Ann Widdecombe: in the good old days, you could still be a Nazi

Occasionally I wonder if Ann Widdecombe is a Monty Python character jailbroken from the realm of fiction. As a homophobic sexist racist anti-abortion anti-science climate change denier nonetheless considered a national treasure, her existence is almost as hard to accept as the god’s she credits for her politics. Like another fascist, she admittedly shows admirable concern for animals, but as with him it makes her look worse overall: lacking any sense of compassion seems more forgivable than having such a twisted one.

Savaging Widdecombe’s fun and I doubt she minds – reactionaries’ sense of being picked on by leftists, atheists and deviants is what sells columns like hers in the Express. There and in her occasional films, she’s fond of arguing Christians (puritans and hardcore evangelicals especially) are marginalised and persecuted, including to date by laws against banning gay couples from B&Bs and comedy sketches involving chutney.

In a recent radio interview, reports of which I’ve only just discovered, she managed to one-up even her own outrageousness. Audio is no longer online – if anyone has it, please contact me – but the Independent says the following.

Ann Widdecombe has claimed it was easier to be a Nazi or a Communist in post-war Britain than being a Christian today because ‘quite militant secularism’ discourages people from expressing their faith. The ex-MP for Maidstone said it was very difficult to be an active Christian in modern Britain because of some aspects of equality legislation that made people hesitant about being open with their faith in everyday life. [She] said concerns over ‘political correctness” meant people were reluctant to express their faith to others because “they think strong belief offends them’.

Christians now have quite a lot of problems, whether it’s that you can’t display even very discreet small symbols of your faith at work, that you can’t say “God bless you”, you can’t offer to pray for somebody, if it’s an even bigger stance on conscience that you’re taking, some of the equality laws can actually bring you to the attention of the police themselves. So I think it is a very difficult country now, unlike when I was growing up, in which to be a Christian, an active Christian at any rate.’

Christians also faced a ‘sort of atheism’ that ‘wouldn’t once have been said’. There used to be a view that ‘we’ve all got freedom of conscience, we’ve all got freedom of expression’, she said.

In the 1950s when plenty of people had lost lives and limbs and loved ones to the Nazis, it was still possible to be a Nazi in this country. When we were engaged in the height of the Cold War, when there were all those weapons lined up on the borders of the Warsaw Pact countries pointing straight at us, you could still, in this country, proclaim yourself as a Communist, you could still stand for Parliament for that matter as a Communist. You wouldn’t get in but you could stand. You could sell the Morning Star on street corners.

We have always respected, no matter how strongly we felt as a nation at the time, we’ve always respected the right of people to their own views and I do feel nowadays as a combination of political correctness and equality law and all the rest of it, we’ve started suppressing the expression of conscience.’

Ah, the olden days - when it was easy being a Nazi. You’d know, Ann.

As I’ve written before, there are only so many times believers can say in national media, from positions of power that their faith is being swept aside. To say nothing of Britain’s established church, its stranglehold on our state schools and its leaders’ ludicrously inflated media presence – beside all Christianity’s other strange privileges in public life – Widdecombe is an ex-minister with an enviable platform, probably the country’s best known Roman Catholic and once tipped as a potential Vatican ambassador. Her complaints are reminiscent of statements by David Cameron, Eric Pickles and Sayeeda Warsi, praising religion and promising it further undue prominence while simultaneously claiming the establishment to oppose it.

The parliament where all these people have gained seats isn’t just one to which Christians are frequently elected, including ones with strongly religious politics, where I’d guess nonbelievers – half the general populace – are underrepresented. It’s one where the standard oath taken by members invokes ‘almighty God’. If Nazism got this kind of treatment in postwar Britain, I’m concerned. (As it happens, Londoners did elect two Communist MPs in 1945 after their party fought for the opening of tube stations during the Blitz.)

I’ve also written before about the number of believers who feel oppressed by the very existence of atheists. Widdecombe is one of them, and seems genuinely to experience straightforward statements of religious skepticism as a personal attack. The only other kinds of ‘suppression’ she can cite are fictitious: cases of discrimination against cross-wearers in Britain are mythical, and I’ve yet to hear of blessings or prayer offerings being banned, though that doesn’t mean they’re not presumptuous or disrespectful when unwanted.

Ann Widdecombe lives in a fantasy world. That’s fine of course, but I wish she’d stay there.

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Yasmin Nair: challenging gay marriage’s false history “is not simply the celebration of outsider status”

The history of gay marriage supposedly goes something like this: In the beginning, gay people were horribly oppressed. Then came the 1970s, where gays – all of whom looked like the men of The Village People – were able to live openly and have a lot of sex. Then, in the 1980s, many gay people died of AIDS – because they had too much sex in the 1970s. This taught them that gay sex is bad. The gays who were left realized the importance of stable, monogamous relationships and began to agitate for marriage and the 1,000+ benefits it would bring. Soon, in the very near future, with the help of supportive, married straight people – and President Obama – gays will gain marriage rights in all fifty states, and they will then be as good and productive as everyone else.

This is, obviously, a reductive and, yes, tongue-in-cheek history. But it is also, sadly, exactly the reductive history that circulates in both the straight and gay media.

So writes Yasmin Nair of the Against Equality collective, introducing the ‘Queer Critiques of Gay Marriage’ section of its anthology Queer Revolution, Not Mere Inclusion. The book is available from AK Press for $15, and if you’re at all interested in better commentary on LGBT issues, you should order it straight away.

The introduction is viewable online. Nair, whose influence in my writing shows at times, remains one of gay liberalism’s lucidest critics; other highlights here include:

Much of gay liberation was founded on leftist and feminist principles, which included a strong materialist critique of marriage. [And] AIDS activism in the 1980s called for universal health care, the demand for which has been abandoned by the gay mainstream in favor of the idea that gays should simply be given health care via marriage.

Liberals and lefties alike, straight and gay, look at gay marriage in countries like Spain and Argentina as the ultimate mark of civilization. They note approvingly that South Africa guarantees a constitutional right to gay marriage, but they have nothing to say about the fact that the same country has over five-million people living with HIV and no similar guarantee for health care.

If you are married, you get to be the good immigrant and bring over your immediate and extended family to set up a family business and send your children to the best schools after years of perseverance and hard work (at least theoretically). If you are not, you can be deported and imprisoned at the slightest infraction and not one of the kinship networks that you are a part of will count in the eyes of the state. In other words, a queer radical critique of the family is not simply the celebration of an outsider status, although it is often that, but an economic critique.

Read the whole thing - it’s worth it – and if you can, buy the book.

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4 questions for Anne Marie Waters and secularists voting UKIP

Britain’s European elections are in three weeks, with the right-wing UK Independence Party predicted first place.

This blog’s core readers aren’t likely to vote for them, but the party has startling support in parts of UK secularism. Anne Marie Waters, who serves on the National Secular Society’s board of directors, was this month announced as UKIP’s 2015 candidate for Basildon, joining supporters like Pat Condell. (Her site now voices rather sudden fears about ‘erosion of British democracy and identity as a result of our membership of the European Union’.)

Given UKIP’s policies, I have questions for Waters and secularists tempted to vote for them.

1. What will secularists do without human rights laws?

The European Convention on Human Rights was a key part of recent years’ court success against homophobic B&B owners, and was cited initially in the NSS’s 2012 case against council prayers. UKIP want Britain to withdraw from it.

The Human Rights Act 1998, modelled on it and passed by Labour to make filing human rights cases easier, is cited frequently – not least by Waters – as demanding abolition of the UK’s 80-plus sharia courts; it’s also referenced by critics of state-maintained ‘faith’ schools. UKIP want to repeal it. (In a likely case of far-right influencing so-called centre-right, the Conservatives have now pledged to do so if reelected.)

Britain, unlike the US, is not constitutionally secular. Without an establishment clause dividing religion and state, these laws are the most powerful we have prohibiting religious privilege and abuse. This renders them essential to work like the NSS’s: scapping them as UKIP propose would make campaigns like those above inordinately harder if not impossible.

2. With Ofsted gone, what will stop fundamentalist schools?

The Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) does exactly what its name implies, inspecting schools on everything from teaching to pastoral care – a remit which includes maintaining satisfactory science lessons, sex education and social diversity, areas mounting fundamentalism threatens.

While different schools have varying degrees of exemption from Ofsted’s rules, religious ones among them, and there’s evidence it’s granted some extremists far too much leeway, its watchdog role keeps many in check. According to a recent Guardian report, the current government’s ‘free schools’ – often religious, startable by anyone and with no requirement for qualified teachers – fail inspections at three times the average rate; the Office is currently investigating Islamists’ leaked plot in Birmigham to gain control of city schools.

The logical need from a secularist viewpoint is for more robust deployment of Ofsted’s powers. UKIP’s latest manifesto, meanwhile, promised ‘Ofsted will be abolished’, opening potential floodgates to a tidal wave of religious malpractice. (Perhaps on science teaching specifically, we shouldn’t have expected much: it also boasts the party, which ‘look[s] favourably on home education’, is the first ‘to take a sceptical stance on man-made global warming claims’.)

3. What do UKIP votes mean for a secular state?

The 2010 manifesto further states UKIP ‘oppose disestablishment of the Church of England’; around the same time, their website added ‘and believe the Monarch should remain Defender of the Faith – faith being the Church of England.’

The web page in question is now empty, and leader Nigel Farage has publicly distanced himself from the manifesto, arguing that since he wasn’t in office in May 2010, its doesn’t reflect UKIP under him. (He fails to mention that he was, in fact, leader from 2006 to 2009.) Current events suggest, however, that change is unlikely.

When David Cameron, amid cabinet praise for the Church of England, used his Easter message to declare ‘We should be more confident about our status as a Christian country, more ambitious about expanding the role of faith-based organisations, and, frankly, more evangelical’, Farage replied on behalf of his party:

We have been saying for years that we should be more muscular in our defence of Judaeo-Christian culture, and after all, we have a Christian constitution. The Church of England is the established church of this country. What Cameron is doing, once again, was really mimicking what UKIP have been saying.

What happens, as such a party gains support, to prospects for a secular state?

4. What’s UKIP’s record on religious sexism and homophobia?

The NSS has long made equality and human rights a keystone of its work. Many self-declared secularists supporting UKIP and other far-right groups, in fact, do so ostensibly out of commitment to these goals – in particular, to ‘save’ women and gay people from invading Muslims. Beside opposing key laws that safeguard them against religious abuse, then, what’s UKIP’s record on LGBT and women’s rights?

In 2012 David Coburn, spokesperson for the party’s National Executive Committee, described government same-sex marriage support as ‘an aggressive attack on people of faith, and an act of intolerance in itself’. In 2013, all but one of UKIP’s MEPs voted to halt progress on a motion in the European Parliament for increased provision of reproductive rights and women’s sexual health information. (The NSS lobbied for the bill; religious groups opposed it.) The exception was deputy leader Paul Nuttall, who appears not to have been present. Nuttall himself belongs to the mainly religious Society for the Protection Unborn Children and has spoken at their meetings. SPUC calls for a ban on all abortions, as well as numerous forms of birth control.

UKIP’s candidates, councillors and MEPs have furthermore called female audience members sluts whose place was cleaning fridges, called feminists ‘shrill, bored, middle class women of a certain physical genre’ and denied ‘the impossibility of the creationist theory’, called bisexual and transgender people part-time homosexuals, blamed floods on gay marriage and promised to scrap ‘politically correct laws’ that ‘made it possible for lifestyle choices to be placed above religious faith’. These may be individual views rather than policies, but is a party that attracts such people in large numbers good for secularists?

UKIP’s politics, in letter and in spirit, are anti-secular by nature; there are many arguments against a vote for them, but supporting them means siding with a party that consistently opposes disestablishment, appeals to the religious right, allies with them against minorities and women, imperils science and education and welcomes fundamentalists. Their mission is in zero-sum conflict with those of groups like the NSS, in whose place I’d be concerned to have their members on my council of management.

Update 30/04/14: Waters has now resigned.

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Sexual identity, secularity and politics: Alex Gabriel and Greta Christina in conversation

Greta Christina’s latest book hit shelves this week. She and I sat down to talk atheism, (bi)sexuality and politics. Here, in full, is what we said.

I think the first thing to say is that this is probably not going to be at all interviewy, as far as I can see, because I’ve written about your forthcoming book already and I’m not sure how formal or interviewy or detached I could be.

Okay!

So the first thing to say is, when did you… first of all, tell me about your book.

It’s kind of funny you ask me that, because you know so much about the book. For those who are playing along at home, Alex was very involved in the creation of this book – he did two rounds of very detailed copy editing on it. And so he knows a lot about this book. Probably more than almost anybody, except me and my editor and Ingrid.

The book is called Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, and that’s pretty much exactly what it is. It’s a guidebook for coming out as an atheist, if you’re not already out; for coming out more, if you’re out to a few people and not out to others. And writing it was really interesting, because when I first set out to do the book – when I was first imagining it – I kind of pictured it as a set of directions, a very specific set of directions.

You know what guidebooks are like, right? ‘If A then B, if C then D.’ Like a set of directions on Google Whatever. ‘Turn left at Main St.’ Then when I was starting to collect material for the book, I realised there’s no way to do that. The experiences are so different for different people. The experiences are so… what works for one person isn’t going to work for another person. And some of that’s different circumstances, and some is just different personalities.

So I had to recast, more or less, a lot of the book from being a set of directions to giving people a map and letting them figure out their own directions. Letting people know, ‘Here’s some of the things we’re likely to expect.’ ‘Here’s some of the things that can come up when we come out as a nonbeliever. And you get to decide for yourself how to proceed with that.’

When did you start writing this book? Because your previous book was Why Are You Atheists So Angry?

Right. That came out in 2012. I mean, to some extent I’ve been writing this book… oh sorry, we’re talking over each other aren’t we?

Go ahead. I mean, when was the decision made to write this book?

Honestly, I’ve been thinking about writing this book almost ever since I came out as an atheist myself – that was back in 2005 – and certainly since I started participating in organised atheism: in the atheist communities and in the atheist movement.

It’s been just, you know, really clear to me that we needed this book. Lots of people were talking about it. So many people were talking about [how] ‘Coming out is the most powerful thing we can do!’ ‘It makes our own lives better!’ ‘It makes it easier for other atheists to do what we need to do to be a coherent movement!’ And I was saying the same thing. I was saying, ‘Yeah. Coming out is awesome. So there’s a guidebook, right? There must be some sort of coming out?’ And it didn’t- it wasn’t there. And it wasn’t there, and it wasn’t there, and it wasn’t there.

And as I got more involved in the community and the movement, and also just had, you know, more name recognition and got people familiar with my writing, I just realised, ‘Nobody’s going to write this book.’

And it was a hard book to write – you know, I can see. It was a difficult book to write…

I know!

…there was a large amount of research, it was a very difficult book to write. So I just decided, ‘You know what? I need to step up. I need to do this, ‘cause nobody else is doing it.

So from that point, you sent out an email I think last October (maybe slightly earlier, maybe slightly later) to me and a variety of other people asking for copy editing, feedback and all of that. And from that point, as you said, I did a lot of copy editing – I think I ultimately read and commented on two drafts of this book, although it was probably more than that suggests, because there were some fairly big cuts that ended up happening in this book as I remember. (One of which I take credit for.)

Absolutely. Haha.

The amount that we went through could almost be a large fraction of the book again, I think, that it became. So this is, more than an interview with a journalist or whatever, kind of a DVD extra conversation between people who worked behind the scenes on this book before it came out. You could even call it an Easter egg. That’d be topical.

With that in mind, this is very unrehearsed, very unscheduled. The first thing that I think… I wouldn’t say an elephant in the room, but I think a lot of people were actually talking about this on social media, blogs and other platforms while you were writing this book: there was a spate of stories, I think from the US blogosphere, talking about some of the ways that parallels that parallels between LGBTQ and atheist experiences, especially the words ‘coming out’, were something to be criticised.

