In defence of angry people

British political culture is caught in a whirlwind; a tornado that has sucked up all our assumptions, all our conventions, everything we thought we knew about how politics works. They’re currently being spun around and thrown down and it is going to be quite some time before we see where and how everything has landed.

One of the many swirling gusts in the twister is a sprawling discourse around civility and hostility within political debate. This has been gathering steam for many years of course, most notably in the realms of gender politics; it was a prominent subtext to the Scottish independence referendum of 2014, but it really hit the foreground over the past six weeks or so with the Brexit referendum, the ructions within the Labour party and, most significantly, the horrifying murder of Jo Cox MP.

The Guardian’s ‘long read’ today allows Archie Bland to detail at length the supposed coarsening of political language while anchoring his points, both causally and consequentially, to the death of Jo Cox.

I have a couple of profound objections to Bland’s piece. The first is a crucial political point. From everything we know thus far about Cox’s death and her (alleged) killer, the murder appears to have had little to do with Twitter spats or malicious Facebook exchanges, and everything to do with a well-trodden path of Fascist extremism, with links to some of the planet’s nastiest white supremacists going back decades. Of course it is by no means unlikely that the febrile tone of the Brexit debate and the heightened levels of xenophobia and racism it fostered contributed to his decision to launch a murderous attack that particular day, but to conflate his bluntly overt and ideologically specific motivations with the general hubbub and crudity of everyone from Momentum activists to trashy tabloid headlines merely dissipates responsibility and lets Fascist ideology off the hook.

My other objection to Bland’s piece is more nuanced and difficult to express, but bear with me. At no point in his article does the author acknowledge that people have a right to be angry. In fact, I would go further – people have a duty to be angry.

At this point you can take as read a litany of the human costs of austerity, the misery heaped upon the poorest, the most disadvantaged, the disabled, the marginalised by Tory and coalition governments; the unfathomable scale of slaughter unleashed by decades of aggressive foreign policies, if you know my beliefs and know my politics then you know the script.

But left/right politics aside, I have always been deeply distrustful of people who can do politics without anger. There has always been a strain of the British establishment that has insisted that politics be played according to the rules of the Oxford Union or Eton College debating society with all the right honourable whatnots and jolly old chums at the member’s bar after the division bell. It is a tradition that has been passed down from the patrician Tories and Whigs of yore and has somehow survived the intrusion of universal suffrage and democracy. It strikes me as a badge of extreme luxury and privilege to be able to afford to call for mannered etiquette when arguing about issues that are, quite literally, life and death for many.

Anyone long enough in the tooth to recall politics in the 1980s or earlier will have smiled bitterly at the quote in Bland’s article from Labour advisor Ayesha Hazarika that “I’ve never known it as brutal as it is now.” We could tell you some stories, believe me. Even the Guardian itself sells [until this morning The Guardian sold] a T-shirt carrying Nye Bevan’s quote from 1948 that Tories are “lower than vermin.” Less well known is the speech from which it is drawn, delivered in Belle Vue, Manchester, the night before the official launch of the National Health Service. In his address, Bevan relayed tales of his early life of unemployment, how he had been told he would have to emigrate if he wanted to work, how his father had died in his arms from pneumoconiosis like so many other miners of his era. When criticised by the press for calling his opponents rude names, he retorted that “men of Celtic fire” were necessary to drive great reforms like the NHS. The anger which had driven his choice of words was the exact same anger which had driven his political career and it was that precise same anger which had inspired the creation of the NHS.

Another great hero of mine, Kurt Vonnegut, once wrote a brilliant essay about the nature of obscenity. In it, he mused on Queen Victoria’s infamous distaste for anything earthy or scatological.

“What would Queen Victoria really feel in the presence of what she had declared to be obscenities? That her power to intimidate was being attacked ever so slightly, far, far from its centre, was being attacked where it could not matter much as yet- was being attacked way out on the edge. She created arbitrary rules for that outermost edge to warn her of the approach of anyone so crude, so rash as to bring to her attention the suffering of the Irish or the cruelties of the factory system, or the privileges of the nobility, or the approach of a world war, and on and on? If she would not even acknowledge that human beings sometimes farted, how could she be expected to hear without swooning of these other things?”

