child abuse, his own included, when secular? (I for one – and, I think, most people in this corner of the net – do absolutely hold 18th and 19th century characters guilty of racism.)

One further question, though: if 18th century racism, 1940s child abuse or 1960s street harassment took place each in ‘another era’, what brought those eras to an end? It wasn’t some naturalistic progression of human ethics on its own, it was that people present objected. Slaves who revolted in the 1800s objected to racism; policymakers in the 20th century objected to corporal punishment in schools; women’s liberation objected to assault and harassment. These movements weren’t ahead of their time, they were of their time: clearly we can judge these transgressions by modern standards, since in part we inherit those standards from those who fought them in the past.

The mention of paedophilia inevitably brings us to the recent run of arrests of old white men accused of child sex abuse, starting with Jimmy Savile. Has the moral zeitgeist been shifting at their expense? “I think we should acknowledge it. That’s one point… But the other point is that because the most notorious cases of paedophilia involve rape and even murder, and because we attach the label ‘paedophilia’ to the same things when they’re just mild touching up, we must beware of lumping all paedophiles into the same bracket.”

Let’s not talk, for a start, about paedophiles; let’s talk about molestation. Actions, not desires, have ethical value, and discussion here needs to be about consent (or absence thereof), exploitation and abuse – not sexual feelings stigmatised as sick and evil just because.

It’s certainly true some kinds of molestation and abuse are worse than others. There’s an ethical spectrum, sure – but we can still draw discreet lines to mark out parts of a spectrum; even with infinite shades of grey, we can still mark the range between ‘80% grey’ and black. Any sexual contact with anyone lacking consent, and any exploitation of anyone who can’t consent, means assault and abuse. This is the bracket that counts: that some within it are worse than others matters not at all in ruling who abuses and who doesn’t, who deserves our condemnation (however much of it) and who doesn’t.

So is there a risk of a metaphorical lynching of well-known people as soon as they’re accused? “I think there is a risk of that.”

Lynchings were when white people hanged and/or burned black people to death. Let’s not make this a metaphor for talking about sex abuse.

With regard to content, see my most on rape, reputations and reasonable suspicion. Although not written about adults and children, much of its commentary – on our response to accusations, specifically, and the fear of smearing those accused – applies here too. Importantly however, Dawkins’ concern is not based solely on allegations being unproven: even if someone is a molester, he seems to say, we shouldn’t tar them too heavily, since some are far worse than others. That is not the point: the point is that consent and autonomy matter, be their violation benign or sadistic.

What about the child sex abuse scandals that have led to anguished soul-searching and multibillion-dollar payouts in various outposts of Christianity? “Same thing,” he says. “Although I’m no friend of the Church, I think they have become victims of our shifting standards and we do need to apply the conventions of the good historian in dealing with cases which are many decades old.”

There’s little to be said here that I haven’t said above – except one thing. No, Richard: priests who rape, assault and abuse and church bodies that protect them are not victims – of shifting standards or anything else. The only victims here are their victims. But if they were the victims of those standards, they would be your victims – casualties of everyone who holds (like me, most atheists and previously you) that churches’ standards are their truest relics. Be consistent.

In the book, Dawkins mentions one occasion when a teacher put a hand down his trousers at a prep school in Salisbury, and four others at Oundle, when he “had to fend off nocturnal visits to my bed from senior boys much larger and stronger than I was”. The Oundle incidents don’t seem to have bothered him. The prep school one did, but he still can’t bring himself to condemn it, partly because the kind of comparison his adult mind deploys is with the mass murders carried out by Genghis Khan in the 12th century. “Without condoning what was done, at least try to put on the goggles of the period and see it through those eyes,” he says. “I find it much harder to put on those goggles where we’re talking about the monstrous cruelty that went on in past times. It’s hard to think of that and to forgive using modern standards in the same way as it might be for the schoolmaster who touched me up but didn’t actually do me any physical violence.”

I’ve seen recourse to non-violence like this elsewhere from Dawkins, when he insisted Elevator Guy did nothing wrong because his conduct involved ‘just words’ and not a physical attack. The relevant ‘nocturnal visits’, while we don’t know details, sound for one thing very much like attempted rapes (or else assaults which might easily have led to rape) – that, and in any case the fact they needed ‘fending off’, makes them violent. Regardless, though: boundaries of consent and bodily autonomy exist, and matter, whether or not violence is carried out.

None of this is to say Dawkins must feel traumatised by what was done to him – people can feel how they want about what happens to them, dealing with it how they want, and this is more true of serious transgressions rather than less. But what he’s said isn’t just that.

Calling molestation ‘mild’, proffering only tepid condemnation, asking abusers not be lumped together – as if not raping or killing, and not doing ‘lasting damage’ made some of them excusable – is not a personal statement of feeling, it’s a generalised prescription about how we treat assault. The extent of emotional harm done doesn’t affect whether something, groping specifically, constitutes assault and abuse. Personal feeling doesn’t matter here: standards of consent and autonomy do.

These, through his statements on molestation, are what Dawkins threatens – what, ultimately, he surrenders. Courtney Caldwell, of the Cult of Courtney blog, has called on him via petition to retract them. I recommend you sign.