I think there was a piece on Religion Dispatches about that; I think there was a degree of argument about something that was said by people at American Atheists. I think you’re familiar with this – there’s some tension between people who have different views over the amount of similarity that can be drawn between queer and atheist experience.

Mhmm.

Both of us straddle those two communities, as bloggers and otherwise. And I want to ask you: did you have any anxiety about writing a book called Coming Out Atheist?

No, honestly I didn’t. I mean, I’m familiar with [the fact] there are some LGBTQ people who don’t love it that atheists are using the term ‘coming out’ to describe our own process of telling people who we are and what we think. I think there’s a sense of ownership of that phrase. ‘We came up with that phrase!’ ‘That’s ours!’

But the thing is that the phrase ‘coming out’? We don’t own that phrase any more. It’s started to be used to describe so many different ways of revealing or telling people something that they didn’t know about who you are. Especially telling people something about yourself that they didn’t know, that you think they might have a problem with.

People talk about coming out as poly. People talk about coming out as kinky. People talk about coming out as, y’know, Red Socks fans. I don’t know! That phrase has just entered the language at this point. And I don’t think LGBTQ people can own it any more.

Are there differences between coming out LGBTQ and coming out atheist? Absolutely, there are lot of important differences – as well as similarities, of course. And I think the differences are almost as instructive as the similarities. But that’s true with any coming out experience. Coming out poly is different from coming out LGBTQ; coming out kinky is different from coming out LGBTQ.

Almost any different experiences have similarities and differences. It’s like the classic high school term paper: ‘Compare and contrast these two experiences.’ Or, you know, ‘Compare and contrast the works of William Blake with…’

Of course there’s differences as well as similarities, but you know… I’m repeating myself here. I don’t think we own that language. And you know what? I can’t think of any other language that describes it. I understand concerns about it, but I had to just let that go.

I guess that I was actually surprised at points, or even taken aback by the amount of similarity that I saw. Because your book is… we should mention, it’s full of other people’s narratives and their own descriptions of what they went through. Sometimes, page-long-or-more descriptions from people who’ve sent stories in to you.

Mhmm.

From a variety of situations: I think some of them were what happened in their workplace, some of them were what happened with their family and so on.

Mm.

And I remember being struck that it was actually much harder than I thought it was going to be to find a definitive difference between secular coming-out and queer coming-out.

There’s a part of me that has a lot of sympathy with the whole ‘Don’t appropriate our language’ agenda. But I found that the more that I read in this book, the more difficult it was to pin down the way in which atheists did not ‘come out’, or whatever, in the same way that queer people did.

It was almost easier at times to categorise coming-out experiences across those two groups of people than it was to split them into columns in a definitive categorical way.

I do think that there are differences. But yes, the similarities are much more pronounced than the differences. I think I would say that the differences between the two experiences are…

The number one, most important one – and this is one I hammer on about (I hammer on about it in the book as well as, you know, when I’m speaking and almost any time anybody will let me natter) – is that when you’re coming out as LGBTQ, you’re not telling straight that they’re wrong, or cisgendered people, that they’re wrong to be straight or cisgender.

When we come out as atheists, we are telling believers that they’re wrong: that they’re mistaken. We’re not telling them they’re bad people, necessarily, but we’re telling them… you know, there’s no way to say ‘I don’t believe in God’ without entailing ‘If you do believe in God, you’re mistaken.’

When I came out as bisexual, I wasn’t telling people ‘You should also be bisexual. You’re mistaken to be heterosexual or homosexual.’ So that’s, I think, an important difference, and I do think that that creates a tension, a conflict, between atheists and believers that isn’t necessarily there.

Now, there’s a parallel – there’s an instructive parallel – which is that while coming out, LGBTQ people don’t tell straight people they’re wrong to be straight, but we are telling them they’re wrong to be homophobic or biphobic or transphobic. We are telling them ‘You need to change. If you have problems with me, you need to change.’

So there is that parallel. The difference points to another parallel. But I do think that that difference is instructive.

I also think that there’s a difference just in terms of where we are in our history. The LGBTQ community has been very visible, very vocal, activist, organised, mobilised… for decades now. Since, you know… some people pin it at the Stonewall riots in ’69, some people pin it even a little bit earlier than that, ‘cause there’s certain proto-Stonewall stuff that was going on. So we’ve had decades to do this work. We’ve been doing coming out work, organising political activism, social change activism, activism in the media and so on – and just changing people’s minds about us.

We’ve had a long time. And atheists are a little behind the times. A lot behind the times. There’s been organised atheism for decades, but we haven’t really had our super-visible, vocal, mobilised phase. I would say we’re about… maybe ten years into that. So we’re a little behind. We have the Internet, which the early LGBTQ community didn’t have in the seventies. So we have that advantage.

And I think there’s one other difference, which relates to [the fact] when you come out as atheist you’re telling people they’re mistaken to be believers. When you come out LGBTQ, you’re not going to make anybody be gay. Or bi, or trans. You might encourage people to come out who might not otherwise be out, but coming out as atheist actually changes people’s minds about religion. Coming out as atheists is partly why, when we ask atheists ‘Why are you an atheist?’, a lot of the time they say a big part of the process of questioning religion and leaving it was seeing that other atheists exist.

So that’s another difference: that coming out is… we are evangelising, to some degree. I don’t like the word ‘evangelising’, ‘cause it has religious connotations, but the simple act of coming out as a nonbeliever does help try to persuade people out of religion even if that’s not your intent.

Could I ask you – are you able to turn up your microphone?

Oh, I have a microphone. Hang on a second.

Don’t worry if…

I can go get a plug-in microphone, but that would mean stopping again.

I will plug earphones in. Ahh, this is such a podcast. I’m so completely unprofessional. I feel like we should be asking each other what we’re drinking.

Hahahahaha. It’s ten thirty in the morning my time, so I’m drinking coffee.

You’re in San Francisco! Drink something stronger.

Haha.

Mind you, I live in Berlin now and this is probably the only city in the world where San Franciscans are thought of as a touch straight-laced, I think. I think you’d be considered really a bit restrained in San Francisco. Berlin is much further out.

So I think it’s interesting you talk about the question of invisibility and the question of erasure specifically – the idea that atheists have not really been visible in public discourse, and moreover the fact that because atheism and criticism of religion have not really been something politely voiceable much of the time, there’s been a kind of active, slightly repressive feeling that it’s not something you say. To an extent, anyway.

And I wonder if actually there’s a point about the way that for some people, and some groups under the queer umbrella, there’s a similar experience. Both of us swim in bisexual waters, and actually, it seems worth passing on an anecdote about this:

I have a member of my family, actually one of my parents. While I was growing up, certainly from the age of about eleven and further on, at least once a year there would be an awkward ‘Are you gay?’ moment.

And I don’t think I was ever particularly oblique. I remember at about fourteen or fifteen, I would explicitly say things like ‘Mm, I don’t really have a gender preference.’ Then it got to eighteen, and I was saying things like ‘Mm, I like being with men and I like being with women.’ By the time I was twenty-one, I was still getting this ‘Are you gay?’ thing going on, because bisexuality was just not a concept that registered there.

It reached the point where we had a conversation where they said to me – this is a paraphrase, but – ‘From what I understand, there are heterosexuals and there are homosexuals. And there are some people, though I don’t know very much about them, who like both.’ And that was about as far as the knowledge of bisexuality got.

And I think that there are some people, particularly in more conservative religious communities, for whom being an atheist is a little bit like that. I mean, I’m from godless, secular England, but there have been times when I have actually met– I met people at university, actually, to whom I had to explain what an atheist was.

That was something that I learnt when I was eleven. And I think that it may be the case that for some people who’ve grown up in those very ensconced, very tight-knit religious communities, the idea of being or calling oneself an atheist, having that as a stated identity, is something that has to be explained. Which is why it’s not really viable in the first place, why it’s difficult with family members, colleagues, whatever.

Did you think that’s true to any extent? Do you think there are people under the queer community’s umbrella for whom it’s like that, when there’s this kind of blind spot in people’s awareness, and is that something atheists can relate to?

Absolutely. And certainly I had similar experiences as somebody who identifies as bisexual. It’s funny, I’m actually having a… I don’t know if ‘parallel’ is the right word, but I’m starting to question whether ‘bisexual’ is the right word, because ‘bisexual’ plays into a gender binary that I don’t agree with. The word ‘bisexual’ assumes that I’m attracted to men and women: what about people who don’t identify as male or female? I’m attracted to them too.

And I considered whether I should start using the word ‘pansexual’ instead… except that nobody knows what that means. When you say you’re pansexual you have to have this whole conversation about what it means, and if you don’t want to have that conversation, it’s easier to just say that you’re bi. And at least in the circles that I move in, most people sort of know more or less what that word means, although they might have some assumptions about it that are mistaken.

But yes, absolutely – one of the [themes] in this book is people who didn’t know believe in God, or they were having doubt, and they didn’t start calling themselves an atheist until they saw other people start coming out as atheist because they literally didn’t know it was an option. ‘There are people who don’t believe in God? You can do that?!’

They had either never heard the word, or they’d heard the word but they thought it meant… you know, ‘cause there’s a lot of ridiculous ideas about what it means: that it means you worship Satan, that it means you’re angry at God and so on.

And so for some people, obviously, there was this thing of ‘Well, I think atheists are bad people, and I’m not a bad person, so I can’t be an atheist.’ But there’s even more than that. There’s the ‘I just didn’t know it was an option.’ ‘I just didn’t know that that was a thing.’

So again, it’s about visibility. Some of what we’re doing when we do things about visibility is just letting people know that this is a possibility. And it is one of the things that’s a little bit annoying about being in a marginalised group, and particularly in a marginalised group that’s invisible, that being out or coming out means doing some 101 education. And that’s annoying.

We shouldn’t have to do that, and I think that it’s not necessary to do it if you want to just say, ‘You know what? I don’t feel like doing bisexuality 101.’ ‘I don’t feel like doing atheism 101. Go look it up on the Internet.’ I think that’s legitimate. But as a collective reality, as a community reality, I think it is unfortunate that being out does mean – at the minimum, it means you’re going to be asked all these ridiculous questions. ‘Do you eat babies?’ and so on.

But there’s a flipside to that, which is that simply by being out we’re doing 101 education. Even if we don’t want to sit down and answer all the irritating questions – and sometimes I’m in a mood for it and sometimes I’m not – but simply by being out, our very lives are doing education. There’s times when I just want to live my damn life, and not be… you know, I don’t know if you have this, but do you ever sort of feel the need to be, you know, a paragon?

No. No, I’ve never been a paragon in my life! Well, not of goodness anyway.

Yeah, I know what you mean. I think it’s interesting though, because as you say, it’s difficult having to be that person who’ll explain and educate and be compulsorily not-pissed-off about it. But I did that, and here’s something that I wanted actually, ‘cause I find it interesting:

That member of my family who had all that stuff going on for years and years, is I think at the point now of just about getting it. I think it was a year or two ago, and I just had to sort of… I actually don’t know that I was any clearer than I’d ever been before, but I was more empathetic, and just said something to the effect of ‘Look: it doesn’t matter to me. It doesn’t matter to lots of people whether you’re a man or a woman, or anybody in between or beyond the two.’

That same person, who was giving me the ‘So are you gay?’ talk for years and years – since that point, comparatively recently – has actually expressed queer attractions: attractions to people of the same gender that they never had before.

And so I’m wondering if that idea that just by coming out, you’re not going to convert anybody or anything like that… maybe is there room to be… if not to be critical, then to question some element of that?

We were talking before about erasure, and the fact that what you’re able to identify as and what you’re able to feel that you are kind of depends on what you think is an option. It depends on the concepts and the identities that you know of and that you’ve been exposed to, and that you ‘get’.

So I’m wondering: does the act of coming out and being more visible and doing that education sometimes actually make other people rethink their own identities, in a way that is not exactly the same as just coming out?

Well, I think that it certainly can make people ‘come out to themselves’. It can certainly make people question their own identity and accept things about themselves that they might not have accepted, or consider options – as you say, consider options about themselves that they might not have considered.

I think there probably were, for centuries, for millennia, people who were what we would now call transgender – who because they never had that word, because they never had that concept, would never have called themselves that.

Now when it comes to sexual orientation and gender identity I’m reluctant to say, [and] I don’t think, people ‘become’ bisexual or ‘become’ gay or lesbian or ‘become’ transgender because they see that it’s an option. I do think (and it seems to be where the scientific consensus is coming in) that to some extent, either we’re born this way or we’re formed this way very very early on in life.

But certainly, to the extent that you accept it about yourself and are willing to embrace it – and even (we’re starting to get off-theme here, but) is there a degree to which having the word lets you be the thing? Does having the word’ bisexual’, does having the word ‘transgender’, let you be it in a way that if you never had that word, if the word didn’t exist and if the concept didn’t exist, you [wouldn’t]?

What makes me go back on that is, people have been behaving bisexually, people have been behaving homosexually, for centuries. There’s lots of history of that. And that behaviour has existed for a long time. I don’t know as much about the history of transgender people, so I don’t know about that, but my guess would be that it’s the same.

So I don’t know. I’m repeating myself. It’s an interesting question: to what degree does seeing other people as models not only… obviously it helps you come out and be public, but to what degree does it let you not only accept things about yourself that you’re having a hard time accepting, but actually just identity that way at all?

And I don’t know. I think that’s a good question.

Just, perhaps, to notice things about yourself that you haven’t noticed before?

I don’t know if this is a thing that you’ve experienced – I don’t even know if this is a broad bisexual phenomenon – but was there was ever a point for you where you had that moment of thinking ‘Hang on, this is attraction? This counts as attraction? I can say that?’ I don’t know, was that a thing that you had?

‘Cause for a while, I – sorry, I’ll keep talking! – there was a reasonably extensive time when I identified as gay while I was a teenager. But I think there was a point, which was kind of a tipping point, when I actually had that moment and realised that what I felt towards women could be considered attraction.

I hadn’t had that moment before. I never considered what I was experiencing to be sexual attraction, but it was, and that kind of dawned on me. It never actually seemed to ‘count’ before, right? I felt primed to be dismissive of that. And I think a lot of people are wedded to a straight identity in a similar way.

I think there are people who identify as straight because they always have and they’ve been told that that was the default, and will have queer attractions or experiences that don’t really occur to them – they just kind of fly under the radar. It’s a huge thing with straight men, particularly adolescent and twentysomething – the whole ‘male bonding’ thing, falling into something that really should be considered erotic and yet is not.

Well, I think that certainly, when it comes to… I don’t know, there’s not much that’s certain about this. I’ll take back the ‘certainly’ part!

I think that bisexual identity is a little unusual in some ways, in that it’s… I’m not going to say ‘easier’, exactly, because it’s not necessarily emotionally easier, but it’s easier externally to fly under the radar.

Actually, I’ll give you an example here: I found out some years after my mother died (she died when I was very young and when she was 45), [when] my father told me some years later, that when she was in college she had had sexual experiences with other women.

I don’t know how far those experiences went, and of course by the time I found out about it my mother was gone, so I couldn’t ask her about it, but she’d had some sexual experiences with women – but because this was the fifties, and it was horribly homophobic, way worse than we are now, she felt guilty about it, she felt like this was something wrong with her.

But I don’t think her attraction to men was false. I don’t think she was a lesbian. I think that if anything, she probably was bisexual, or would have identified as bisexual if she had lived in another time. And so it’s kind of this thing where, if you’re attracted to both genders (or all genders – let’s get rid of the binary there for a minute), if you’re attracted to people of lots of genders, you can still be reasonably happy with just one.

If I’d been born in the fifties, and just said ‘I don’t want to explore women, ‘cause either I think that’s sick and wrong or I just am afraid of it’ – ‘cause all of us do that, and so on – I could have been happy, being involved with a man. I’ve been involved with men and have been happy. Well, reasonably happy. (It was in my youth when I was, you know, pretty fucked up.) ‘Reasonably happy.’