I cannot help but suspect that something similar is going on here. If people are now longer allowed to use angry language, are they allowed to express their anger? If they are not allowed to express their anger, are they even allowed to be angry?

As I have written many a time before, I have zero sympathy or common cause with those who would abuse their presumed free speech to bully, harass, dogpile, intimidate and threaten others off shared platforms on the internet or anywhere else, typically using misogyny, racism, homophobia or whatever other weapons they can drag out of their arse(nal). I cannot stress enough that this is NOT what I am talking about or defending here. At the same time, I am not prepared to throw out the vituperative baby of justified anger with the filthiest bathwater of the internet.

The truth is that the internet has not created armies of angry people yelling insults, obscenities and abuse, but what it has done is make those outbursts audible to their targets (and others.) People used to hear politicians or pundits say things on the news and shout “SHUT UP YOU USELESS FUCKING CUNT, WHY DON’T YOU JUST DROP DEAD!” at the TV set. Now they shout the same thing on Twitter to rather different effect.  I see why this is a problem. I don’t see anyone offering a workable solution.

What we surely cannot allow is for the understandable urge to temper these consequences to become a broader call to excise anger from politics, which quickly transmutes into a call to excise angry people from politics. Again, this is not a left/right point, there is an evident disdain from the political establishment towards both UKIP-leaning right wingers and Momentum-leaning left wingers. Both are apparently considered beyond the pale, simply not how we do things in this country, old chap.

We have had 25 years or so in which mainstream political parties gravitated to a shiny-suited, indistinct, focus-group-approved consensus. It became a cliché that one could turn on BBC Question Time and it would be impossible to tell which interchangeable platitudinous suit nominally represented which party. The ultimate consequences of that have been Brexit, the Scottish Labour wipeout and the rise of Jeremy Corbyn. [see HetPat passim]

We still don’t know how the 2016 whirlwind will deposit what is left of British political culture, but it seems likely that when it does, righteous anger will once again be part of the mix. I am by no means sure this is a bad thing.

Notes from the deathbed of British democracy

The past two years have seen not one, not two, but three seismic upheavals in British politics. They are separate and distinct, but have a powerful common feature.

The first earthquake was the near-total annihilation of the Labour party in Scotland. The Scottish people might have rejected independence in 2014, but they simultaneously rejected Westminster and the political traditions to which they had offered decades of devotion.

The second earthquake was the election of Jeremy Corbyn to the Labour leadership. Hundreds of thousands of members and affiliates sent a clear message to the party: sacrificing principles to attain electability is precisely what has made you unelectable, and the time has come for a profound change of direction. It’s easy to forget just how overwhelmingly strong that message was. Corbyn didn’t just win, he destroyed his opponents. He won 50% more votes than the other four candidates put together, and won clear majorities among all sections of the party electorate, old members, new members, affiliates, unions and of course the ‘three quidders’ who signed up to vote for him in their droves.

Finally, the third and most devastating earthquake has of course been the EU referendum result which has plunged Britain into an unfathomable clusterfuck, a monstrous medusa of crises.

The common factor shared by all three of these political convulsions is the disintegration of the relationship between the political establishment and large swathes of the population. Everything necessary to keep such a relationship intact– faith, trust, confidence, respect – is degraded or destroyed. The story of contemporary British politics is that when the people are given a choice between the Westminster parties, they will reluctantly choose one of them. But when given the choice of the Westminster parties or something else – anything else – they will choose something else. Anything else.

All of the above has been spectacular, profound, unsettling for the established order. What we are seeing this week is absolutely terrifying. With scarcely a blink, the political establishment is preparing to abandon any pretence of respecting the will of the people.

The chaos in the Labour party is bad. Very bad. As I write it seems inevitable that there will be a vote of no confidence from the PLP, triggering a leadership election. Corbyn will certainly feel mandated, almost certainly obliged to stand again and represent the wishes of those who chose him less than a year ago. It is highly likely he will win again. The only possible scenario after that would be that virtually the entire parliamentary Labour party resigns the party whip, presumably forming a new independent party. We will then have a parliamentary party with no support base or funding (excepting the generosity of a few billionaires who might fancy buying themselves a new political party) and a grassroots Labour party with numbers, anger, energy, union affiliations, but hardly any MPs at least this side of an election. All this will make the political catastrophe of the SDP’s Gang of Four look like an OAPs sewing circle.