See also: Greta’s round-up of posts on this.

Commenters, please see this request.

Richard Dawkins won’t condemn ‘mild’ child molestation

NB: contains personal accounts of adult-child molestation, graphic reference to domestic violence and corporal punishment.

Imagine a senior Catholic official – a British archbishop, say, or a cardinal in Rome – spoke to the Times about his childhood church. Imagine he described a village priest who ‘pulled me on to his knee and put his hand inside my shorts’, claiming this priest molested other boys regularly. Imagine that, while calling this ‘extremely disagreeable’, the Catholic official then said ‘I don’t think he did any of us any lasting damage.’ Imagine he stressed this happened in the 1940s, arguing ‘you can’t condemn people of an earlier era by the standards of ours’, cautioned ‘we must beware of lumping all paedophiles into the same bracket’, and suggested according to the newspaper ‘that recent child sex abuse scandals have been overblown’.

How would atheists online react? Not well, I’m sure.

The Catholic official could count, in John Berryman’s words, on being nearly crucified. Twitter’s atheists would pour vitriol on him; blogging atheists would spell out, painstakingly and once again, why That was another time! is a terrible argument, as terrible here as when used to justify biblical atrocities, and some forms of molestation being worse than others (or some victims’ lack of major trauma) no reason to deny its categorical abusiveness and unacceptability; the forums at RDFRS would, collectively, hold a feeding frenzy.

Except it wasn’t a Catholic who said this. It was Richard Dawkins.

The interview itself is paywalled, but the Times story on the ensuing backlash has been shared at Dawkins.net, as has the interview itself. There are several things I want to say.

Dawkins has drawn a lot of criticism recently. I criticised his tweets about Islam this August, then many others did, and he doubled down with a response that overlooked all relevant points and made things worse; more recently, Sarah Moglia criticised him for trying to block Rebecca Watson’s invitation to 2012’s Reason Rally as a speaker. (The year before, he infamously mocked Watson’s discomfort when propositioned in a lift, and was duly criticised for that.)

All this, and still I can’t quite comprehend his comments here. It’s one thing being reckless, unguarded or imprecise, as all of us occasionally are; it’s another thought entirely, and frankly skull-jangling, that someone paid for years as a communicator with the public, since then a bestselling global author and media fixture, could put their foot so absolutely firmly in their mouth. No doubt this too will end in an extensive, hyperdefensive explanatory blog post [Edit 12/09/13: oh look.] – but how could anyone make these remarks and not foresee a PR storm?

One notable defence of Dawkins recently, fisked on this blog, came from Nick Cohen at the Spectator, who called the criticisms at hand pathetic, discreditable and a distraction from combating Islamism – imploring readers in particular to shut up about Dawkins and protect Nahla Mahmoud, a UK ex-Muslim threatened with violence. (He signed the relevant petition the day his article went out, three and a half weeks after I had. Make of this what you will.)

I don’t accept we need choose between critiquing Islamists or Dawkins, but anyway: if now isn’t a good time, Nick, then when? If we can’t take him to task for calling sex abuse ‘mild’, insisting not all child molesters be ‘lumped together’, when can we chastise Richard Dawkins? (Molestation, and not ‘paedophilia’, being the operative term.)

That he insists the past not be assessed by present standards – a line we’ve all heard once too often, I’m quite sure, in religion’s defence – seems incongruous, since he’s carved out an atheist career doing just that. The God Delusion, damning of Yahweh, calls him a homophobic, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; the book, and Dawkins’ commentary since writing it, attack religious morals as out of step with modern secular ethics; his condemning William Lane Craig’s defence of scriptural genocide, for instance, would never yield to a ‘That was then, this is now’ defence. Why does he then mount just such a defence of child abuse, his own included, when secular? (I for one – and, I think, most people in this corner of the net – do absolutely hold 18th and 19th century characters guilty of racism.)

We’ve seen these double standards from him before: Dawkins lays gleefully into religious sexism, but shows little interest – or outright contempt – when atheist women cry secular misogyny; he pales at domestic violence (and ‘pales’ is instructive) so long as it’s religiously inspired, bolstering his antitheist case, but won’t fully condemn the caning of 1940s schoolchildren. When girls in Sharia states are beaten till they bleed by parents, as Marwa Berro was, it’s because Islam is planet Earth’s greatest evil; when eight-year-olds in British-run prep schools were hit with wooden sticks till welts and bruises formed, it was just another era. (Note that in Saudi Arabia or Lebanon, a culture of systemic abuse is special cause for condemnation; in 1940s British-colonial Rhodesia, it’s an excuse.)

When I criticised their idol last for demonising Muslims and enabling far right racism, the Dickheads – some of them at least – called me a moral relativist. (This meant, apparently, that I was unwilling to criticise religion/soft on Islam/racist/PC/a freedom-hating commie.) If someone willing to raise these double standards, and explicitly to make the ‘earlier era’ argument, remains their hero, perhaps they shouldn’t make that accusation.

Commenters, please see this request.