So that’s kind of an interesting question. I don’t want to make people call themselves what they don’t call themselves – I hate the whole thing of ‘Oh, everybody’s basically bisexual and they have to call themselves that.’ That’s ridiculous. But I do think that more people would probably both identify as bisexual and behave bisexually if bisexuality weren’t stigmatised, both from the straight world and from the gay world.

So I don’t know, does that answer your question?

Yeah. No, I think it does. It was Lady Gaga, and before her and after it’s been a whole lot of other people, but that whole argument from having no choice – ‘We were born gay!’, ‘Stop picking on us, we are the way we are!’, ‘It’s in our DNA!’, all of that stuff: as someone who is a Kinsey… 3 or 5? I always forget which way the scale goes.

6 is totally gay and 0 is totally straight.

Yeah – four and a half, sort of thing? I find that argument is fairly insulting, on some level, because I have the same thing as you: I’ve found heterosexual relationships to be perfectly enjoyable, perfectly fulfilling and all of that stuff.

I don’t want to be in them right now; might want to be in them again at some point; but I kind of am the worst nightmare of the religious right and the tabloids, because for me right now, just being in gay relationships is actually a choice.

If I felt that I wanted to identify as gay, I could without any problems – so I feel sidelined by that whole thing, ‘We don’t have a choice! Leave us alone!’ If it were a choice, it would probably be the best choice in the world.

Haha. No, I know what you mean. I think there’s a couple of problems with ‘Born this way’. One is that it doesn’t have much of a good ethical foundation. I don’t know if you know John Corvino? He’s a gay philosopher, atheist…

I think so. Has he done Skepticon?

He’s done Skepticon, he’s done debates with Maggie Gallagher of the National Organisation for Marriage and so on, and he makes the case he doesn’t like the ‘Born this way’ argument because he thinks that it doesn’t have an ethical foundation. And the analogy he makes is, it’s quite possible that some people are born with a greater tendency to be violent – to be physically violent – than others.

That doesn’t make being physically violent ethical. That’s not what answers the question of whether it’s okay to physically hurt people. If you ask the question, the answer isn’t ‘Well, some people are born with a likelihood to do that, so therefore it’s okay.’

So when you’re looking at the question of ‘Is it ethical to be gay, to be lesbian or bisexual?’ – that’s not the question we should be looking at. The question is… is it ethical? Does it hurt anybody? Does it do harm to society? Is there any way in which it’s unfair? Those are the questions we should be looking at.

And I think for anybody who’s not already committed to the proposition that being gay is bad, the answer is pretty clear that no, there’s nothing ethically wrong with it. And I agree with you that certainly from a political standpoint, focusing on the ‘Born this way’ argument – when the LGBT political movement is focusing on, you know, ‘We’re born this way’, ‘We can’t help it’ – it does throw bisexuals into the gutter.

Because we do have a choice. I’m the same way as you are: I could have been happy in relationships, I could have been happy in relationships with women. I could have been happy in relationships with people who don’t identify on a gender binary. But at a time in my life when I was starting to go ‘Okay, I don’t want to be single any more. I’ve been single for a long time; that was good. I now want to be open to being in a serious relationship’, I was loading the dice towards women.

And that’s not because I’m more sexually attracted to women than I am to men. (I am a little bit, but not enough to have that be the determining factor.) It’s that I like women better. You know, the personality traits that women tend on average, as an overall bell curve kind of thing to have more than men are traits that I like, and that I think are useful and valuable in a relationship and that I cherish in a relationship.

So when I was dating, and dating with an eye toward maybe getting seriously involved, I was definitely mostly dating women, because not as a sexual thing but just as a personal thing, I tend to like women better than men. And when the LGBT movement emphasises ‘Born this way!’, it does kind of cast us into the shade.

And I also do think that it does ignore the degree to which sexual identity, or at least sexual orientation – not necessarily self-proclaimed identity, although that too actually – can change over time.

The scientific consensus does seem to be leaning to some degree toward who we’re just attracted to; you know, who our genitals get throbby for or at least have the potential to be throbby for. That does seem to be set pretty early on in life, but as you say, it kind of ignores that those of us for whom the setting that we got very early on in life is malleability; is something that might change over time.

So yeah, I’m repeating myself here: I do think there’s seems to be some degree of scientific consensus that just the physical lustiness seems to be set. But that ignores the degree to which where we’re set [can be] flexibility or malleability. And also, it’s so complicated. There’s so much more than just who our bits get throbby for. There is all the cultural identity and political identity that’s as much as part of the picture as the throbby bits.

Interesting picture.

No, that’s my response to ‘Are you born this way or are you not?’ I find that whole question to be a little bit oversimplistic. It’s the same with food, it’s the same with music taste, it’s the same with most things, I would guess. I think genetics is probably very influential, but all of those factory settings are always going to be filtered through the way we think about ourselves, the way we’re taught to think about ourselves, what we’re invited to see as valid, what we’re invited to see as something that doesn’t count…

The idea that it’s as simple and as binary as ‘Either it’s born-that-way, or you just choose that’ – well, I would imagine that most philosophers would be fairly critical of the idea you’re either born with a state, a predisposition or whatever, or it’s completely your choice. That’s a very overneat way of thinking about it.

So yeah, there’s that. To go back to something you said, I have read criticism of the idea the bisexual label invokes a gender binary. I’ve heard the argument that the word was coined to refer to both homosexual and non-homosexual’ relationships. So there’s that argument for the permissibility of it.

‘Pansexual’ does just not work for me. I know this is probably very politically incorrect, but it just sounds pretentious. Sorry – I know I’m going to get lots of people being really angry with me after saying that, but personally, it just wouldn’t really feel intuitive to me to call myself pansexual. Even though the idea is probably actually closer to how I see things, it doesn’t quite sit right.

Is it that you just don’t like the language? Is it that you think it’s awkward neologism? Or it just not how you identify – are you, in fact, attracted to men and women but not to people who aren’t on the gender binary? Because I think there may be people like that, who aren’t attracted to people who aren’t on the gender binary.

There are certainly people who feel an attraction specifically toward nonbinary people, so presumably, perhaps the opposite exists as well. No: men, women and everyone between and beyond is all good as far as I’m concerned, but it just feels a little too… unfamiliar? ‘Pansexual’? It feels a bit too much like a neologism for me.

Everyone can use the language that they prefer – it just doesn’t quite chime with me, for some reason. I think if you asked me, ‘queer’ would be how I identified, because I like its vagueness.

Of course, that was also a strategy that I used to piss people off. And I continue to use it to piss people off. Perhaps it’s ethically questionable, because I don’t like being asked to do the education and the explanations and that kind of thing, but I do deliberately employ an identifier that makes people confused.

I suppose I’m just manipulative. There’s something very welcoming about being able to be nonspecific.

To some extent it’s concept-dependent. I use a whole panoply of words to describe myself. I use the word ‘queer’, and I like the word ‘queer’ for many situations – for no other reason but that it does, in a single syllable, without having to say LGBTQII et cetera, get across the sense of ‘all of us together’: all of us who identify [other than as] heterosexual and cisgender.

And it also gets across that sense of deliberate, self-defined differentness. That’s not true for all LGBTQ people. There’s a lot of LGBTQ people who don’t feel this great sense of differentness because of their sexual or gender orientation. But some of us do, and that’s a reason I use the word.

But there are times when I actually do want to specifically convey that I’m attracted to people of both or all genders. There are times when I want to get that cross, and when you say ‘queer’, that doesn’t do that. People who are totally, 100 percent lesbian still use that word; people who are totally, 100 percent gay still use that word.

And there are times when I call myself a lesbian. I don’t use that often – but I do use that if what I’m trying to get across is that I’m in a same-sex relationship, I’ve been in a same-sex relationship for sixteen years, and I have a cultural identification with the LGBTQ community, but I also have a specific cultural identification with the lesbian community.

Mm.

And there’s times when I want to be conveying that. And also when I’m trying to get guys to not hit on me. It’s that shorthand. That’s my own sort of dishonest thing, where if I don’t feel like having the whole conversation and saying ‘I’m bisexual – I just want you to piss off’, sometimes saying ‘I’m a lesbian’ stops the conversation. So.

Yeah. I think it’s interesting the extent to which identifying oneself as bisexual often feels a little rude, or a little combative, or as if you’re being difficult.

I don’t know if this is your experience as well, but I think because there’s such a level of erasure about bisexuality, very often the point where you express that about yourself is when someone has asked you if you’re gay. That’s how it was with me; that’s how it was, I think, with a lot of people. And therefore it’s often slightly difficult to identify oneself as bisexual in conversation without telling someone they’re wrong and without sounding slightly irritated.

And I think there can be a feeling that… you’re just ruining everybody’s fun, and why can’t you just be a little more simplistic, and not along and say that you’re gay?

Hahahaha.

‘Stop making everything so complicated!’ Which is why I think a lot of people have that very flexible thing. I think there are a lot of generally bisexual people, or in broad terms bisexual people, who’ll go with ‘gay’ and nod along when they feel socially pressured or expected to, just because it’s easier, and they don’t feel they have to do the explanations.

Personally I’m much more difficult than that. I have no interest in being polite, and being nice, and making it really easy for the straight people to get everything. I will simultaneously insist that you use the terms, which confuse you, that I want you to use, and insist on not explaining them. That’s how irritating I am.

Hahaha. There is some of this. People keep talking about ‘Oh, the language keeps changing! How do you expect me to keep up with all these new rules?’ Well, actually, you know what? There is a really old rule.

I got this from, of all places, Miss Manners, who I adore – I have some issues with her, but mostly I adore her – and she wasn’t even talking about this, she was talking about something else. But she said ‘It’s polite to address people in the way that they have clearly indicated that they want to be addressed.’

That cuts across a lot of things. How do people of different racial or ethnic identities want to be addressed? How do people of different sexual or gender identities want to be addressed? How do people of different nationalities want to be addressed?

It’s polite to address the way they’ve clearly indicated they want to be addressed – and they don’t owe you an explanation. They don’t need to have the whole history of why the word you just used is an ethnic slur and they’d really rather you used this other word instead. You don’t owe that to people.

I do think that if somebody uses the wrong word by mistake and they just didn’t know, then it’s legitimate to cut them slack – I cut people slack for ignorance. But if it’s the tenth time we’ve had that conversation and you’re still using the wrong word, then that to me speaks of a deliberate, wilful ignorance and a deliberate resistance – not just to that language, but to let go of the privilege of getting to pick the language.

That’s the thing: the power to name ourselves is really important. And I think there are a lot of people from whatever axis of privilege you’re talking about, whether it’s race, or gender orientation, class, whatever, who want to pick the language ‘cause they always have. And being asked to ‘try to remember as best you can what it is that I prefer to be called…’

Being asked to spend five minutes on Wikipedia! Five whole minutes doing your research – it’s just unacceptable.

Yes. Exactly. Yes. And having to remember things?! People tell you things, and you have to remember?! You have to stop and think for a second? It’s like, what’s that about?

There’s actually a point in your book – maybe it was cut – where you talk about the fact you use the word ‘atheist’ and not the word ‘freethinker’, ‘secularist’, ‘skeptic’, whatever. Because secularism – or atheism, or freethought or whatever – has that argument as well: that tension and variety about names.

I don’t know. Do you think that in a way, because it’s seen to be less of a… no, I’ll let you talk. How do you think that those compare – the variety of names in queer identity and atheism?

I think there’s a lot of parallels. I think there’s a lot of similarities. I think that, certainly, again there’s this whole thing of the power to name ourselves, and when people have been marginalised and have been stigmatised – especially when we’re still in those first few years of coalescing as a community and as a movement – that power to name ourselves becomes really important.

But also, because we’re coming together and coalescing as a movement, we’re not just struggling with believers about what to call us, we’re struggling with ourselves and what we should call ourselves. But of course, we all have that issue of wanting to name ourselves, and we don’t want to be called by other nonbelievers what to call ourselves any more than we want to be told by believers. So I tend to try to not get involved in the squabbles. I try to say, ‘Each of us gets to call ourselves what we want, and if you want to call yourself a humanist or a freethinker, ‘nonbeliever’, ‘agnostic’, ‘materialist’, whatever – I don’t really care that much.’

I have a little bit of an issue with ‘agnostic’, ‘cause I want to ask people who call themselves agnostic, ‘Are you just as agnostic about unicorns or leprechauns or whatever as you are about God? And if you’re not, why is God the one thing that you insist on claiming your lack of knowledge about?’ But ultimately, as long as they’re not telling me that I shouldn’t call myself an atheist and that I’m ‘really’, in air-quotes, an agnostic, I don’t want to tell them that they’re ‘really’ (air-quotes) an atheist, ‘cause that power to name myself is to important. And if for them that not-knowing matters, I think for them that’s fine.

And I do suspect that eventually, maybe in a decade or two, we’ll probably coalesce on a word that most of us use. You know, the way we coalesced on ‘LGBT’. It’s not what I would have picked…

Ha!

…cause it’s too many syllables and it’s awkward and it’s a mouthful, but it’s not a bad term. It includes everybody, and it gets it across and it’s short (short enough, anyway), and it’s kind of how language works: neologisms are awkward until they’re not new any more. To some extent, you can try to advocate for whatever word you like best, but ultimately language develops organically and we’re going to coalesce on whatever word we coalesce on.

Maybe we don’t coalesce on a word, because there are differences between atheists and humanists for instances – just like there’s differences between ‘LGBT’ and ‘queer’. Subtle differences, and again we might use different words in different situations. There are times when I call myself a humanist, because I’m trying to identify more with the assorted positive philosophies and not just with the lack of belief in God.

But really, I don’t care what other people call themselves. It’s an issue when we’re trying to name groups or organisations or whatever. But I don’t want to take away that power-of-naming. It’s too important.

It’s interesting: some of those names can sometimes be more than just interchangeable names. There’s a certain series of associations that I have with the label of ‘humanist’ – there’s a way in which I associate the label ‘humanist’ with the 1960s, and a consequence perhaps with people who were around in the 1960s and are still around… and are still in those organisations, if you know what I’m saying.

It seems to me that ‘atheist’ has caught the vogue in the last ten years (maybe a little more) in the same way that ‘humanist’ did then. There seems to be a vogue for that at the moment.

I agree with you that ‘atheist’ has more of an appeal to younger people – people who are… high school, college, early twenties and so on. And that’s not universally true, but I would also add to that that I think the word ‘atheist’ tends to draw people who are more confrontational, who are more actually-opposition to religion, or just whose manner of activism and being in the world about their nonbelief is more confrontational and less let’s-get-along-to-get-along.

It’s not universally true – I know some people who identify as humanists who are very badass – but that’s another thing about language: it develops organically and it changes organically. When my parents were nonbelievers, and this was in the fifties and sixties, they very adamantly called themselves agnostics, because at the time, the word ‘atheist’ tended to mean somebody who’s absolutely certain that there is no god. And people who had even the tiny, tiny .001 percent of doubt called themselves agnostic.

That’s changed, and I think the language will probably continue to change. I agree with you that ‘humanist’ has different associations; I’m not sure I would necessarily agree that it necessarily means people who are of an older generation, but to some extent it has that association. But again, those associations change.

It’s one of the issues I have with (quote-unquote) ‘dictionary atheists’, who insist atheism only means not believing in God, and we can’t organise or build communities around any other thing. It’s like, no: atheism is beginning to mean both people who don’t believe in God and a set of implications that we draw from that conclusion.

I’ve noticed as well that there’s a certain political gulf, that I have a very vague impression of, between humanists and humanist-identified secularists in the US and Britain as well.

I’ve tended to observe that people who march under the banner of humanism in the states lean somewhat more strongly to the left than humanists in Britain. I’m not sure why that is, but – in my experience, anyway – it’s more of a countercultural identity, [with] more immediate openness to class concerns in politics, feminism and that kind of thing.