The travails of Labour and the left, however are rendered near irrelevant by what is happening to the referendum result. Almost as soon as the results were announced we began to see petitions calling for a second referendum, and blogs by constitutional or legal experts explaining that the result might not be binding, it was only ‘advisory’ we are told. Four days later, we are being told that there might not be a single elected politician, even within the Tory party, willing to sign Article 50 and take Britain out of the EU. We hear there might have to be a devil’s compromise which involves Britain formally leaving the EU’s democratic structures while retaining the EU’s free trade agreement and accompanying free movement of people. Both Labour and Conservative voices are saying that a general election could now be fought and won on a campaign to disregard the referendum result and stay in the EU.

The vote to leave the EU was a calamitous mistake by the British people which is likely to cause economic havoc and disasters for social policy and quality of life in this country. However, the decision has been made. If the Westminster parliament fails to properly implement its outcome then it will be (rightly) seen as the most almighty Fuck You from the political establishment to the electorate ever seen, certainly in this country and quite possibly anywhere in the nominally democratic world. It would be the kind of thing that we expect to see in Pinochet’s Chile or Zimbabwe under Mugabe.  It would be a betrayal of a democratic process exactly akin to a government losing an election but refusing to leave office.

For a few weeks now I have been muttering to friends that Britain stands closer to a collapse into neo-fascism than we have at any time since Mosley marched in the 1930s. Today I think it is worse than that, these are quite treacherously dangerous times. For many years, Labour apparatchiks told themselves they could comfortably ignore the needs and wishes of their traditional working class base because their votes were secure and those people had nowhere else to go. The past couple of years have confirmed how spectacularly wrong they were.

Now the Tory party threatens to make the precise same mistake. Nearly 70 percent of Tory voters ignored the wishes of their leadership and voted to leave the EU. Where do we think they will go next? Sure, a few million of them might have sober regrets and be happy to relent on the EU but many millions more will feel entirely disenfranchised, utterly betrayed and livid with fury. Honestly, where does anyone think they will turn?

All of these current woes are a direct or indirect consequence of the alienation of people from politicians. Much of that can be blamed upon New Labour and the Mandelsonian triangulation that left so many working class people behind, but in truth it goes deeper, to the cultural impacts of neoliberalism and globalised corporate power (there are undoubtedly similar processes happening with the US primaries and the rise of the new left and the old right in Europe). This, however, is on a different order of magnitude altogether. The political establishment is like a cirrhotic alcoholic dying in the gutter while insisting that just one more bottle of whisky and everything will be OK again.

Perhaps the worst bit of all this is that I, as one unaligned British citizen, simply do not know what to do about it but sit and gawp at the sudden fatal car crash of British democracy. There will of course be better days, brighter prospects for our children but for now it feels as if all we can do is watch as our parliamentarians sow, water and harvest the seeds of fascism.

Reflections on political violence and its aftermath

Has there ever been a violent act that had a single cause? I doubt it.

Last Saturday night in Orlando, Omar Mateen took an automatic rifle into an LGBT nightclub, slaughtered 49 innocent people and left a similar number grievously wounded and maimed.  The next evening on Sky TV, presenter Mark Longhurst caused a storm by repeatedly insisting that the murders had nothing to do with the victims’ sexuality or the killers’ homophobia but was purely in the modern tradition of Islamist terrorism, and that this was not an attack on the LGBT community but on ‘humanity.’. One of his guests, the (gay) Guardian columnist Owen Jones walked off the set in disgust. The next morning the UK set about enthusiastically dividing itself into one or other camp. As the days have gone by, various other jigsaw pieces have emerged: Mateen had a history of abuse; his father is close to the Taleban; he was a closeted homosexual; come on everyone, pick your horse and flog it.

This morning the same country is reeling in shock at the brutal killing of Jo Cox, a member of parliament and much-admired champion of human rights, asylum and refuge and international development, not to mention mother to two small children. Initial reports suggested her killer had shouted ‘Britain first” during and after the fatal fracas, leading to the instant assumption that was an act of fascist terrorism inspired by the increasingly ugly and racist tone of the EU referendum campaign. Within a few hours a second explanatory narrative had emerged that insisted the alleged killer Thomas Mair had no interest in politics but was, surprise, surprise, a “loner with a history of mental health problems.”