Lady Gaga and the burqa: it’s personal

My blog on Lady Gaga’s use of burqa (actually niqab) imagery was a discussion of relevant topoi in broad terms – it conceded that never having worn hijab or been made to, I can’t speak to what that’s like any more than Gaga. This is a guest post, as promised, from Marwa Berro of Between a Veil and a Dark Place, who can. Tweet her your thoughts at @Marwa_Berro

NB: refers to personal experience of parental abuse, harassment and intimidation, violence, mental illness, racism and state terrorism.

A lot has been said about Lady Gaga’s new song ‘Aura’, which was leaked several weeks prior to her live performance of it at the London iTunes festival this month.

The argument that this song others, eroticizes, and fetishizes Muslim women in ways they do not want or approve of has been made here and here.

The argument that this song blatantly commits cultural appropriation, is context-blind, and falls into orientalism has been made here.

An argument by a Muslim woman in support of the song, arguing that it allows Muslim women to be viewed as powerful and active sexual beings rather than a forcibly oppressed voiceless mass, has been made here.

Alex Gabriel, kindly hosting me as a guest-blogger, wrote about it a few days ago too, pointing out several layers of irony and paradox in the gap between Gaga’s representation and the reality of the burqa and other forms of Muslim veiling.

Much has already been said. I am here to make it personal.

I’m not here to give yet another spin on the critiques of Gaga’s song as orientalist and fetishizing and appropriating and ignorant. It’s been hashed and re-hashed and some of it is great and some of it is trivial and the arguments and responses to them have been made, and I am not willing to expend the emotion and care it takes to separate what has already been said into smaller and more robust distinctions.

Nor am I here to say something for the sake of saying something about it, because I am an ex-Muslim woman of color who blogs about such things and thus I must blog about this thing.

But I must blog about this thing.

Because after I watched her performance, read all the commentary and watched her performance again, I burned with ideas and emotions still unexpressed or insufficiently expressed. So I’m here to tell a story: to say what it is like to be a Muslim woman watching Lady Gaga sing about an aura, a burqa, that hides and empowers.

If you read my blog you’ll know by now that I am one for careful preambles. Talking about this takes great emotion and care. From what I have read on the topic already, even those arguments in passionate defense of the rights of brown women not to be lumped together as one entity, appropriated and consumed, have left me feeling empty. The discourse has been so depersonalizing as to make me feel almost physically ill. And I watch the video again and feel ill again at how the criticism of it has been given in such general terms of what Muslim women want and don’t want, have and don’t have, can and can’t choose – without actually mentioning specific instances of any of that. What is it like to want or not want, have or not have? What it is it like to choose and not choose the hijab, the burqa, the niqab? To be faced with such a choice? How is it presented? What does it mean? Why is it important? Where is the discussion of what it is like to wear the hijab, the niqab, or the burqa in private, in public, by choice, or unwillingly, as identity or as norm?

I understand why this hasn’t really been gone into. This is an issue so broad that subjectivity could be utterly limiting. There is good reason for generality, striving to preserve sound argumentative form by attacking the issue from multiple planes, so as to be all-encompassing and unbiased. But does it work? Because as a result, I read all of this commentary and come away thinking that it has missed, in some dire ways, how nearly entirely removed it is from the details of a woman’s life that give the concepts of appropriation and oppression meaning.

I say this to assert that when it comes to gender and identity politics, there is good reason to ignore the philosophical urge to entirely sidestep personal anecdote as an incoherent form of commentary and critique because of the probability that it is fallaciously unrepresentative. There is moving power in literary-narrative critique that is not to be found in philosophical argumentation, and the field of creative nonfiction (encompassing personal essay and memoir) is testament to how rhetoric that is personal can change minds and hearts, be listened to, gather money, create movements for social change, make real things happen. Not that the more impersonal arguments cannot do all of this also. It is not a binary. They ought to supplement each other, precisely because specific example illustrates in ways that general discussion cannot. So I am here today, as a gentle reminder of the how deeply personal all of this is, how powerfully supplemental personal narrative can be to general argumentation.

Here is a story, and with it a promise.

The story starts like this: a woman wears the hijab from her childhood, for fourteen years from the age of nine to the age of 23. She moves to the West and stops wearing it at that point, angry and resentful of the wasted confusion and coercion of those years, and doesn’t know what exactly to do with that energy. That she knows what she wants and takes what she wants now is true; it is also true that the complexity of the life-long process of coming to that knowledge and ability has left her somewhat bereft and burdened.

When she was nine years old and came of age, her mother asked her if she wanted to wear it. Her mother, who was the warm, smiling, giving woman who fed her and cradled her when she was sick, who comforted her and shielded her from the dark, who taught her to cup her hands like a book she read from, and ask for mercy and grace from above.