I’ve found that humanists in the UK are first of all a little less well defined. You find people under the humanist banner everywhere politically, but as far as major organisations, I think that the British Humanist Association – the people that run it, and I’ve met quite a few of them, I would place more in the political centre than people I know at African Americans for Humanism or the American Humanist Association.

I’m not sure why that is, but it’s interesting.

That’s a good question. Because this is me, and this is what I do, I’m going to speculate and pull speculative conclusions totally out of my ass – so, therefore, this is a provisional guess – but I think that to some extent [it’s] because being a nonbeliever in Britain is more normal, it’s more ordinary, it’s more common anyway.

Being a nonbeliever in the states is oppositional, and there’s no way around that. It’s a little different if you live in New York City or some place like that, but even then you have to contend with the rest of the country. And so I wonder if because of that, right now at least in the United States, we have a situation where in order to reject religion you have to be willing to question the religious right, for one thing.

Certainly in the United States, religion and conservative politics are very much welded together. One of the reasons why I’m engaged in atheist activism is that I do see it as a crowbar: when people become atheists, they do tend to become more liberal, more progressive. I think that may not always be true. I think that if atheism does become more common in the United States, then in a few decades that tendency of atheists, humanists, just any nonbeliever…

So I don’t think that humanists are more progressive: just ‘nonbelievers’ in the States tend to be more progressive, because the kind of personality that gets you questioning religion is also perhaps the kind of personality that gets you questioning other conventions about politics and society and so on. I think it’s possible that in a few decades that won’t be true.

You hear it a lot from the religious right, that insistence that religious populations tend to be very charitable, very invested in helping the homeless and things like that – and I think that issue has manifested itself sometimes in humanist or atheist groups doing things like running soup kitchens or helping the poor, because things like charity and social help are associated with religious organisations.

Part of me thinks that has been somewhat less the case in Britain in the last fifty or more years, because I think Britain has a slightly more developed set of secular institutions for things like that. We’ve historically had, I think, somewhat better welfare provision.

No argument there, yeah.

Well, it’s changing…

Much, much, much better. It sucks: the social safety net in the United States sucks.

Yeah, but also trade unions and things like that, I think, have been much more enshrined – at least until recently (well, relatively recently) – in Britain than sometimes they have been in the US.

And from that perspective, it’s difficult to be a secularist in the US, at least if you have a very well conceived and thoroughly organised political vision, without wanting public provision to replace what churches have had. It’s hard to want churches to go away, and not think we should have some kind of public or communally provision of things like housing and so on.

Maybe that would account for more self-consciously left-leaning humanism in the US than what I sometimes see in the UK, which I think I would call more ‘liberal’, or ‘progressive’, or somewhere in the middle.

Well certainly. It’s sad, it’s depressing that this should be true, but in the United States, wanting a safety net at all is a liberal position.

I know.

Wanting decent public education; wanting there to be some sort of decent public healthcare safety net; wanting, you know, there to not be poor people dying in the streets: that’s a liberal position. It’s pathetic that it should be true, but that’s the case.

And I do think that there’s a couple of things going on. One is that a lot of the safety nets in the US are done through religion. I don’t know how true that is outside the States, but a lot of the safety nets are done through religion, so, therefore when we leave religion we have to recognise, ‘Gosh – if we’re not going to do soup kitchens and daycare centres through churches, how are we going to do them? What else are we going to do, then?’

And so there’s that. There’s also… I don’t know, have you read Phil Zuckerman’s book Society Without Faith?

So Phil Zuckerman is a sociologist. He studies atheism and secularism and did this years-long analysis of countries that are more religious and countries that are less religious, and what he found was that countries that are less religious tend to be… they tend to be happier countries. They have more of a safety net, they’re doing better economically, there’s more equality, more egalitarianism, more gender equality, less of a disparity between rich and poor, better education, better healthcare and so on, which is the same as what progressives are advocates for.

Now the question there becomes: what’s the cause and what’s the effect? Does leaving religion make people go, ‘Hey, there’s no heaven. There’s no afterlife. If we’re going to make people’s lives better we have to do it now, because this is all we get’? Does questioning religion make people want to build this better society? Or does having the better society more likely to be secular, because they don’t have as much of a need to believe in an afterlife ‘cause this life is okay – and also because they have the time and the security to ask questions like ‘Is there a god?’

So I think the reality does seem to be that more atheist societies do tend to be more progressive societies (at least if you define ‘progressive’ as meaning you don’t want people to die in the streets). But then there’s this question of what’s the cause and what’s the effect, and I don’t have a good answer for that. I’m not sure even how we would answer that.

We might actually have an interesting [situation] in the states, because rates of nonbelief are going up even though there’s no better social safety net, healthcare still sucks, public education still sucks and so on. There’s a huge disparity between rich and poor, and yet rates of atheism are still going up. (As a result of a lot of things, the Internet being probably one reason.)

So it’ll be interesting to see: if rates of secularism continue to rise in the States to the point where a significant minority, or a majority even, of Americans are nonbelievers, does our country become more progressive?

But again, correlation isn’t causation, and so… blah blah blah.

Well that’ll be an interesting thing to note if you get to the point where you’re releasing Coming Out Atheist (Seventeenth Edition).

Ha! Definitely.

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Secularism is not PC. Britain’s government should know

Gordon Brown never managed to live down his tongue-tied boast he’d saved the world. If that came to be his defining gaffe, David Cameron’s claim last week to be continuing God’s work surely has similar potential. ‘Jesus invented the Big Society’, he told Christian authorities at Downing Street a week ago. ‘I just want to see more of it.’

Mockery, lasting several days, broke out on social media. Brown at least had the excuse of a verbal slip-up; his successor’s remarks, in a speech shared on the government’s website, were surely drafted by advisers who thought them a good idea.

More followed. ‘I believe we should be more confident about our status as a Christian country,’ Cameron writes in this week’s Church Times, ‘more ambitious about expanding the role of faith-based organisations, and, frankly, more evangelical’. In a YouTube video, he says much of the same.

One can’t fault the PM for being on-message. Easter provides an annual basketful of reactionary religious soundbites: in 2011, as Cardinal Keith O’Brien attacked ‘aggressive secularism’, Cameron lauded ‘the enormous contribution Christianity has made to our country’; the next year, after Sayeeda Warsi’s ‘militant secularisation’ speech, his Easter message praised an alleged ‘Christian fightback’. ‘This government does care about faith’, he told church leaders in 2013, ‘and it does want to stand up and oppose aggressive secularisation’. (George Carey, ex-Archbishop of Canterbury, accused him of just such aggression the same week, calling Christians a persecuted minority.)

Ministers show no sign of changing the hymn sheet. Eric Pickles, secretary in all but name for tabloid-baiting, attacked yet more ‘militant atheists’ at this month’s Conservative Spring Forum, insisting ‘We’re a Christian nation. We have an established church. Get over it, and don’t impose your politically correct intolerant on others.’ This was the same man who in 2010, during the annual war-on-Christmas panic, complained about ‘politically correct Grinches.

The question lurks: if separating church and state is PC orthodoxy, why haven’t we done it?

It’s hard to be a pariah when national leaders heap praise on you. The test of political correctness is establishment support, which means at least the government’s. You’d think the cabinet could only fawn so much before calling Christianity marginalised became untenable. Seemingly, you’d be wrong. The Cameron government, besotted with the church, claims both to be a rebel force besieged by secularist powers-that-be and to run Britain as it’s always been run. Both can’t be true. Its ministers are the powers-that-be, their view the prevailing one by definition.

Not that they will admit it. Pickles, according to the Guardian, ‘accused the last Labour government of “diminishing Christianity” by suggesting that religion and politics could not mix’. To those of us who regularly say the same, this comes as a surprise. Likely, he has in mind Alistair Campbell’s interjection, ‘We don’t do God’, when a journalist sought details of Tony Blair’s beliefs; the sentence was a guideline in an interview and means of ending it, not a policy statement, but is trotted out ad nauseam by Tories keen to prove themselves more faith-obsessed than Labour was.

Their thirst to do so is an achievement of Blair’s governments, whose ministers fell over themselves as Cameron’s do today to say nice-sounding things involving ‘faith’. Religion, a much plainer-sounding thing, is rarely mentioned. Its followers are now ‘people of faith’, as in ‘of colour’; its hierarchs, especially the established church’s which Pickles admires, have been rebranded ‘faith leaders’. With seats in parliament, legal exemptions and a stranglehold on British education, but barely one percent of the populace in its pews, the C of E is a sick dog spoilt by owners all too aware its time is short.

If saying so is politically correct, it doesn’t feel it. Indeed, ‘faith schools’, the media-friendly name for where governments have herded record numbers of children according to parents’ beliefs, is a very PC term for segregation.

A year from now, we’ll no doubt hear again of an intolerant, aggressive secularism with a grip on Britain. Once they’ve warned us, organised religion’s friends will stretch in their seats of power, pour millions more in public funds toward it and go back to work. Secularists like me will ask ourselves, meanwhile: if we never had it so good, why didn’t we notice?

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Making atheism less middle class: Alex Gabriel speaking in London, March 23

Doubts costs nothing; voicing them can cost a lot. A piece I wrote for AlterNet last month, on the need for an economically inclusive secular scene, was well received. Readers from half a dozen groups said they’d implement ideas there, the Sunday Assembly asked my advice on reaching poorer congregants, and Conway Hall Ethical Society asked me to give a talk.

Conway Hall, beside boasting one of London’s most pleasant libraries, is the unspiritual home of British freethought; most major godless groups in the UK can be traced there, and the management is thought to be the world’s oldest surviving Ethical Society. Historically, it’s been a meeting spot for leftists, and the nineteenth century secularist movement it survives was frequently socialist itself. Harriet Law, one of its figureheads and the original Skepchick, was a farmer’s daughter and close colleague of Karl Marx; another, Edward Aveling, married his daughter and helped translate Das Kapital. Atheists nowadays think too little about class – there’s precedent.

My talk, ‘Godless and broke: making secular groups less middle class’, takes place on Sunday 23 March as a morning lecture, starting at 11am. To quote the blurb, ‘Secularists are broadening their image, but their cause remains seen, not totally unfairly, as middle class. We have to take action to reach hard up atheists and skeptics, or risk being a community for the well off.’ I’ll be discussing how.

Booking is online at £5 a head, unless you’re unwaged, a student or hard up, in which case it’s whatever sum you choose. Thanks to Sid Rodrigues at Conway Hall for introducing this – it’s great to see these things put into use – and for inviting me. See you there!

The right propelled last year’s ‘segregated seats’ debate – and yes, it matters

‘I am very well aware that journalists, politicians and policymakers alike may have great interest in stories like mine, and may even attempt to use them solely to progress their own agendas, some of which have a distinctly Islamophobic taint to them. That does not mean those stories are not important.

So writes Shaheen Hashmat (alias @TartanTantrum), one of my favourite bloggers, in a post a few days ago. Shaheen is an apostate of Islam, survivor of ‘honour’ violence and a writer on mental health, sex, Scotland and more; she speaks here of difficulty voicing rage at her family’s religion knowing anti-Muslim axe-grinders will hijack it.

I have Shaheen to thank for prompting this post. You have her to blame for it. I’d planned to write it and wavered, resolved then deliberated, recommitted and then shelved it. It won’t be fun writing or defending it – I don’t enjoy being dogpiled by those I respect, as I’ve been the last few days and am sure I will be now. But I’m also sure it’s worth it. This matters. Thanks for the push, Shaheen.

Saturday’s post was a timeline of efforts made last year against gender-segregated seats at universities – mainly at Islamic Society talks, often for guest speakers like Hamza Tzortzis. (See the timeline for exemplary events.) It was written largely to clarify the roles of distinct political camps in opposing it, and especially to illustrate the right’s involvement.

Yes, the right propelled the segregation debate

Priyamvada Gopal was accused of inventing ‘conservative newspapers and politicians’ at the Rationalist Association, criticising how ‘battle lines were drawn once again between so-called “muscular liberals” (generally, in fact, deeply conservative white males with a commitment to the idea that West is Best) and defenders of the rights of minorities to their own customary or traditional practices’. Laurie Penny was accused (by Nick Cohen specifically) of ‘rais[ing] up right wing bogeymen’ in a similar piece at the Guardian.

It’s true both articles gave short shrift to the anti-segregation work of Muslim and ex-Muslim women – Shaheen, Maryam Namazie and the Council of Ex-Muslims, Yasmin Alibhai Brown and British Muslims for Secular Democracy, Sara Khan, Lejla Kurić, Ahlam Akram, Mari Nazmar – as well as that of women and the left at large. (Gita Sahgal, Pragna Patel and Southall Black Sisters, Polly Toynbee, Ophelia Benson, Kate Smurthwaite; any number more.) This work needs visibility: it’s often underfunded, unrecognised and, as Khan writes at the Independent, unaccommodated by existing politics.

It’s also true, however, that Gopal and Penny didn’t invent the Times, the Telegraph, the Mail, the Express, the Week, the Sun, the Standard, the Spectator – papers which dominate 2013′s press coverage of segregated seating. Nor did they invent, as Cohen says, ‘bogeymen’ like Toby Young, Charles Crawford, Graeme Archer, Matthew d’Ancona, Martin Samuel, Brendan O’Neill, Richard Littlejohn, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Vince Cable, David Cameron – nor Douglas Murray and Peter Hitchens, who since the timeline’s end have jumped aboard – to name only white and male and right wing ghouls. It’s not just about mentions per side: the latter voices speak overwhelmingly from bigger platforms too.

It’s a long post – eleven thousand words – that documents this. I thought I’d leave interpreting it, that in mind, to readers. After the response, it seems important to draw out some key points.

First, Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss put this issue on the map. That segregation happens at ISocs’ and other groups’ events came as no surprise last year to Maryam Namazie, prominent campaigners Student Rights (more on them shortly), me or many who’ve followed campus Islamism. Ask about and you’ll hear of it. What made the ‘debate’ at UCL on March 9 the case that caused a national stir, not one of the many prior cases? ‘Had it not been for the furious tweeting of Richard Dawkins’, David Aaronovitch wrote five days later in a column for the Times, ‘I doubt whether I would have heard of this event.’ Dawkins himself (873,067 followers today) tweeted it only because Krauss (63,369) did first.

This matters since their commentary set the tone. Dawkins, in the tweets Aaronovitch describes, accused UCL of ‘cowardly capitulation to Muslims’, exclaiming ‘Who do these Muslims think they are?’ ‘I don’t think think Muslims should segregate sexes’, he added, ‘Oh NO, how very ISLAMOPHOBIC of me. How RACIST of me’, and closed a post on it at RDFRS later cited in the Daily Mail by asking ‘Isn’t it really about time we decent, nice, liberal people stopped being so pusillanimously terrified of being thought “Islamophobic” and stood up for decent, nice, liberal values?’ Speaking to the Telegraph in an article headlined ‘Britons afraid to challenge radical Islam’ (largely regurgitated by The Week as ‘Brits too afraid of “aggressive” Muslims’), Krauss said segregationists ‘feel their cultural norms are not being met’, attacked the notion ‘these cultural norms should be carried out within a broader society that not only doesn’t share them but that is free and open’ and called it their obligation ‘to mesh with broader society, not the other way around.’

This is the ‘clash of civilisations’ standpoint’s racist rhetoric. I’ve chastised Dawkins since for using it. It describes Islam with the language of invasion (compare Dawkins’ ‘cowardly capitulation’ with the EDL’s ‘never surrender’), homogenises Muslims and chides Islamists not with puritanism, polluting a secular public sphere or violating essential rights but with failing to cohere with ill-defined standards of Britishness or ‘Western values’. We see it again as time goes on in the anti-segregation commentary of Anne Marie Waters, Toby Young, Louisa Peacock, James Bloodworth, Chuka Umunna, Richard Littlejohn, Jennifer Selway, Graeme Archer and the Daily Telegraph‘s December 4 editorial, as well as to various implicit extents elsewhere. I don’t think it’s by chance it’s used most by commentators who were never Muslims. The myth of two dichotomised ‘cultures’ at loggerheads, Islam versus the West (or Britain specifically) is the engine of Islamism; it’s what gets ex-Muslims shunned at times as race traitors, pariahs, ‘coconuts’.