Mair is alive and in custody, so presumably we will eventually get reasonably informative answers to these questions. I have no stomach for adding to the speculation beyond pointing out that ‘mental health problems’ is not any kind of an explanation for a violent act. Yes, there is a minuscule subset of psychiatric conditions which can cause people to behave violently under certain circumstances, and there are various so-called personality disorders which provide a convenient label for other seemingly irrational or destructive acts. From what little we know thus far, there is little to suggest Mair fell into either category.

The truth is I don’t know why Mair might have felt motivated to go to his MP’s surgery with a refurbished vintage pistol and a knife and right now, neither do you.

We have been here many a time before.

Was Richard Reid a disturbed delinquent, shuffling from prison to criminal lifestyle to cause to cause, desperate for validation or a religious fanatic radicalised by murderous hate preachers?

Was Elliot Rodger a rich young white man driven by rampant entitlement and violent misogyny or a deeply damaged, mentally ill, autistic victim of bullying, loneliness and isolation?

Was Michael Adebowale, one of the killers of Guardsman Lee Rigby an Islamist fundamentalist terrorist or a borderline schizophrenic on a narcissistic suicide mission?

Was Dylann Roof a violent white supremacist intent on murdering as many African-American people as he could or (again) a disturbed loner with a history of mental illness?

Was Paris bomber Ibrahim Abdeslam a devout Muslim intent on establishing a global caliphate or a jobless stoner drifting in search of an identity?

Was Aileen Wournos a cold-hearted serial killer or a terribly damaged victim of exploitation and male violence who finally cracked?

And so on and so on and so on.

If and when we are honest with ourselves, the answers to all of the questions above are yes to all of the above and much, much more and no to all of the above and much, much more. Human actions, particularly those with potentially profound, life-changing consequences, are never taken because of one reason. Even when we consciously decide to do something for specific and discrete reasons, our decisions are made within personalities that have been forged by an entire lifetime of influences. Deeds of deliberate and extreme violence often erupt out of a raging internal volcano of anger, frustration and bitterness which long predate the immediate trigger or conscious motivation for the act.

In a very astute post this week, written after Orlando but before Birstall, the blogger Carter wrote:

If I have learned anything about understanding anger it is that the first step in helping myself, and others, is understanding that anger is not a first order emotion; anger exists, and flourishes, because of something else we feel or have experienced.

Learning to say not ‘I feel angry’ but ‘I feel angry because…’ is essential.

I cannot complete that sentence for Omar Mateen. Beware anyone who tells you that they can. Responsibility for that could only have rested with Omar Mateen, and he is not going to complete the task.

We can never know how Mateen would have finished that sentence. It is likely we will never know how Thomas Mair would finish that sentence, because it is likely that even Thomas Mair doesn’t really know. So where does this leave us?

Personally, it leaves me with a claggy, gnawing disgust at the reactions to political violence on all sides. I am certainly not immune to the instinctive, kneejerk reaction that seeks to hold someone or something responsible for horrible crimes, and the more horrible the crime, the stronger the urge to extend that responsibility wider. A powerful bit of my soul wants to blame online neo-Nazis like Britain First or even Nigel Farage and the racism of the Leave campaign for the murder of Jo Cox.  The same bit of my soul wants to blame global geopolitics, fundamentalist religion and homophobic social mores for the murders in Orlando. I have realised this instinct is something I must resist.

Instead, I try to fall back on two truths. The first is that in every single case I have listed in this post, the killers who committed the crimes are entirely responsible for their own deeds. They cannot and should not be excused or mitigated far less justified. Thomas Mair killed Jo Cox because he wanted to kill Jo Cox.

The second truth is that every single one of us is the product of the society we create and tolerate. A society which tolerates or foments racist bigotry and hatred will, at its fringes, tolerate and foment racist violence. A society which tolerates or foments misogyny and homophobia will inevitably include misogynistic and homophobic violence. A society which considers civilian casualties to be a price worth paying as collateral damage in pursuit of political ends cannot be surprised when individuals take this to heart and put it into practice.