I promise you she was asked when she was nine, and that her mother who wore it too not only asked her, but explained to her what it meant, what it was for, how it was protective like a shimmering oyster around a precious pearl, how it kept the special things about a person special for only the closest and most special people to see. I promise you, they asked her. And she was surrounded by it, living on a compound in Saudi Arabia as a Lebanese-American expatriate with family friends of similar backgrounds, surrounded too outside the compound by niqabs and black abayas hiding the special graces of special people she was not special enough to see. And little girl that she was, she wore the abaya by law whenever she left the compound, venturing into the public places of the Kingdom, because so it was dictated by the highest power in the land. I promise you she said yes and she meant it, because it was so clearly right and normal and she wanted to be like her mother. They threw her a hijab party. She cut her cake, her small hand with fingernails newly cleaned from the ornamental polish of childhood.

I promise you that fifteen years later, she watched Lady Gaga sing ‘I’m not a wandering slave, I am a woman of choice/My veil is protection for the gorgeousness of my face’, trembling at how easily this person spoke about a choice they could never fathom having to make.

When she was thirteen, she was tired of being an ugly, awkward, desexualized, bullied girl with raging hormones and a forged parental signature on the permission slip for sex ed in health class. She was a teenager, and had she been the girl with a leg brace or stutter she would have been tired of that too, but it happened that she was the girl who wore a rag on her head (and was told she wore a rag on her head) in this American school full of bare limbs, bare heads in the middle of the Arabian desert. She was tired of being thirteen, hardly with the nubs of breasts, and having her sleeves checked by her mother before she went to school, to see if they covered her wrists all the way. She was tired of her mother measuring all her shirts to make sure they went down over her knees, making sure her jeans were baggy enough, tired of hair plastered back by pins and more pins under her hijab in the desert heat, her notebooks and bag and pockets routinely searched and checked, her phone calls listened to, her roller blades and bike incrementally torn away from her, an absolute ban on makeup or nail polish of any kind – and understanding finally that it was about sex, even though she did not know yet what sex was.

I promise you she was confused and said NO in her head, and once dared to take the hijab off when she was at school, and did not understand the choice she made in taking it off because she only took it off due to being harassed and tired, and she might have torn off a leg brace or her glasses in the same way.

Maybe.

Maybe even then she kind of knew it was not the same, because there was something about how urgent and moral wearing this thing was, how important it was, and how could she think her father would not find out? How could she think she would not be dragged across the floor by her hair and have it cut off with a knife, and be relegated to sleeping and doing homework for weeks in the storage room, because it was her place? Did she not understand what it meant to have a place and a role and a responsibility she had to fill? Because it was expected by others – because others asked her if she wanted to wear it when she turned nine and she didn’t ask herself, and she wore a veil over her head but was always watched and it was never about what she wanted.

I promise you eleven years later, she watched Lady Gaga sing ‘Do you want to peek underneath the cover? Do you want to see the girl who lives behind the aura, behind the aura?’, trembling at how easily this person spoke about wanting something, as if she could fathom what it is to want ownership of your body in this way, to know who the girl you were behind all of that even was, independent of what she was allowed to be.

When she was fourteen, she repatriated to her homeland, Lebanon. They sent her to an all-girls school at first, an Islamic one with uniforms, and the guilt of looking different and being shamed for it was gone, but gone with it was any space that allowed wanting to look different or be different. Her yellow prayer card was stamped every recess as she joined rows and rows of identically clad girls in the school’s rooftop mosque area. At first she rebelled by rolling up her sleeves and growing her fingernails, but soon she found peace and pleasure in conformity, and she thought of her body as a holy thing of grace, a beauteous thing of wonderment that only she knew and only one person who committed his livelihood and self to her utterly could ever access. She loved her hijab and wore it by choice, violent choice that she’d defend if anybody tried to touch her or it. It was hers.

I’m not a wandering slave, I am a woman of choice.

But I promise you, it did not last – because even when she was willing and loving of all that was prescribed to her, even though she prayed and fasted and was so clean, none of that was easy, and though she wore and wanted to wear it, the choice she already made was not an easy one to keep implementing, moment after moment, day after day. She had to watch how she walked and spoke, to keep checking her sleeves and hairline and socks, and hardest of all, to watch how she thought as it grew and changed so she could keep it in line and reconcile it with the choice she had made as she learned more about what that choice meant. She learned that the hijab was not just about sex, but about control and power and honor and her entire family, and it was not even about itself, a thing by itself or a symbol, but only one thing among a million other things, a symptom of something much bigger, a set of behaviors that underlie an entire social structure. She learned that though she chose it, the hijab afforded her no privacy of being or thought, and still all she said and did and read and kept was watched and checked. She learned how to hide her books and stash and code her stories and essays successfully, so she could keep more secrets. She learned that the hijab was the most private thing in the world, and that she had no privacy.

Then she was twenty, and I promise you she had gone through every loophole and read through every book trying to understand why things seemed to be so disproportionately controlled for women, why she had to stand in the back during prayer and not speak though she was smarter and livelier and more articulate, why women were constantly compared to inanimate objects like lollipops and pearls in attempts to honor them. She shed blood for asking questions, and tears for not understanding the answers. (That is not a metaphor.) Nobody told her she was allowed to create her own answers, but she understood that maybe she could, and keep them to herself, and never tell anybody what they were because they were not the right ones. None of it was special or hers or new or an uncommon narrative.