Second: Student Rights, as vigorously denied by Nick Cohen and others following Gopal’s post, was instrumental to the anti-segregation push. Between publications, news stories and citations in the press, they’re the ones most often mentioned on the timeline by a comfortably wide berth, twice as much or so as the nearest runners up. ‘Unequal Opportunity’, their May 13 report on segregated events at universities, made headlines across the British press within days of its release and was cited frequently thereafter, particularly following Universities UK’s release of guidance on November 22 condoning side-to-side segregation of men and women. Student Rights (specifically, researcher Rupert Sutton) provided breaking coverage of various segregated events, as it regularly does, including at Queen Mary’s and Northampton Universities, were initial signatories of Maryam Namazie’s petition for UUK to withdraw its guidance, covered the organisation’s response to opposition and covered the December 10 rally outside its headquarters supportively.

Unlike Priyamvada Gopal, I don’t in practice consider Student Rights a right wing group; certainly, I don’t think their work for the most part (the odd Islamist lambasted as ‘anti-British’ notwithstanding) is innately rightist. It is, however, funded and supervised by the neoconservative Henry Jackson Society, whose Associate Director Douglas Murray calls the EDL – whose ex-leader greatly admires him – an ‘extraordinary phenomenon’ and ideal ‘grassroots response by non-Muslims to Islam’ (see the Youtube comments), having infamously said in 2006 that ‘Conditions for Muslims in Europe must be made harder across the board: Europe must look like a less attractive proposition’. Like Shaheen’s righteous rage or the anti-segregation cause in general, Student Rights’ work and Sutton’s personally isn’t discredited by the forces seeking to exploit it, but the latter are concerning. As Chris Moos of LSE’s atheist society, who oddly denied the prominence of Student Rights’ campaign work, wrote at the Huffington Post in May, ‘It is a lamentable fact that it is being left to an organisation with possible ties to a neo-con associated group to highlight what the Left should’.

Third: the loose, broadly left group behind the December 10 anti-segregation rally, many of whose members took credit for UUK’s eventual withdrawal of its advice, were amplified largely by right-leaning media. Their rally in particular gained noticeably greater coverage than similar ones held previously by One Law for All and its associates – I’m doubtful this would have been the case, or that UUK would even have weighed in on segregation, had reports of the UCL event with Krauss and subsequently Student Rights’ report not raised awareness earlier. Apart from the Independent, publications covering UUK’s release tended initially strongly toward the right – objections on the left from people like Namazie, John Sargeant and Rosie Bell were confined to smaller blogs, if very worthy ones. The exception is Polly Toynbee’s Guardian column of November 26, seemingly the paper’s only coverage till December 12, by which time the Telegraph alone had published eight separate pieces on the issue. Once the dispute had been put on the radar, a number of ‘progressive’ or more neutral outlets followed suit, reporting on the December 10 demonstration – Channel 4, the BBC, politics.co.uk, Huffpost – but it remains true that beyond the blogosphere, the right set the agenda.

Fourth, last and doubtless most incendiary: I am not wholly convinced December 10′s protest made the difference it’s been thought to have.

Ophelia Benson said that for once ‘making a stink worked’. Maryam Namazie said the rally ‘received widespread coverage, including when Prime Minister David Cameron intervened to oppose sex segregation’. Yasmin Alibhai Brown said ‘Result! In one week, we, a small group of stalwarts, Muslims and non-Muslims, who are opposed to sexual apartheid in our universities, raised the slumbering politicians and jolted gutless academics. Universities UK (UUK) will reconsider its guidelines’. Student Rights called UUK’s retraction ‘a great success for those who have been campaigning on this issue’.

Jim Denham said ‘At first it looked as though we were shouting into the wilderness: a few blogs . . . drew attention to the outrage, and a small demonstration took place; just 8,000 people signed an online petition. It looked as though Universities UK (UUK) would get away with [it]. Then the issue seemed to take off. To his credit, Shadow Business Secretary, Chuka Umanna declared that a Labour government would outlaw gender segregation’.

Rosie Bell said ‘Student Rights picked [UUK's guidance] up’, ‘the bloggers you’d expect [Benson, Namazie, Bloodworth] produced angry posts’, ‘mainstream media [Cohen, Alibhai Brown] moved in’, ‘there was a petition and a small demonstration which Channel 4 covered’, ‘the BBC began to thunder’ in discussions on Radio 4 Today and ‘politicians – Chuka Umunna, Jack Straw, Michael Gove, David Cameron – spoke out’, ‘So now the UUK has withdrawn gender segregation from its guidance’.

Denham’s and Bell’s accounts seem in some ways tenuous to me. The TimesTimes Higher Education, the Independent and the Telegraph (twice) picked up UUK’s guidance before any of the bloggers mentioned covered it, and there was a great deal of noise in (again, mainly right-leaning) papers long before the demonstration or Umunna’s comments. There’s also cause, I think, to question the notion in Namazie’s post and various reports that Cameron’s intervention via a spokesperson was what prompted the guidance’s withdrawal. On December 12, before Cameron’s comments hit the press, the Equality and Human Rights Commission had announced via the Telegraph it would ‘help re-write’ UUK’s advice, the story there noting ‘A Downing Street spokesman refused to comment’: Huffpost‘s report the next day, where both Cameron’s statements and UUK’s retreat appear first to have surfaced, mentions only in passing its Chief Executive’s comment, ‘We are working with our lawyers and the EHRC to clarify the position. Meanwhile the case study which trigged this debate has been withdrawn pending this review.’ It seems highly plausible to me then, contrary to what headlines intimated, that Cameron stepped in after UUK retracted its advice and not before.

This blows something of a hole, moreover, in the idea the demonstrators prompted it. Whatever led UUK to seek the EHRC’s involvement, Cameron was still unwilling to comment on December 12, two days after their rally. It’s certainly true it added urgency to the climate of debate, increasing pressure on authorities to act – many media sources used photos of demonstrators or made passing mention of the row having ‘sparked protests’, politics.co.uk referring rather generously to ‘a week of protests’ – but that’s a vexed thing to quantify. We know the Telegraph put pressure on Theresa May for comment on December 4, and that the following day she obliged. We know statements followed from Jack Straw, Chuka Umunna and Michael Gove, and that at some point in this time Vince Cable wrote to Universities UK. This seems more like the kind of thing to me that would put Cameron under gradual pressure than a protest by 100 people.

This isn’t to say it and associated actions weren’t worthwhile. They’ve galvanised crucial alliances, developed awareness of the issue on the left and led to plans for future projects. Nor do I think their organisers wrong to celebrate UUK’s u-turn, whatever the cause. I share their relief, and don’t care to rain on their parade – but I do care about this.

Yes, this bloody well matters

You’re not a good journalist if you don’t know who has the most clout in the room. You shouldn’t be a journalist if you don’t care. Likewise it matters in politics, at least as much as who’s in government, which voices hold most sway.

I’ve been told at every turn that who made the difference here is academic, that it matters only that the argument is won and not who wins it. Would we speak that way of an election outcome – of what put and kept Blair’s governments in power, say? James Bloodworth might. But I see the papers cluttering my timeline and recall headlines like these.

DailyExpress

Telegraph

DailyMail

Times

EveningStandard

Sun

Spectator

If these kinds of press outlets, indeed, these outlets specifically, were instrumental to the anti-segregation pushback – if they were the ones with influence enough to make the difference, for which I find the evidence compelling – do you see why I and others are concerned? It’s all very well not caring who fights the good fight, so long as it gets won, but what happens when the biggest guns turn out to have a fight all of their own, and it isn’t good at all? We cede the debate to kulturkämpfer at our peril.

I am told, additionally, that since I didn’t campaign myself – in other words, blog on the subject – I’m not entitled to complain. I’m flattered on the one hand by the thought my profile’s anything like high enough to’ve made a difference (Penny’s, perhaps), but frankly resent the claim I forfeited my right to comment by not being on the picket line. I’ve taken on any number of ‘Islamism on campus’ fights: Mohammad cartoons at UCL two years ago; at LSE; ‘Islamophobia’ bans there that prohibit criticism; threats of violence at Queen Mary; threats previously at Leeds and other universities; threats I and friends got for writing about those threats;, LSE’s secular group not being allowed ‘ex-Muslim’ in their name; the same group being harassed and threatened at freshers’ fair last year; the measures taken against another group at Reading for calling a pineapple Muhammad; their being banned for it last year. I’m working at present, among other things, on a long, detailed post about segregated seating’s prevalence in British ISocs. But there’s only so much work one feels able to do, and fights are hard. Hang me if I don’t turn up to every last one, every time. Sitting one out now and again doesn’t make me a hypocrite, but even if it did, I’m still not wrong.

Why do we pine perennially at the British left’s reluctance to contend with Islamism, then clutch our pearls tight at the corollary: that the anti-Muslim right, in its absence, holds the floor? Those prepared to make alliances with it, thinking perhaps to take advantage of its firepower, may find their shots at segregation ricochet. You underestimate my boredom if you doubt I can duel both at once till then.

Gender segregation on campus: a timeline of opposition in UK media

There’s been a lot of friction lately over who the main opponents were of segregated seats for men and women at Islamic campus talks, endorsed till recently by higher education group Universities UK.

Priyamvada Gopal, in a December 16 post at the Rationalist Association originally entitled ‘The Right may have hijacked the issue of gender segregation, but thats no reason to ignore it’, described ‘the deft way in which Student Rights, an offshoot of the bullishly paternalist Euro-American think tank, the Henry Jackson Society, has managed to bring “gender segregation” at some campus events to national attention’ and how ‘battle lines were drawn once again between so-called ‘muscular liberals’ (generally, in fact, deeply conservative white males with a commitment to the idea that West is Best) and defenders of the rights of minorities to their own customary or traditional practices.’ She was roundly vilified on Twitter and in the blogosphere for this, charged by a wide variety of anti-segregationists – especially those behind the December 10 demonstration in Tavistock Square – with inaccuracy over who its and related actions’ organisers were.

Laurie Penny, in Guardian column this Sunday she acknowledged as being influenced by Gopal’s piece, wrote that as a feminist she is ‘constantly being told that Islam is the greatest threat to gender equality in this or any other country – mostly by white men, who always know best.’ ‘The rhetoric and language of feminism has been co-opted by Islamophobes’, says Penny, since gender segregation made the headlines this year, and ‘rightwing commentators and tabloids seized upon the issue to imply that Islamic extremists are taking over the British academy.’

Both posts contain inaccuracies and intimations I’d dispute. Penny too faced a wave of criticism, rebuked by Muslim and ex-Muslim women, not unfairly, for ignoring their role in the anti-segregation push – and by Nick Cohen, less fairly, of ‘rais[ing] up right wing bogeymen’. (Both also somewhat miss the mark, I think, in their characterisation of Student Rights, but that’s a different post.) Confusion abounds, it seems, over which forces drove back support for segregation. Both sides have become heated about it.

To add some clarity to the debate, I’ve assembled a timeline of events – coverage, principally, in British media – between March 9 when the issue first came to light and December 15, the day before Gopal’s piece (accused by many of rewriting history) was published. Suffice it to say the true picture is mixed: Gopal’s and Penny’s critics are right to knock them for overlooking one faction’s role, but they themselves are right – and I side with their general point of view, if not their every word – to say right-leaning pundits and publications played a central role.

I’ve made the timeline as comprehensive as I can, though inevitably I’ll have overlooked some things – let me know and I’ll amend it. There are a couple of caveats to this: first, since I’m measuring events in the still-insular British news environment, inclusion is UK-specific, hence Ophelia Benson’s posts at Butterflies and Wheels (cited only once, as I recall, in a post listed below) don’t appear while Maryam Namazie’s do; second, since this post tracks opposition to segregated seating, it doesn’t account for articles defending it – that some papers published more of these than others (the Huffington Post and Independent spring to mind) is, consequently, part of their role the timeline fails to gauge. When it comes to smaller or personal blogs, there’s also a subjective question of which merit inclusion and which don’t, but I’m more or less confident I’ve answered it with reasonable fairness.

The method by which bullet points were sourced, for transparency, had several steps. It began with date-specific Google searches of UK sites in five day intervals between March 9 and December 15 for the keywords ‘segregation’, ‘universities’ and ‘gender’, listing relevant results from the first five pages. After this came site-specific searches for results containing the keyword ‘segregation’ or ‘segregate’ on sites (newspapers’, for instance) that had yielded results initially. Finally, relevant pages already linked or cited were added in, before pages and posts by the specific campaigners Gopal and Penny were charged with ignoring. (Many of these, it should be noted, didn’t show up in the initial search, but I didn’t want to erase them myself, and it’s notable which are and aren’t cited in other media here.)

The timeline follows, with names of major players emboldened and notes underneath on things I find, well, noteworthy.

March 9

  • A debate is held at University College London between Lawrence Krauss and the Islamic Education and Research Academy’s Hamza Tzortzis, entitled ‘Islam or Atheism: Which Makes More Sense?’

March 10

  • Krauss tweets that he ‘almost walked out of [the] debate as it ended up segregated + saw 3 kids being ejected for sitting in wrong place’, adding ‘I packed up and they gave in’.
  • Richard Dawkins responds, posting numerous tweets accusing UCL of ‘cowardly capitulation to Muslims’, referring to Tzortzis as ‘Some Muslim or other’ and asking ‘Who the hell do these Muslims think they are?’ (These tweets and later ones by Dawkins on Islam have heavy criticism, including from me.)
  • Facebook user Dana Sondergaard posts video footage of Krauss threatening to leave, tweeted by him soon afterward, stating: ‘After having been told the event would NOT be gender segregated, we arrived and were told that women were to sit in the back of the auditorium, while men and couples could file into the front’ and corroborating Krauss’ account.
  • Richard Dawkins at the RDFRS site: ‘Sexual Apartheid in University College, London
    ‘A few days ago,’ states Dawkins, ‘I had received a tip-off from somebody who had made an inquiry’, writing that he informed Krauss, prompting him to secure IERA’s (eventually worthless) assurance seating would be non-segregated. Dawkins closes the post asking ‘Isn’t it really about time we decent, nice, liberal people stopped being so pusillanimously terrified of being thought “Islamophobic” and stood up for decent, nice, liberal values?’
  • The Tab: ‘Dawkins outraged by Islamic gender segregation at UCL
    Both Krauss’ and Dawkins’ tweets are cited in the student tabloid’s report, as well as Dawkins’ RDFRS post and statements by students on Facebook that ‘Ucl security helped enforce the segregation’.
  • The forum of the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain publishes a widely-distributed statement ‘by concerned students’ that ‘Sexual segregation at UCL is a scandal’, detailing correspondence with university officials who promised a segregated event would ‘not be permitted to go ahead’. CEMB members Adam Barnett and Christopher Roche are quoted as two of the three male students ejected, as well as a female Asian student named Halima and Chris Moos, a prominent member of LSE’s student atheist group.
  • The Huffington Post (UK): ‘Segregated Seating Row At UCL Debate Between Islam And Atheism

March 11

March 12

  • NSS: ‘Islamic group banned from UCL following gender segregation row
  • John Sargeant at Homo economicus’ Weblog: ‘Take a seat: UCL Islamic V Atheist debate
  • Anne Marie Waters at the Huffington Post: ‘Islamic Extremism on Campus – Is the Tide Turning?’
    States IERA enforced segregation ‘in a scenario lifted straight out of Saudi Arabia’; indicts ‘the political left and student activists’ as ‘defenders of religious brutality and totalitarianism’, gender segregation and ‘medieval misogyny’.

March 13

  • Alliance for Workers’ Liberty: ‘Socialists must fight for secularism
    Notes criticism of Dawkins’ March 10 article for its ‘air of . . . western superiority’ and describes him as ‘not the best spokesperson against sexism’, while also insisting ‘mild annoyance at the idea of the first university in the UK to admit female students on the same basis as their male counterparts playing host to a quasi-segregated event is simply not a good enough reaction. Any attempt to forcibly divide an audience at a secular institution such as a university, or anywhere else for that matter, must be thoroughly denounced. . . . he tradition of marginalising religion from the public sphere is a proud one that socialists used to uphold. Let us continue to uphold it.’

March 14

March 15

  • The Daily Telegraph: ‘Britons afraid to challenge radical Islam, says former Obama adviser
    Cites Lawrence Krauss in the byline as suggesting ‘British people are too afraid to offend a “vocal and aggressive” section of the Muslim community who demand that their cultural values are accepted by wider society’, and quotes him verbatim as telling them segregationists feel ‘their cultural norms are not being met’, that ‘the notion that these cultural norms should be carried out within a broader society that not only doesn’t share them but that is free and open is a very serious problem’ and that ‘[t]he notion . . . broader society should accommodate that discomfort is complete nonsense . . . . It is the obligation of people who don’t feel comfortable with that to decide how they are going to mesh with broader society, not the other way around.’ Note the headline’s emphasis on Krauss’ role as a policy consultant in Obama’s first presidential run – as if to lend his views extra authority, despite having advised on science rather than anything directly relevant (secularism, social cohesion, etc).
  • The Week: ‘Brits too afraid of “aggressive” Muslims, says US academic
    Regurgitates Lawrence Krauss comments to the Telegraph - all my notes there apply here too – and also David Aaronovitch’s in the Times.
  • An Islamist event at the University of East London advertised with ‘segregated seating’, scheduled to take place on this date, is averted by campus authorities.
  • Toby Young in the Telegraph: ‘Even a right-on Obama advisor is shocked by Islamic sexism at UCL
    Quotes Krauss’ comments to the paper, again describing him conspicuously as ‘a leading physicist who served on Obama’s science policy committee’ and nodding at his comparison of British campus attitudes with those of (Young:) ‘other Western universities’ – including, tellingly, one in Australia, directly south of Japan. Young, like the Mail‘s coverage the day before, quotes Dawkins’ ‘nice, decent liberals’ statement, calling him and Krauss ‘absolutely right’. (Original URL reads ‘bowing to Islamic sexism’.)
  • The Independent: ‘UCL bans Islamic group after segregation row
  • Guardian: ‘UCL bans Islamic group from campus in row over segregated seating
  • Tab: ‘Islamic Society in sexual segregation row
    Details an event at Leicester University’s Islamic Society where Tzortzis addressed a segregated audience on February 20, including signage directing men and women to separate areas.

March 18

March 19

  • Terry Sanderson at the NSS: ‘Feeding the fires of fundamentalism
    Says of Tzortzis’ events, ‘it has become clear that the only purpose of these “debates” is to prove to his devout followers that the infidels must be overcome.’

March 20

March 22

March 24

  • FOSIS organise a sixth formers’ event with Hamza Tzortzis at Imperial College London, advertised with separate information phone lines for men and women. (I can’t track down promotional material, so am taking Andrew Gilligan’s word in the Telegraph for it – see below – but this is quite a common practice in campus Islamic Societies, and if organisers wished to prevent men and women speaking on the telephone, it’s presumably a reasonable bet they wanted them to sit apart.)

April 15

April 16

April 19

  • Student Rights: ‘MPACUK have a “Dream for the Ummah” at Queen Mary
    Reports plans by the Muslim Public Affairs Committee – listed, it’s mentioned here, by the NUS No Platform policy as a racist group – to hold a conference on Queen Mary’s campus where a student in touch with Student Rights ‘claimed that gender segregation was planned, though we have found no evidence to suggest that this is the case.’

April 22

  • Student Rights: ‘Segregation by gender advertised at MPACUK Conference
    Confirms the planned use of segregation at the ‘Dream for the Ummah’ event, based on an email sent to attendees which announced ‘Separate seating arrangements for men and women have been arranged’.

April 27

  • Andrew Gilligan in the Telegraph: ‘Baroness Warsi and the demons of hate
    On Sayeeda Warsi’s cooperation with FOSIS, despite other members of her government refusing to meet its leaders, and numerous segregated events at universities.

May 1

May 6

  • Islamic group DaruTawheed holds an event in the city’s Asian Cultural Centre previously promoted on student-based Facebook page ‘Interesting Talks Oxford’ and advertised as ‘fully segregated’.

May 9

May 12

  • Commentator: ‘UK universities fall victim to campus segregation trend
    Covers the findings of Student Rights’ ‘Unequal Opportunity’ report on segregation, released the following day. Note that the Commentator was formerly edited by Student Rights’ director, Raheem Kassam – it isn’t surprising, in light of this, that it had the scoop on the report. The piece does link the Times’ story from May 13 (see below); I assume this was an edit after publication, unless the Commentator site shows the wrong date.

May 13

May 14

May 18

May 19

  • Raheem Kassam in the Commentator: ‘A tangled web…
    Offers a more personal rebuttal to Aked and various others.

May 20

May 22

May 23

  • Chris Moos at the Huffington Post: ‘Defending the Right of – Muslim – Students
    Describes the Krauss-Tzortzis event at UCL as having been ‘[w]orryingly . . . omitted from the discussion’ of the Student Rights report, despite it being mentioned in coverage by the Independent, Times and Daily Express. Also states, supported by good data, that ‘FOSIS, the umbrella organisation of Islamic Student Societies represents only a fraction of Muslim UK students’, and states ‘there is merit in mentioning that Student Rights is affiliated to the Henry Jackson Society. It is a lamentable fact that it is being left to an organisation with possible ties to a neo-con associated group to highlight what the Left should’.

May 26

May 27

  • Louise Tickle in the Guardian: ‘How do universities deal with gender segregation?
    Quotes the opinion of female Muslim student Razana Abdul, who wished to sit with her male partner at the segregated UCL debate but was prevented, describing this as ‘gender apartheid’.

May 30

  • Martin Samuel in the Daily Mail: ‘Keeping the sexes apart is extremist
    Gives figures from the Student Rights report on segregated events, stating ‘All were organised by Muslim groups, or were focused on issues of interest to Muslims.’ See notes on the Telegraph piece from April 15: this is strictly true, but also somewhat misleading.

June 3

June 4

June 13

  • Hanna Ibraheem at Times Higher Education: ‘Are there extremist “swamps” to drain on campus?
    Notes the impact of the Lee Rigby’s murder in Woolwich, mentioned in the Standard’s June 3 editorial, as ‘reignit[ing] debate over university radicalisation’. This is the first story to refer to comments by David Cameron, who after Woolwich ‘said he wanted to “drain the swamp” that allowed violent extremism to take root in British society, including groups based at universities.’ It also quotes Rupert Sutton’s comments on City University Islamic Society refusing to submit sermons for pre-approval and 2011 statements by Theresa May (another important name later) that universities ‘have [not] been sufficiently willing to recognise what can be happening on their campuses and the radicalisation that can take place’, as well as referring to segregation ‘controversies’.

September 18

  • Abishek Phadnis at Trending Central: ‘The silence of secularists: how the Left-Islamist alliance is winning
    Notes various Islamist-related controversies on campuses and elsewhere, including segregation at the Krauss-Tzortzis event in March, and the role of left wing campus authorities. Note that Trending Central‘s ‘About’ page states it was ‘founded in 2013 by Raheem Kassam’, being in some respect a successor to the Commentator in this regard.

October 5

October 26

November 22

  • Universities UK publishes ‘External speakers in higher education institutions’ guidance for higher education bodies signed by Chief Executive Nicola Dandridge, stating the free speech of guest lecturers who demand segregated audiences mustn’t be ‘curtailed unlawfully’ and ‘a balance of interests is most likely to be achieved if it is possible to offer attendees both segregated and non-segregated seating areas’, which is acceptable ‘assuming the room can be segregated left and right, rather than front and back’.
  • Times Higher Education: ‘Some gender segregation in Islamic talks may meet “balance of interests”
    Reports on the UUK guidance, mentioning segregated events where Tzortzis spoke at UCL (March 9) and Leicester University (February 20).
  • Daily Telegraph: ‘Universities “can segregate men and women for debates”
    Refers to the UCL debate on March 9 and Student Rights‘ report on segregation of May 13.
  • Independent: ‘Freedom of speech is not an “absolute”, university leaders warn
    Mentions the Student Rights report and the NUS’ approval of the guidance, claiming to have been involved in drafting it.
  • Louisa Peacock in the Telegraph: ‘Allowing university speakers to segregate genders is outrageous
    Cites Razana Abdul’s testimony in Louise Tickle’s Guardian piece of May 27, Boris Johnson’s comments in the Telegraph from May 26 and the Student Rights report; asks how ‘a modern Britain [can] sit back and allow external speakers to dictate where young men and women sit’, adding ‘We pride ourselves on democracy, on the freedom to choose how we live. I want my children, and children’s children, to grow up knowing the UK respects freedom of choice. . . . We live in a modern, grown up Britain. Let’s start acting like it.’

November 23

  • Times: ‘Universities “allowed to segregate students”
    Paywalled.
  • Maryam Namazie: ‘Sex apartheid not discriminatory?
    Quotes and criticises the UUK guidance, stating it forgets ‘segregation of the sexes and the veil are highly contested even amongst Muslims’, and calls for it to be rescinded and for UUK to be contacted to this end; credits Chris Moos for the tip.
  • The CEMB calls an anti-segregation protest outside UUK headquarters on December 10 (the UN’s Human Rights Day), with Namazie and Moos as contacts for information (therefore, presumably, the two main organisers).
  • Student Rights: ‘Universities UK speaker guidelines excuse gender discrimination
  • Maryam Namazie creates a petition at Avaaz.org, titled ‘Universities UK: Rescind endorsement of sex segregation at UK universities’. It gathers signatures swiftly, reaching many thousands over the following few weeks.
  • One Law for All: ‘URGENT ACTION: Rescind endorsement of sex apartheid at UK universities
    Cites the UUK guidance the NUS’ approval of it. Links to the Avaaz.org petition, displaying a diverse list of prominent signatories (among them DawkinsKassamMoosNamaziePhadnis, SandersonSutton, TatchellRory Fenton, Marieme Helie Lucas, Pragna Patel and Polly Toynbee, plus many other noted secularists and human rights campaigners). Note that both the CEMB and One Law for All campaign are co-organised by Maryam Namazie.
  • CEMB: ‘Urgent Action: Protest against Universities UK endorsement of Sex Segregation at UK universities
    Promotes the petition, naming prominent signatories as above. Also outlines further plans for direct action, providing a (now defunct) Facebook link to the December 10 protest and announcing ‘Teams of Sex Apartheid Busters are being organised to break segregation wherever it is instituted.’
  • Chris Moos at Harry’s Place: ‘“You are a woman, you can’t sit here”: UK Universities condones gender segregation
    Opens by stating ‘If the new guidelines by Universities UK, an organisation representing the leadership of UK universities, are adopted, this is a phrase that might become not uncommon to hear at UK universities’. Cites the Student Rights segregation report, UCL’s banning IERA in March after the Krauss-Tzortzis event, the Independent’s coverage of the UUK advice, the contents of the advice itself, the NUS’ support for (and apparent role in creating) it, comments by NSS Executive Director Keith Porteous Wood later republished in the organisation’s 26 November statement (see below), Maryam Namazie’s ‘Not discriminatory?’ blog post from earlier in the day, her Avaaz.org petition, the December 10 demonstration and the opposition to segregation of signatories DawkinsToynbeeA.C. Grayling and Gita Sahgal.
  • Maryam Namazie: ‘Rescind endorsement of sex segregation at UK universities
    Reproduces the earlier One Law for All update, adding the additions plans announced on the CEMB site.
  • Trending Central: ‘British university heads back Islamists in pro-segregation scandal
    States the UUK document ‘has shocked anti-extremism campaigners, as well as those who believe in Western liberal values’ and mentions the Student Rights report, saying (somewhat misleadingly – see notes on the Telegraph’s May 13 story) that it ‘made mention of 25 percent of events monitored being segregated’ and links to Namazie‘s Avaaz petition, noting its having been signed by DawkinsGraylingToynbee and Trending Central editor Raheem Kassam, who I suspect wrote the copy here.
  • John Sargeant at Homo economicus’ Weblog: ‘University UK Guidelines Allow Gender Apartheid
    Cites the Telegraph’s coverage of the UUK guidelines, the guidelines themselves and his own post of March 12 on the Krauss-Tzortzis debate.

November 24

  • Rosie Bell at Shiraz Socialist: ‘WTF is this shit?
    Reproduces the One Law for All statement of the previous day.

November 25

  • Sara Khan in the Independent: ‘Segregating men and women at university events won’t lead to equality
    Critiques the UUK guidance, noting it ‘delves into trying to tell us what constitutes Muslim religious belief implying that those opposed to segregation must be people from outside of the Islamic faith, not recognising that often it is Muslims themselves who oppose gender segregation.’
  • Rory Fenton at the Rationalist Association: ‘Equally separate?
  • British Humanist Association: ‘BHA condemns Universities UK’s endorsement of gender segregation’
    Notes the UUK guidance was ‘published amid concerns that extremists are attempting to radicalise young people on university campuses’ and quotes BHA Head of Public Affairs Pavan Dhaliwal‘s comment, ‘Universities are secular institutions, not places of worship, and sex segregation should have no place in secular spaces in which we expect to find equality between men and women.’
  • Charles Crawford at the Commentator: ‘So, farewell then, freedom of speech
    Describes the UUK guidance as ‘a totalitarian land-grab to bring intellectual activity under the direct control of those few anointed, invariably progressive, High Wizards who proclaim the correct ‘geopolitical and socioeconomic factors’ that fall to be considered’, ‘drafted by Sub-Dean Ceausescu with helpful contributions from Rector Stalin and Professors Kafka and Pol Pot’.
  • Chief Executive Nicola Dandridge at the UUK site: ‘Universities UK’s external speakers guidance does not promote gender segregation – it highlights universities’ legal obligations

November 26

  • Polly Toynbee at the Guardian: ‘British universities shouldn’t condone this kind of gender segregation
    Cites the commentary of Maryam Namazie and the CEMB as well as research on segregated events by the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secularist Student Societies (led by Rory Fenton).
  • Student Rights: ‘UUK respond to petition against gender segregation guidance
    Noting Dandridge’s response the day before to Namazie‘s petition ‘[of] which Student Rights was one of the initial signatories’, by this stage with over 4000 other signatures, argues that it ‘still does not address the fact that the guidance excuses the enforcement of gender segregation on campuses’, reproducing the UUK statement and linking to the Avaaz.org petition page.
  • Organisers of the December 10 demonstration establish a Facebook page, ‘Separate is never equal – Yes to equality, no to segregation’. As of December 27, it has 236 ‘likes’.

November 27

  • James Bloodworth at Progress: ‘Why the silence on universities kowtowing to bigotry?
    Describes ‘things which at one time would have been viewed as reactionary’ being accommodated ‘if not outright embraced’ by ‘certain bien pensant progressives’, outlining UUK’s publication of its guidance and ‘the support of the normally ultra-politically correct NUS’. ‘Rather than the Ayatollah Khamenei taking over the body which oversees British universities,’ writes Bloodworth, ‘it’s actually identity politics that is to blame . . . with the rights of those considered “oppressed” trumping those of the supposedly “privileged”. . . . Being a Muslim – even an Islamist – trumps being a woman on the identity politics totem, therefore it is equality of the sexes which must fall by the wayside [in] a zero-sum game of appeasing whoever can demand the most ‘rights’ based on perceived oppression. The fact that there hasn’t been a greater degree of outrage about the authorities giving the green light to sexism on campus is testament to how comfortable many comrades have become defending bronze-aged bigotry against the enlightenment values of equality, universal rights and reason.’
  • Tab: ‘Uni chiefs back gender segregation
    Cites the segregation cases at UCL and Leicester University as well as UUK’s document and response to critics, as well as Student Rights‘ segregation report.