I promise you she loved a boy who she would not touch without a marriage rite and read enough to figure out how to perform one herself, but things went wrong and she tried to leave her parents’ home and ran away, and she wasn’t even a heathen yet but she ran away still, and they had a militant Islamist organization track her down, bring her home and keep her quiet while she was first taught lessons of what she was allowed to do with her skin and what was allowed to be done to it, then locked away for months without books or human contact but with drugs and doctors and suppressants. I promise you she understood the one choice to be made was to conform and that was how things would change.

And four years later, I promise you, she listened to Lady Gaga sing ‘Do you want to touch me, cosmic lover?/Do you want to peek underneath the cover?’, trembling at how easy it was for this person to invite other people who were different and strange to a place even her own self was not allowed; to give a sexual invitation without acknowledging how powerful, dangerous, taboo, wanted, yearned for something close to a sexual identity could be.

Then she was 23: successful, accomplished, educated and an educator who was modest and reserved and kind outwardly, and a robot in every other way. She had a letter of acceptance to graduate school in the United States in one hand, and then the real ticket there in the other: approval and acceptance from her parents. She was 23, and had spent the last ten years thrashing into her pillows from sexual frustration, curling her fists in her pockets, hiding relationships and friendships like dirty secrets, saying godly words though her heart had lost God years before, fasting from food and water though she did not believe it held any merit, praying because others were watching and even mouthing the words in case they read her lips, nullifying her own thoughts and instincts and feelings and humanity, regulating her emotions and responses like a clock.

She flew to the West, convinced it would backfire at any moment, and a lifetime of work and struggle, confusion, pain, punishment, and mistakes flew with her. She flew, waited, gathered courage, and took off her hijab.

And claimed her sexuality. Lost her family. Lost her homeland. Lost her peace of mind to depression, anxiety, PTSD, and panic attacks.

And claimed her body. Lived – lives – in fear.

A year later, she watched Lady Gaga sing this song, trembling at how easy it is for everybody to say things like ‘A Muslim woman can be a sexual being’ and ‘The burqa and niqab and hijab represent complex choices’ and ‘Women from Muslim cultures can reclaim the burqa as a symbol of their own freedom and identity’, and ‘It eroticizes Muslim women in a way they haven’t consented to’ and so on and so on and so on. It is easy to say these things without thinking of the years of thought and movement and struggle and defiance and confusion and control and suppression that is entailed in having, doing, choosing, wanting these things.

In retrospect, this girl, watching Lady Gaga sing so easily about things so weighty and momentous and dangerous and grave – about life-defining, moving things – she remembers things she never even knew were so integral to the puzzle. She flashbacks to when she was four, before her expatriation, when she called 911 when her parents were not home because she didn’t know what it meant and wanted to see what would happen. Her parents arrived with the police, and explained to them how they had to run out to the leasing office down the street for fifteen minutes, just fifteen minutes to sign some paperwork – and they were afraid, being Muslims in America, of having their children torn from them on pretense of negligence, as afraid as they were when it happened to another Muslim family because of a bathtub accident; as afraid as they were when the FBI visited their home just when she, their daughter, was born, asking why her parents called the Arab-American hub of Dearborn, Michigan so often; as afraid and suspicious as they were of Western backing of the foreign occupation of Lebanon that had caused them to immigrate to begin with.

This is about the hijab too, because it is this fear of invasion, takeovers and control that spurs so much invading, taking-over and control. Her mother was so afraid that she beat the little girl and told her never to do such a thing again. And again, it was fear when she beat the girl at six for touching herself, at ten for running outside without her hijab, forgetful, at thirteen for changing clothes when she got to school, at sixteen for refusing to go to bed at midnight, at nineteen for not answering questions when she was asked them – because security and protection and keeping personal things personal was so powerfully important.

So there is one story, from one woman: me.

Maybe another story from another woman will come along, and another, and another. Because the greatest relevance this discussion has is as commentary on the very personal struggles Muslim women and women in Muslim-majority countries deal with regarding their personal autonomy and sexual identities.

Maybe somebody will be moved by one of these stories in a way that they are not when they are told that somebody’s culture has been appropriated and it hurts, it hurts.

And maybe some of these stories will become normalized, the voices heard in mainstream media, the movements requisite to change things undertaken.

Maybe. Either way, my conscience compelled me to tell this story because none of it is easy, general, impersonal. People live, die, bleed, love, and hate for these choices.

Singing about them is so easy. Making them is everything.

Marwa Berro is a Lebanese American blogger, philosopher, writer, atheist, and apostate from Islam. She engages in critique about Muslim and ex-Muslim issues at her blog, Between A Veil and A Dark Place. She writes fiction and teaches creative writing, composition, and rhetoric at a very lucky school in the midwest. She blogs under a pseudonym.