November 29

December 3

  • Nick Cohen in the Spectator: ‘The segregation of women and the appeasement of bigotry
    Embeds Sondergaard’s footage of Krauss walking out of the UCL debate, relating events there which ended in IERA’s banishment from the campus, and the ‘astonished reaction’ to UUK’s guidance ‘cloth[ing] reactionary policies in the language of liberalism’, describing it as ‘an instant when the liberal establishment became the open and avowed enemy of its best principles.’ Cites Toynbee’s Guardian column of November 26, alleging the paper’s ‘editorial line to date has been that protests against minority religious beliefs are racist’, and compares gender segregation on campuses with segregation of Jews and non-Jews in 1930s Poland and racial segregation in fifties America.

December 4

  • Daily Telegraph: ‘Extremists in our midst
    Refers to the counter-extremism task force set up by David Cameron following the Woolwich attack and criticises the (allegedly insufficient) ‘measures announced by Theresa May’, stating ‘it would be preferable if universities did not bow to pressure from radicals to segregate the sexes at official events’ and ‘the problem of jihadists returning from Syria’, concluding ‘Mrs May needs to find a way to stop them’.
  • Nishith Chennakeshava in the Tab: ‘Uni Gender Segregation Should Not Be Tolerated’
    Illustrated with the image of signage from the Leicester University event with Tzortzis on February 20; argues UUK’s ruling ‘shows how we have evolved to think that political correctness is so much more important than our rights’.

December 5

  • Times: ‘Free speech no excuse for campus bigotry, says May’
    Paywalled – but notice it came directly after the Telegraph put pressure on her.
  • David Aaronovitch in the Times: ‘Let’s expose these apologists for injustice
    Paywalled.

December 8

  • Yasmin Alibhai Brown in the Independent: ‘It’s shameful that our universities have accepted gender segregation under pressure from the most oppressive religious fanatics
    Refers to the December 10 protest outside UUK headquarters, calling left-to-right separation ‘Separate but equal . . . as Boers ordered society in pre-freedom South Africa’ and the NUS’ support for it ‘disaster for feminism, for university life, for modernism, for progressive ideals and for Muslims  most of all.’ ‘Throngs of students, academics, parents, politicians, and feminists should fill Tavistock Square and shout out loud’, writes Alibhai Brown. ‘Not that they will, what with Christmas shopping and perhaps inchoate fears.’

December 9

December 10

  • Jim Denham at Shiraz Socialist: ‘No to gender segregation in universities: protest in London today!
    Invites readers to protest later in the day with images of black anti-segregation demonstrators in 1950s America. Quotes an extended statement from One Law for All discussing plans to meet and condemning UUK’s guidance and the NUS’ support for it – oddly, I can’t seem to find the original anywhere online.
  • Marieme Helie Lucas at Maryam Namazie‘s blog: ‘Sex segregation in UK universities – a step forward for the Muslim religious-right
    Refers to UUK’s guidance and the resulting criticism. Notes Krauss’ walkout at UCL in March and Sondergaard’s footage of it on Facebook, the statements by ‘concerned students’ about how the event unfolded and the role of UCL staff, Tzortzis’ segregated event at Leicester University and its repercussions, the segregated event at Northampton University on May 1, statements after the fact by Dawkins and Krauss, IERA’s track record, controversy over segregation among Muslims and people of Muslim descent, the treatment of Islamists as representatives of Muslims generally, Yasmin Alibai Brown’s column of December 8, Namazie’s petition and the demonstration later that day.
  • Maryam Namazie: ‘Islamists and Universities UK: You have been warned!
    Details plans for the rally that evening and also for the enactment of a ‘Sex Apartheid Busters’ initiative.
  • James Bloodworth at Left Foot Forward: ‘Why we’re protesting against gender segregation this evening
    Cites and criticises UUK’s advice, inviting the reader to ‘imagine for a minute the justified furore there would be if racial segregation were permitted on campus on the basis that black and white people were “different but equal” [or] if gay people were separated out from their straight friends on the basis that they were “difference [sic] but equal”, with those refusing to move booted out of the lecture hall for no other reason than their sexuality.’ Lists the time and location of the anti-UUK protest.
  • The protestheld by the CEMB and a coalition of other groups here mentioned, assembles at 5pm with a turnout of around 100 and begins at 5.30pm. Speakers according to Denham’s post quoting One Law for All include Pragna Patel of Southall Black SistersMaryam Namazie, comedian Kate SmurthwaiteAnne Marie Waters of the NSSJulie Bindel of Justice for Women, Charlie Kleinjian of the Lawyers’ Secular SocietyHelen Palmer of the Central London Humanist GroupSam Westrop of Stand for PeaceSean Oakley of Reading Univerity Atheist, Humanist and Secularist SocietyGeorgi Laag of the London Atheist Activists Group, Palestinian women’s rights campaigner Ahlam Akram, James Bloodworth and Erin Saltman of the Quilliam Foundation.
  • Channel 4 News: ‘Gender segregation: protests against university guidelines
    Includes quotes from Moos, Namazie and Saltman; news copy refers to UUK’s guidance, Namazie’s petition, Student Rights’ report in May and the Krauss-Tzortzis event at UCL. Footage suggests demonstrators think universities ‘are putting fees from Middle Eastern students above rights for all’ and shows Oakley speaking to that effect and Namazie (interviewed) describing a ‘climate of fear and intimidation’, also referring to IERA being banned from UCL, and an in-studio debate between Alibhai Brown and FOSIS President Omar Ali.

December 11

December 12

December 13

  • Daily Mail: ‘Now furious Gove says it’s a disgrace to segregate students and accuses university bosses of “pandering to extremism”
    Quotes Gove’s comments to the paper describing UUK’s guidance as ‘wrong and harmful’. Also cites Student Rights’ report, though eroneously stating it to have been ‘produced this week’ and quotes Rupert SuttonSara Khan and Dana Sondergaard, referring to segregated events at UCL and Leicester University as well as UUK’s approaching the EHRC for advice.
  • Telegraph: ‘Michael Gove: Do not pander to extremism by endorsing segregation at university
    Cites Gove’s comments to the Mail as well as Umunna’s (and Dandridge’s) on Today.
  • Guardian: ‘Michael Gove: university gender segregation is “pandering to extremism”
    Juxtaposes Gove’s statement UUK ‘should withdraw [its guidance] immediately’ with the EHRC’s description of it as ‘not permissible’, adding ‘Universities UK has yet to confirm that it is rewriting the guidance.’
  • Huffington Post: ‘Michael Gove: Gender Segregation In Universities Is Pandering To Extremism
    Adds to Gove’s comments – the first story to do so – the announcement UUK’s advice has ‘been withdrawn after David Cameron waded into the row over Universities UK’s advice’. Also provides the first coverage of Dandridge’s response, saying ‘Universities UK agrees entirely with the prime minister that universities should not enforce gender segregation on audiences at the request of guest speakers. However, where the gender segregation is voluntary, the law is unclear. We are working with our lawyers and the EHRC to clarify the position. Meanwhile the case study which triggered this debate has been withdrawn pending this review’ – apparently, this is where both Cameron’s intervention and the case study’s confirmed withdrawal broke in the press. A joint comment from Chris Moos and Abishek Phadnis is also given, welcoming Cameron’s statement, and Umunna is quoted once again.
  • Telegraph: ‘Gender segregation guidelines to be reviewed as David Cameron steps into row for the first time
    Reports on UUK having ‘said it would work with the [EHRC] to look again at its guidance . . . as David Cameron’s official spokesman said the Prime Minister disagreed with rules set out by the vice-chancellors’ body.’ Mentions earlier plans for ‘Segregation Busters’ and quotes Moos, calling it ‘outrageous that the EHRC are now suggesting that a policy that would allow for gender segregation merely needs “clarification” and greater “consistency”. It really looks like the EHRC are hedging their bets.”
  • politics.co.uk: ‘Campaigners claim victory after Universities UK cancels sex segregation guidance
    Notes UUK’s ‘announcement came hours after the prime minister’s spokesperson said David Cameron felt “very strongly” about the issue’ and that their ‘change in position comes after a week of protests from feminists and secular group[s].’ Quotes Gove and mentions Namazie‘s petition.
  • Independent: ‘“We should not pander to extremism”: Michael Gove warns over segregation of men and women in university lectures
    Cites Gove’s comments to the Mail and (immediately next to them) Umunna’s to the BBC.
  • James Bloodworth at Left Foot Forward: ‘Gender segregation “not permissible” under equality law
    States UUK ‘may be forced into a humiliating climbdown’ after Cameron’s and the EHRC’s remarks – notably, contrasting with the Huffington Post’s and Telegraph’s statements of their already-confirmed withdrawal. (From what I can make out, Bloodworth’s post did come after both these reports.) Refers to UUK’s pursuit of legal advice, states ‘Left Foot Forward has been at the forefront of the campaign’ and again seems to make the odd claim Umunna’s remarks were made initially to them rather than Today.
  • Times: ‘Universities back down on sexual segregation
    Paywalled.
  • Guardian: ‘Universities UK withdraws advice on gender segregation in lectures
    Refers to the input both of Cameron and the EHRC, as well as Gove’s comments to the Mail, and also specifies that Business Secretary Vince Cable . . . was writing to UUK calling for the guidance to be amended to clarify the distinction between private worship and areas of public learning [and] said: “I am clear that forced segregation of any kind, including gender segregation, is never acceptable on campuses.”’ This is the first mention of comments by Cable.
  • Evening Standard: ‘Sex segregation at UK universities must end, David Cameron says
    Mentions Gove‘s commentary as well as Cameron’s, and cites ‘a 2008 poll [that] found nine in 10 Muslim students regarded segregation as unacceptable at university’ – I’m not sure which poll this is, especially since newspapers tend to report them incredibly badly, but there’s a chance it’s this one.
  • James Bloodworth at Left Foot Forward : ‘Gender segregation guidelines withdrawn by Universities UK
    Writes ‘After our protest on Tuesday, followed by interventions by the Prime Minister David Cameron and shadow business secretary Chuka Ummuna, Universities UK has now said it will review the controversial guidelines.’ Cites the Guardian’s coverage and links to Maryam Namazie’s ‘We will continue’ post.
  • Maryam Namazie amends the version of One Law for All‘s ‘We will continue our fight’ statement originally cross-posted to her blog on December 12 (I suspect after seeing the pingback from Bloodworth’s post, though it’s possible the order was the other way around), adding that ‘Soon after the rally, which received widespread coverage, including when Prime Minister David Cameron intervened to oppose sex segregation at universities, UUK was forced to withdraw its guidance. Whilst this fight has been won, the battle continues particularly since sex segregation is still taking place at universities and UUK has said it hopes to redraft the guidance.’ (For what it’s worth, only politics.co.uk’s coverage of Cameron’s intervention seems at this point to have mentioned the December 10 protest, and it seems debatable to me – unclear, at least – exactly what the demonstration’s role in prompting it was as opposed to other factors listed here.)
  • Rumy Hasan at The Conversation: ‘Segregation and censorship on campus must not be tolerated
    Links to the Guardian’s story on UUK withdrawing its advice after Cameron’s comments, cites Umunna’s and mentions a separate conflict Moos and Phadnis had with LSE officials.
  • NSS: ‘Universities UK withdraws its guidance on gender segregation
    Provides comment from NSS President Sanderson and cites the input of the EHRC and the views aired by UmunnaGove and Cameron, plus Dandridge’s response to the latter. It’s worth pointing out at this point that much of the coverage of UUK’s retraction connects it with Cameron’s views as stated by his spokesperson at Downing Street, but it seems possible based on the Telegraph‘s December 12 story on the EHRC‘s ‘not permissible’ comments that UUK’s case study had already been withdrawn for reconsideration when Cameron entered the fry, and Dandridge’s reply only confirmed this.
  • Channel 4 News: ‘Gender segregation guidelines u-turn following PM warning
    Notes input from the EHRCGove and Cameron, and embeds footage of studio debates featuring both Namazie and Alibhai Brown.
  • Evening Standard: ‘PM “clear” on gender segregation
    Cites the EHRCGove and Cameron, sayingMr Cameron told Channel 4 News: “I’m absolutely clear that there shouldn’t be segregated audiences for visiting speakers to universities in Britain. That is not the right approach, the guidance shouldn’t say that, universities should not allow this and I’m very clear about that.”’ This seems to be a new statement (and to have been made by Cameron personally and not a spokesperson), but I can’t find it anywhere in Channel 4′s coverage online, although all other citations Google lists attribute it to them.
  • Independent: ‘Universities UK withdraws rules on gender segregation
    Mentions both Cameron and Gove.
  • Times Higher Education: ‘UUK gender segregation case study withdrawn
    Cites CameronGoveUmunna and the EHRC.
  • Student Rights: ‘Victory for campaigners as UUK withdraw gender segregation guidelines
    Cites Cameron, the December 10 protest and the EHRC’s criticism and congratulating ‘all those involved in this campaign, including: One Law for AllSouthall Black SistersLeft Foot Forward; the Lawyers’ Secular Society; the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student SocietiesLSE Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society; the National Secular Society; the Peter Tatchell Foundation; the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain [and] British Muslims for Secular Democracy’ (founded by Alibhai Brown).
  • Sky News: ‘Cameron: No To University Segregation
    Cites Cameron, GoveUmunna and Student Rights’s report, also noting ‘Downing Street’s intervention in the row follows angry demonstrations by students outraged at the advice.’
  • Graeme Archer in the Telegraph: ‘A shameful case of apartheid in Britain
    Accuses ‘the liberal Left in Britain [of not having] learnt anything at all from Mandela’s story . . . those in charge of our universities appear to be completely deaf to what the man was trying to say. . . . Whether you keep blacks from whites or Jews from gentiles – or women from men – then you are tolerating apartheid. . . . oh, that you were with us now, Rosa Parks . . . this is the predictable outcome of the Left’s obsession with identity politics . . . the endpoint of Labour’s equality fixation: medieval Islamism can be imposed on public spaces . . . You woke up in Britain – the mother of parliaments, Magna Carta, freedom of conscience; how we like to remember our glory days, don’t we, lest we lament the gap between our own dreams and the downtrodden reality. You read about Universities UK and think: imagine if those people had been in charge of apartheid-era South Africa.’
  • Huffington Post: ‘Universities UK Withdraws Guidance Over Gender Segregation In Lectures And Debates
    Cites Cameron, the ECHR and Gove.
  • Sarah Brown at Harry’s Place: ‘More on gender segregation
    Links to the Guardian’s coverage of the guidelines’ withdrawal, contrasting Dandridge’s defence of them with quotations from their contents.
  • Telegraph: ‘Universities pull back from sex segregation as Cameron weighs in
    Cites Cameron and Gove‘s criticism of UUK and the Telegraph’s own December 12 coverage of the ECHR’s. Includes the same statement from Chris Moos as the paper’s coverage earlier in the day and one from Maryam Namazie that ‘It is good that David Cameron has intervened but I have little faith that UUK will do the right thing. We want to see very clear guidance that segregation is unacceptable in public places like universities.’
  • Daily Mail: ‘Inside the British university where Muslims were segregated by sex: Shocking picture shows how men were reserved front-row seats while women had to sit at the back
    Includes photographs from a January 2013 event at Leicester University ISoc and refers to Student Rights’s report on segregation and the EHRC’s opposition, quoting Rupert Sutton and David Cameron.
  • I’m not able to date it, but at some point around this time, UUK replaces the guidance listed on its site with an edited version removing reference to segregation – this is the one currently available.