How not to write about bisexuality

Earlier this year, I appeared in a small segment of English radio presenter Jeremy Vine’s discussion programme. Researchers contacted me after reading my blog; the studio guest was Julie Bindel, beloved bête noire of trans* people and bisexuals, and the topic was something like ‘Do all gay people want gay marriage?’ Most other phone-in guests sidestepped all relevant critique of the gay marriage project with worn-out euphemisms like ‘We have equality!’ and ‘We don’t personally want to get married’ – during prep, I felt my contribution being pushed in that direction, and my sense was guests were being sought who could be used to validate conservative heel-digging on the issue. (The segment no longer seems to be online, but I think I did a good job nonetheless.)

What really pissed me off, and has irked me since, was my introduction. Before going live, I’d given my handler a brief self-description on request, stating I wrote on ‘queer left politics’ and lived in Oxford; since I’m not gay, being interested in men, women and everyone between and beyond, I asked specifically not to be glossed as such. The researcher in question took helpful note of this, double-checking the description I’d provided and that point of emphasis; another producer, before placing me on the line, went through these details one last time to triple-check with me. I appreciated this. You’ll understand my annoyance then when, welcoming me to the programme, Jeremy Vine announced the studio was being joined by Alex Gabriel, a writer on ‘gay left politics’.

Never mind that ‘gay left’ isn’t even a recognised political identity; never mind that Vine’s researchers, paid to compile accurate biographies for guests, had checked three times the text in front of him was correct: I’m queer. That’s my sexual identity, the way somebody else’s might be lesbian or straight. I don’t particularly call myself ‘bisexual’, but I can live with having the word applied to me; I can’t live with being described as gay – on national radio, no less – when I’ve specifically said I’m not. (If you think, by the way, that ‘gay’ is an acceptable umbrella term for everyone in the LGBT+ population – why, actually? Would you use ‘transgender’ or ‘lesbian’ that way?)

This isn’t like someone straight being termed gay accidentally; it isn’t quite like someone gay being termed straight. Calling me gay helps spread the myth everybody’s one or the other – it promotes erasure of everyone whose sexuality’s not binary. That erasure leads to pain. It’s the reason people assume from a single same-sex partner that I, Ben Whishaw or Jodie Foster must be gay; the reason my mum, even after being told for years that I partnered with men and women and was neither gay nor straight, continued asking till I was 21 if I was the latter, treating me like a vulnerable, confused stray animal when I wasn’t confused at all. (In fact, she was.)

It’s the reason magazines like Attitude hire non-bisexual columnists like Iain Dale to write about bisexuality. Often, and Dale is no exception, they do it badly.

‘Inside the mind of every bisexual’ writes Dale, whose radio show I was also on a medium-to-long time ago, ‘is a gay man struggling to get out. At least, that’s the view of many. It’s a widely held view that bisexuals are people who either want the best of both worlds, or, who are still too scared to embrace their inner gayness because they are on hold in some sort of mid-way sexuality transit lounge.’ It’s also a widely held view God created the world in the last 10,000 years; it’s a widely held view humans aren’t causing climate change; it’s a widely held view benefit fraud is soaring, as compared with an actual fraud rate of 0.7 percent. Plenty of widely held views are false, including those Dale voices, his couching them in such terms notwithstanding: the specific idea bisexuals (all seemingly men) are greedy and opportunistic, for instance, or gay and in denial. I’ve no desire at all, personally, for ‘the best of both worlds': I choose in practice to see men primarily because I dislike having straight partners, prefer the distinct texture of gay relationships and feel drawn to partnering conventions – polyamory, for example – less widespread in straight society; thanks to bisexual invisibility, moreover, I’d already identified for years as gay (sincerely and quite happily, I might add) when I became aware of an interest in women.

It’s mildly ironic, given how many of the above ‘widely held views’ inform their platform and the party’s overtly queerphobic record, that Dale calls UKIP ‘the bisexuals of British politics’ at ConservativeHome. ‘They don’t quite know whether they are Arthur or Martha’, he says. ‘Instinctively they are still Conservatives, but they fancy a walk on the wild side. The question is, once they have satisfied their self-indulgent desires or perversions, will they return to the comforting fleshy folds of the mother party?’ Adultery, at which the final words here hint, would surely be more analogous to Tory voters’ fling with UKIP – but in any case, we are not swing voters. We do not move, as swing voters do, between being gay and straight, nor are we part gay, part straight. Our identities are self-sufficient, self-contained and whole, not just composites of other people’s. Dale’s metaphor fails even on its own terms: rather than oscillating between sides in a two-party system many find dated, UKIP exists outside and beyond it – bisexuality, likewise, exists outside and beyond, rather than within, the gay-straight binary. (Gender, regarding the Arthur/Martha line, is incidentally not binary either.)

The Attitude piece was prompted, it seems, by Conservative MP Daniel Kawczynski’s coming out as bisexual this June. ‘To his utter astonishment,’ writes Dale, ‘the thirty people present rose as one and gave him a standing ovation. I wondered at the time whether they would have done that if he had said he was gay.’ The author asserts ‘genuine’ bisexuals are rare, since ‘a true bisexual is someone who… doesn’t have a particular preference on way or the other’ (this applies to almost no one bisexual) and ‘experimentation does not a bisexual make’. ‘Simon Hughes may or may not be one of them,’ he continues, ‘but the Liberal Democrat deputy leader seems to be a politician who can’t quite seem to get out of the transit lounge. Should we blame him for that, should gay men criticise him because he can’t bring himself to admit what most people assume he is – gay?

‘…Daniel Kawczynski will feel a weight has been lifted from his shoulders. Yes, he will be the subject of gossip at Westminster, but that goes with the territory. There will be members of his family, long term friends who feel let down by the fact that he hasn’t been honest with them. But in the end they will realise that for people of a certain age, these things are incredibly difficult.’

It’s unclear what ‘he hasn’t been honest with them’ means: is Dale saying Kawczynski lied to his family about being straight, or about being bisexual? The perfect tense (compare: ‘hadn’t been honest’, ‘wasn’t honest’) suggests the latter, especially in view of his comments toward Hughes. ‘Experimentation’ is the byword of non-normative sexualities’ dismissal and erasure, but it’s true no specific sexual act makes a bisexual; all that makes someone bisexual, and all we need consider when taxonomising them, is that they identify that way. There is, as Dale himself concedes, no fixed ratio of interest in men and women which makes that identity permissible; ‘gay’, ‘straight’ and ‘bisexual’ are arbitrary, amorphous things we use reflexively however suits us, not objective diagnostics like ‘HIV positive’ or ‘allergic to wasps’. There’s certainly reason to question, therefore, how much people’s identities actually tell us – but not to police or regulate who uses which.

Were I in Kawczynski’s position today, such innuendo wouldn’t please me: the last thing anyone needs on coming out, particularly as bisexual, is conjecture about whether or not they’re really what they say – as if anyone held empirical scales on which to measure this. (Having come out as gay at 12, I saw years of similar invalidation – and the fact my identity’s since changed doesn’t mean that one was incorrect at the time.) In my own position, reading Dale’s piece was uncomfortable. Yes, there’s often overlap between gay and bi men, but that’s perfectly fine: we all get to understand and articulate our orientation how we want.

Iain: you asked people on Twitter what part of what you’d said was wrong. I hope this post answers your question.

Attitude: if you care about bisexuals, this is not the kind of commentary you should publish.

Gitsupportthisblog

GiTwhyinowhaveadonatebutton

Cameron’s Britain: this property-owning democracy is no place for queer youth

When Margaret Thatcher died this April, ‘Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead’ reached number two on the UK singles chart. Campaigns on social networks all but swept the song to the top spot, but the BBC, citing concerns of propriety, offense and taste, refused to play the song in its official countdown. Instead, a five second clip was shown in a news item. The socialist left and liberal right, of course, bristled at this while conservatives applauded, but the real joke was on Thatcher: her Cold War rhetoric sold us the notion high capitalism enfranchised us – that purchasing power was people power, and property-owning democracy the only kind. Could there be a better rebuttal? To send a message, Britons spent tens of thousands downloading the song, embodying the commerce-as-democracy narrative, but in an instant, Britain’s state media defused their action.

Current Prime Minister David Cameron, recently praised for his Conservative-Liberal Democrat government’s signing gay marriage into law, has cultivated an image cuddlier by far than Thatcher’s. On personal approval ratings, he is easily his party’s greatest asset, and marketed himself from his leadership’s outset as ‘a modern, compassionate conservative’, declaring in his first conference speech that marriage means something ‘whether you’re a man and a woman, a woman and a woman or a man and another man’. This isn’t the Tory Party of Section 28, the law that banned ‘public promotion of homosexuality‘ – and subsequently, Conservative support among LGBTs rose from 11 percent at the 2010 election to 30 percent at the end of last year. Yet Cameron is at least a Thatcherite. Inflicting spending cuts unrivalled since World War Two, his government makes hers look virtually left wing. His early statement, ‘There is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same thing as the state’ was pitched to distance him from her, but reified in fact her central axiom that aiding the poor or homeless lay outside government’s purview. In 2011, he even promised us the ‘new presumption’ all public services would by default be at least part-privatised.

That the Daily Telegraph column in which he wrote this glossed private takeovers as ‘diversity’, liberal byword for LGBT inclusion, says much of Cameron: he’s a man for whom, like Thatcher, all logic returns to that of the market. In the ninety minutes following Barack Obama’s statement, ‘Same-sex couples should be able to get married’, a million dollars went to his re-election campaign, and as a media executive before his time in parliament (who, only two years prior to his leadership, voted to keep Section 28), it’s conceivable the PM’s ‘pro-gay’ stances are more about profit than principle – I believe, though, that deep Thatcherite impulses drive them. His earliest support for civil partnerships came in the context of an argument the nation needed more marriage and less divorce; it’s no surprise he wishes to give married couples tax breaks, because for him, marital and family ‘commitment’ means personal responsibility – an alternative, that is, to public provision. Cameron’s political rhetoric, too, blames ‘family breakdown’ on overindulgent spending, slashing welfare to keep husbands and wives together. Behind the PM’s love of gay marriage, and marriage in general, hangs this bleak backdrop.