December 14

  • Daily Mail: ‘Universities cave in over sex segregation after Cameron condemns demands by radical preachers
    States ‘Universities last night caved in after Mr Cameron intervened to warn them it was unacceptable.
    The Prime Minister told Sky News: “I’m absolutely clear that there should not be segregated audiences for visiting speakers to universities in Britain.["] . . . Mr Cameron’s intervention came after Education Secretary Michael Gove told the Mail that he believed universities were guilty of “pandering to extremism”. Also points to criticism from Umunna and the EHRC alongside Student Rights’s report and states ‘Protesters hold up placards rejecting “gender apartheid” outside the headquarters of Universities Uk’.
  • Jennifer Selway in the Daily Express: ‘Scandal of sexist seating
    States what UUK’s stance on segregation ‘is about is the financial muscle now exercised by foreign students – who take up more university places in Britain than in almost any other country. Many come from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, neither famous for an enlightened approach to women. But they pay big fees. University College London charges UK students £9,000, but demands up to £16,250 from its foreign students, while a foreign medical student has to pay £27,500. Universities need the money, radical Islamists get a foothold, demanding everyone respects their culture unquestioningly otherwise they’ll go screaming to the authorities about their human rights.’ (I’ve blogged already about why this view of Muslim international students – whether or not authorities hold it too – doesn’t stand up.) ‘Why’, Selway adds, ‘why should we respect practices that are so alien especially as Christians are routinely made to feel like second-class citizens? How can our universities – which should be totems of national pride, places of rationality and free speech – cave in without even a squeak of defiance? . . . single-sex schools remain a traditional part of British culture. What is not part of our culture is the belief that men are so easily inflamed by lust that they must be kept away from females.’
  • BBC News: ‘University segregation row: Ministers call for clarity
    Reports ‘PM David Cameron told Channel 4 News’ UUK’s guidance was wrong, and that Business Secretary Vince Cable, whose department has responsibility for universities, has now written to UUK urging it to clarify its position. “I am clear that forced segregation of any kind, including gender segregation, is never acceptable on campuses,” he said.’ Also notes ‘Baroness Perry of Southwark, chairwoman of the House of Lords backbench education committee, said she was “outraged” by the guidance. She told BBC Radio 4′s Today programme it was contrary to “the long struggle that the brave women of the early academics in the 19th Century had to get the provision to sit in lectures”.’
  • Kate Maltby in the Spectator: Gender segregation: radical speakers cannot demand an audience that fits their prejudice
    Maltby, who attended the December 10 protest, writes that ‘protest sometimes works: by Friday, the beleaguered [UUK] had shifted their position . . . thanks in part to criticism by Michael Gove and David Cameron’ and that since she’s heard IERA are considering a European court case ‘Those who want Britain to stay in the EU, and committed to the ECHR [European Court of Human Rights - not to be confused with Britain's Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC)], had better start hoping the ECHR come down on the side of common sense.’ Links to Nick Cohen’s December 3 post and mentions segregated events at UCL in March and Leicester University in February; also embeds audio from Maltby (introduced as a writer at ConservativeHome) debating segregationist Fatima Barkatulla on BBC Radio 4 Today.
  • Jim Denham at Shiraz Socialist: ‘After UUK’s climb-down, keep up the fight against relativism!
    Begins ‘At first it looked as though we were shouting into the wilderness: a few blogs (including us at Shiraz) drew attention to the outrage, and a small demonstration took place; just 8,000 people signed an online petition’, seemingly ignoring quite extensive coverage and criticism of UUK’s stance in (particularly right-leaning) media long before the December 10 protest. Adds that ‘Then the issue seemed to take off. To his credit, Shadow Business Secretary, Chuka Umanna declared that a Labour government would outlaw gender segregation at universities, and – belatedly – Cameron intervened’.
  • Matthew d’Ancona in the Telegraph: ‘Campus segregation: “religious freedom” cannot be allow to trump equality
    Wonders if Christopher Hitchens might have been more impressed by David Cameron had he witnessed his intervention on segregation; also notes (but doesn’t link to) the same mysterious ‘2008 YouGov poll’ as earlier, and cites Gove’s statements about ‘pandering to extremism’

December 15

  • Louise Mensch in the Sun on Sunday: ‘How dare our unis back gender based apartheid?
    Paywalled.
  • The Observer: ‘Segregation: our secular values need to be protected
    Headed, like seemingly any piece the Guardian site ever runs on anything at all secularist, with a picture of Richard Dawkins: notes his ‘heads should roll’ comment from after the Krauss-Tzortzis debate at UCL. Notes also the opposition of ‘student protesters [see notes on the Mirror's piece of December 12], academics, feminists and, belatedly, politicians’, including specifically Cameron, Cable and Gove, and details both Krauss’ and Dawkins’s response to segregation at UCL, where it mentions IERA being banned.
  • Catherine Bennett in the Guardian: ‘Segregation by gender has no place in our public realm
    Refers to Krauss’s walkout and to the opposition to segregation of Jack StrawChuka Umunna, David CameronMichael Gove and ‘Muslim women such as’ Sara KhanMaryam Namazie and Yasmin Alibhai Brown (a designation to which I suspect Namazie would object). Also notes that “Maintain segregation between brothers and sisters” is how [FOSIS] advises student organisers, “keeping interactions between them at a minimum.”’
  • Joan Smith at the Independent: ‘Do stay out of religion, David Cameron, it’s not your job
    Blames segregation’s popularity on British political leaders attempting to create, in Sayeeda Warsi’s words, ‘the most pro-faith government in the West’; cites Cameron and Gove’s opposition.
  • Rosie Bell at Shiraz Socialist: ‘The segregationists unseated
    Gives an account of anti-segregation developments in which ‘Student Rights picked [UUK's guidance] up’, ‘the bloggers you’d expect . . . produced angry posts’ (BloodworthNamazie and Ophelia Benson, whose – extensive – posts aren’t listed here since she’s a U.S. writer), ‘mainstream media moved in – Nick Cohen in the Spectator, and Yasmin Alibai-Brown, finely furious, in the Independent’, ‘[t]here was a petition and a small demonstration which Channel 4 covered at length’, ‘the BBC began to thunder’ with the editions of Today from December 11 and 12, ‘politicians - Chuka UmunnaJack StrawMichael GoveDavid Cameron spoke out’ (‘Under the threads of their statements in the Guardian’, writes Bell, ‘commenters were saying, Bugger me, the horrible Tory creeps are right this time’) andSo now the UUK has withdrawn gender segreation from its guidelines. It looks like the forces of light have won for once. Congratulations to those who attended protests and wrote copiously.’ (Needless to say I – and, I think, this timeline – somewhat parts aspects of this account, as well as the implied chain of cause and effect.)
  • Yasmin Alibhai Brown in the Independent: ‘The Talibanisation of British universities has got to stop
    ‘Result!’ the column begins. ‘In one week, we, a small group of stalwarts, Muslims and non-Muslims, who are opposed to sexual apartheid in our universities, raised the slumbering politicians and jolted gutless academics. Universities UK (UUK) will reconsider its guidelines which sanctify gender discrimination in the name of freedom of speech and equal access.’ By Friday’, it concludes, ‘UUK had shed its overconfidence and seemed to be wavering. I predict the guidance will be binned. This Talibanisation of British universities has got to stop. Now I think it might be.’

Class dismissed: how I went from homelessness to Oxford, and what Richard Dawkins has nightmares about

Say this city has ten million souls
Some are living in mansions, some are living in holes

* * *

A letter in a too-large envelope came five years ago this week. The paper had shifted in the excess space so the plastic window meant for the address showed its initial lines of text instead. I am pleased on behalf of Wadham College, it began, to offer you a place. Oxford’s 2013 interviewees sit, as I write, in hope of such a letter.

Legends abound about the Oxbridge interview, referred to always with a definite article as in ‘the Eucharist’ – an arcane, unalterable rite shrouded in mystery. Oxford and Cambridge hopefuls have stories thrust on them of rugby balls, bananas and trick questions, and access workers’ first task (I was one once) is to dispel these myths. Interviews in reality amount most of the time to cordial, relaxed if mentally rigorous exchanges – nothing worse. Oxford’s bizarrenesses are many, but kick in for the most part only once successful candidates take up their spots. You might imagine by my fourth year there, I’d have acclimatised, but you’d be wrong: few ever wholly do. Memories of finals, now eight months ago, are among my most surreal.

Oxford’s exam dress – gown, mortarboard and suit or skirt-and-jumper – looks centuries out of date because it is. Amendments made to rules in 2012 eliminated reference to gender, making my year the first whose men could wear ordinary black ties rather than ivory bows, an aesthetic and practical step up that nonetheless resembled funeral garb. (Appropriate, I felt, for long dead academic prospects’ burial.) Tradition, though I’d no time for it, dictates white carnations be worn on top for first exams, pink ones thereafter and red for the final one, a colour scheme it’s always seemed to me suggests loss of virginity. Finalists in most subjects file thus dressed into Examination Schools – venue, incidentally, of next year’s World Humanist Congress – to sit exams between ornate wood-panelled walls, observed by ancient portraits, gazing periodically up at giant clocks that may or may not be as Victorian as they appear. The whole ritual feels close to religious; I can tell you, since he once told me, that Richard Dawkins has nightmares about it.

Being, unlike him, an academic slacker, I never felt much strain during my finals. I didn’t expect a very good degree, nor feel in need of one. (Upper second, as it turned out, English and Modern Languages.) One memory persists, though. Returning to college down Queen’s Lane from a twentieth century English paper (I managed a first there), three stocky, plum-voiced undergrads fell boorishly about ahead of me, red carnations near-invisible through baked beans, flour and confetti. ‘Trashing’, as it’s known, is another Oxford custom, inflicted on students finishing exams. I’m thankful I escaped it. Stumbling on down the road, the boy on the right shook vigorously and then uncorked a bottle of champagne, dousing the middle one in the resulting spray of foam. His accomplice on the left, still guffawing, restrained their target as he tried to flee, and the boy with the bottle upturned it over him, releasing every drop till none remained.

More than half Oxford’s students are state-schooled. Few attended England’s ancient public schools, as alarmingly many did in Britain’s cabinet, and it’s lazy to equate the two: Oxford is no costlier than any major university, and the ten percent of students with parents on less than £16,000 a year pay fees of three thousand instead of nine. It’s true though that an air of privilege pervades. Trashing is harmless fun for students in historically male garb well off enough to dry-clean it. It wouldn’t have been for me. My stomach turns recalling that champagne, but only since it spoke to the whole practice’s louche insensitivity. I saw this often at Oxford – in colleagues who wore designer clothes to bed and insisted a time passed when their parents ‘only’ made £250,000 a year; in those who casually forked hundreds out to replace a blemished croquet set; in the drunken braying outside pubs of boys in tailcoats who thought they owned the place. (Perhaps they did.)

The day I arrived, hauling luggage from a taxi to my first year room, a woman in her fifties with a warm Oxfordshire accent greeted me whose name was June, and whose role my fresher’s pack had told me was to clean my room, make the bed and change the sheets. Her job description, like the figure she earned, should have been longer: when it turned out I’d no duvet of my own, June snuck me a college owned one reserved for conference guests; when I spent my first week bedridden with swine flu, she brought food to my door; when I failed to lock it, she chided me good-naturedly. A surrogate mum a hundred miles from home, I loved June as I’ve read England’s public schoolboys love their domestic matrons – but flinched inwardly at how clearly this seemed the basis of her role. Early on, she referred in passing to wealthy parents funding my degree – the truth, I told her immediately, was that I belonged to that poorest tenth of students, reliant on a student loan and grants. A bedmaker who cleaned my floor felt as embarrassingly alien as meals served in the college hall by staff in black bow ties. (Their supervisor held the telling title of Head Butler.) When possible, I ducked these to eat privately or in the cafeteria.

My appetite – in one sitting, I can polish off whole cakes or quiches – was a subject of fun now and again in my tutorial group. They discovered it as time went on, but never why. I’m able to do this for the same reason I’m able, more or less, to function normally for two or three days without food: I know how it feels to be hungry for years.

It wouldn’t be true to say my mother and I starved at any point, but nor were cupboards ever adequately full. The two of us were homeless before I turned a year old; fleeing her then-husband, a man who broke her heart and numerous other parts of both of us, it took officials the best of two years to house us properly. The benefits on which we spent the next few years allowed, after expenses, a household budget of £70 a week or so, meaning that on my mum’s trips to the shops, counting the pennies wasn’t a metaphor. From the staples of our diet, bread, cheese, pasta and potatoes, she fashioned an uncanny range of meals, many of them my comfort foods today, but supply was limited. I still recall her voice, frustration masking despair, telling me when circumstances bit that there was ‘no food in the house’. Free school lunches, such as they were in the nineties, meant I rarely went without for longer than 24 hours, but if it was a weekend when this happened and no neighbours, church members or friends were forthcoming with help, nothing could be done about it. If I overeat at times, it’s because the concept still feels new.

Mum was 42 when she had me, but lived for the following years as students are imagined to. Our furniture, food itself if still vacuum-packed, came out of skips. Even the fridge in which the latter sat, she got by swapping the inferior original with another single mum’s named Shirley; the washing machine next to it, her first husband bought us. Almost all my clothes were second hand, donated by parents from church or the school gates, though always in good nick. It’s hard to get across just how poor we were, except that it shows in subtler ways too. Some nights, Mum taught keep fit at the local primary school, unpaid monetarily (a stipulation of her benefits) but provided in exchange with household goods – among them, a stereo. CDs from Woolworths being an unthinkable expense, I grew up with her cassette tape collection from the sixties, seventies and eighties, and my childhood’s songs as a consequence were by Dusty Springfield, the Pointer Sisters and Diana Ross. I was seven before I listened intently to contemporary music (a copy of Cher’s ‘Believe’ bought in a fit of decadence), and half way through my teens before I paid real attention. A gap of fifteen years or so in my musical knowledge, despite attempts to close it, has resulted.

The cost of a bottle of champagne, even from the cheap end of the shelf, would for us have meant an extra two or three days’ food. The hatred stirred in me by seeing one used as a water pistol is as incommunicable as our thriftiness back then, but prompts even now a hot, breathless nausea and impulse to lash out. I felt it at Oxford many times, though never more acutely than then – when a friend schooled for a six figure price complained a degree unfunded by his parents would saddle him with debts; when alumni of such places, 7 percent of Britain’s populace in total, mentioned their attendance as casually as if discussing where to buy socks; when I heard it said my feeling in response, called class hatred by those who’ve never had it, was the last accepted prejudice (a stupid phrase if ever there was one).

Pointing to class in any personal context is considered impolite. Praised by the Daily Mail last year, actor Tom Hiddleston – a product of the prep-school-Eton-Cambridge assembly line – complained the ‘artistic, political or intellectual has to be refracted through [a] prism of class consciousness’. Even a left wing, feminist friend opposed politically to fee-paying education shot me down for saying I wouldn’t date Eddie Redmayne of Les Mis fame since he went to boarding school with Hiddleston. Analogies in these areas are treacherous, but it’s tempting to think class, like gender or race, is something a friendly liberal politics encourages us not to see from day to day – dismissing and disregarding it as academic or off-limits, concerned as we might be in principle for that elusive thing, ‘equality’, in case the marginalised should make the privileged uncomfortable. Doing so prompts frequent accusations of bigotry, spreading the politics of envy and having a chip on one’s shoulder – canards, surely, that feminists and progressives like my alma mater’s ought to recognise.

If this post was unexpected, I know why. With my tweedy prose, unfashionable vowels (the ‘a’ amuses friends and enemies alike) and Latin postnominals, I’m something of a caricature – but ‘caricature’ is the word. Look closely for the giveaways: teeth affluent parents would have set in braces, hair only recently cut by professionals, voice without the real upper crust’s affected twang. I spot signs like these from a mile away: a partner of Hiddleston’s or Redmayne’s ilk, like the boys on Queen’s Lane who used champagne like water, would mean a barrage of emotional slaps in the face, a reminder in Wystan Auden’s words that they lived in mansions while I lived empty-stomached in a hole.

Try telling me I oughtn’t resent that. Try.

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