When he said he supported gay marriage due to, and not despite, being a Conservative, he wasn’t lying; as it did for Andrew Sullivan before him, gay marriage serves a regressive agenda for Cameron, informed by the same marketising Thatcherism he’s worked to purge from his public image. Elsewhere, that Thatcherism embattles queer Britons, and especially queer youth. What fate, in a property-owning democracy, befalls those who own least or stand themselves to be disowned?

Read the rest at {Young}ist.

What really lies behind Lady Gaga’s burqa?

At London’s iTunes Festival on Sunday night, Lady Gaga premiered several new tracks from her forthcoming album. Chief among them and opening her set was ‘Aura’, in which Gaga – clad all in black, face covered below the eyes, miming – gyrated to the chorus,

Do you want to see me naked, lover?
Do you want to peek underneath the cover?
Do you want to see the girl who lives behind the aura, behind the aura?
Do you want to touch me, cosmic lover?
Do you want to peek underneath the cover?
Do you want to see the girl who lives behind the aura,
Behind the aura, behind the curtain, behind the burqa?

The song, like most of her material, is catchy and well-produced; analogising veiling to celebrities’ pursuit of privacy, it also offers an intriguing metaphor. Unfortunately, it’s one that grates.

‘Aura’, known previously by its working title ‘Burqa’, is beset with ironies – foremost among them, perhaps, that its author seems not to know what a burqa is. Her lyrics, costume and mime during performance suggest a niqab, a facial garment covering all but the eyes, not a burqa, which hangs over the whole body and covers the wearer’s eyes with a mesh sheet. The former, especially when worn with an abaya, is associated primarily with the Middle East, the latter with South Asia. Western reference to ‘the burqa’, apparently including Gaga’s, seems usually to have a niqab in mind; the two certainly have similar functions and origins, but are not interchangeable – conflating them is like conflating pita bread and naan bread, and buttresses the myth of a singular ‘Muslim world’.

That Gaga’s own veil has a mouth hole cut in it, moreover, seems paradoxical: a real niqab, had she worn one to celebrate veiling as liberating or empowering, wouldn’t have allowed her to sing. Likewise, the same choreography attempted in an actual burqa might have made an interesting sight. It’s almost enough to suggest that as a white American raised Catholic who’s likely never worn one and certainly never had to, she hasn’t given the garment she lionises much thought.

‘I’m not a wandering slave, I am a woman of choice’, the song begins. Who is the ‘I’ here? Obviously it isn’t Gaga, and what gives her the right to inhabit it? I’m not altogether sold on Myriam Francois Cerrah’s defence of her at the Independent, though I do appreciate the point that ‘no one has a monopoly on the significance of symbols’ – ‘Aura’, writes Francois-Cerrah, ‘subverts the monopoly on meaning typically associated with the face veil as the evil imposition of male domination’ – but how is Gaga, a non-Muslim woman with no personal knowledge or experience of hijab, any more entitled to define its meaning than Islamist men?

If your project is reclaiming something that was never part of your life, you’re not reclaiming it; you’re simply claiming it. I can certainly see why any reclamation of veiling, not least of burqas, would meet controversy; on the other hand, I feel just as ill-equipped as I think Gaga is to enter that debate. (Marwa Berro, who blogs at Between a Veil and a Dark Place, will be guest-posting on this next week.) If her song had been written and performed by a Muslim or ex-Muslim woman who’d actually worn a niqab, I still don’t know how I’d feel about it, but at least it would be authentic – at least it would testify honestly to how they felt, personally, toward being veiled. The voice Gaga creates, with its stereotyped ethnic English (‘Enigma pop star is fun/She wear burqa for fashion’) appears to have been devised as a depersonalised cipher for millions of women who never asked her to speak for them. We’ve seen this from her before; over at ThinkProgress, Alyssa Rosenberg notes identical tactics in Gaga’s ode to undocumented migrants, ‘Americano’.

Such is my feeling toward the actual burqa worn by Gaga previously in photographs: had a bubblegum pink, transparent burqa been donned by someone who’d lived under a real one, I might have found it a sardonic, wry inversion of policed modesty; when meant by the wearer as a commentary on an external group, it’s hard not to read it differently. Of all the ways a niqab might be eroticised, the song itself seemingly chooses the narratives of Islamists themselves to echo. Obscuration can, after all, eroticise a body as much as display, and the notion of a veiled woman’s body as the sole, fetishised preserve of her husband to be unwrapped by him – one we’ve yet to recognise as objectifying at Christian weddings – is precisely the one Gaga’s invitation for her partner to ‘peek underneath the cover’ recalls. Her second line disquieted me in particular: isn’t ‘My veil is protection for the gorgeousness of my face’ an apology for compulsory veiling we’ve heard before? Protection from what, specifically, or whom?

Burka Avenger, an animated series in which a vigilante teacher covers her face to defend her school with pens and books, seems a more original, inventive and effective treatment of the garments at hand. If Gaga’s single is intended to empower or liberate, a perfectly ulterior attitude appears to me to have been voiced through it – unveiled, one might say.

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?

Gitsupportthisblog

GiTwhyinowhaveadonatebutton

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.

Gitsupportthisblog

GiTwhyinowhaveadonatebutton

‘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.