It is in the nature of political violence that the perpetrators want to make us complicit in their crimes, by noticing, by reacting, by debating, by responding. Of course we cannot just ignore crimes like these, nor can we simply ignore the politics in political murder. We can, however, resist the temptation to slip into pat solutions that do nothing to enlighten or explain, but merely bolster a pre-existing ideological position.

The mists begin to clear on FGM statistics

Readers may recall that I have long been interested in trying to unpick the data on female genital mutilation in the UK. The general standard of debate on this topic is woefully uninformed by actual facts. News pieces and campaign materials have traditionally waved around (almost) meaningless statistics about the numbers of girls being at risk of FGM, without explaining what they mean by “at risk” or how severe that risk might be.

The numbers tend to be horrifying and this has at least two extremely serious consequences. The first is that the practice of FGM among migrant communities in the UK is used as a damning indictment of their failure to integrate, to accede to British law and custom, or more broadly as evidence the uncivilised, backwards ways of immigrants and especially Muslims.

Secondly, for many years there has been a clamorous call to demand explanations why nobody in the UK has been successfully prosecuted for conducting FGM. It has long been assumed (and not just among the spittle-flecked rabble of the Daily Mail comments section) that some sort of political correctness must be the reason why police, prosecutors, social services and child services have all been deliberately averting their gaze from the brutes who continue to cut up the genitals of little girls. But as I have written before, there is another possible explanation as to why these offences are never prosecuted – could it be because in fact these crimes very rarely happen in the UK?

This week the Health & Social Care Information Centre published their latest quarterly bulletin on FGM. This exercise (still described as ‘experimental’) collates reports from Health Trusts around the country which count the numbers of new cases that have come to light within the NHS. The vast majority of cases are adult women (mostly aged 18-39) and typically come to light during obstetrics & gynaecology care in pregnancy and childbirth.

As the headlines explained, this latest quarter found around 1200 new cases of FGM. For the first time, however, the data included some numbers for where the women and girls were born and where the FGM procedure had occurred.

Before I go any further let me stress that the statistics here are patchy and incomplete. We are only considering newly discovered cases, not the total, and there are huge holes in the data sets where the relevant information could not be or was not recorded. Nonetheless the numbers are revealing.

Of the 1242 cases, there were 532 where the country of birth was recorded. Of those, precisely 11 cases were of girls or women born in the UK. That means that 98% of cases of FGM in the UK (from this data set and where the info was logged) were on women born outside of the UK.

Even more usefully, there were 319 cases in which the data recorded where in the world the FGM was undertaken. Of those, seven were reportedly undertaken in the UK. Again, 98% of FGM procedures happened outside the UK.

These numbers 11 cases and 7 cases respectively) are so tiny we should be aware of the risks of data errors and statistical noise. For instance, genital piercings can be classified as Type 4 FGM (in some cases this is legitimate and accurate – piercings are sometimes inflicted upon girls as a form of FGM) but it does create obvious scope for confusion and miscategorisation.

There is one incredibly important question which the HSIC still fails to address or answer: How many of the 1242 new cases of FGM are women who were already resident in the UK before they were mutilated? If we had an answer to that question, everything would suddenly become a lot more meaningful. In the meantime, what is this data telling us? It looks to me like what we are seeing is that relatively large numbers of women who move to the UK from FGM-practising countries such as Nigeria, Kenya and Somalia have already been cut when they move here. This should be a clear and uncontroversial point. There is an obvious and serious need for health professionals to be aware of this and to have the expertise necessary to provide these women with the care and medical treatments they might require to heal the damage.

The other key takeaway from the data is that amongst girls who have been born in Britain, even to communities where it has been traditionally practised, FGM is exceptionally rare. For years we have been told that anything up to 120,000 girls in the UK are “at risk” of FGM, an estimate based on numbers of girls born in the UK to families from the relevant parts of the world. If the true numbers were anything even vaguely on this scale we would expect to see far, far more new cases coming to the attention of the authorities.

To be clear, we cannot be sure from this data that there aren’t lots of girls who are born elsewhere, brought intact to the UK as children, taken out of the country to be cut elsewhere and then brought back again, but this really seems something of a stretch to me. A more credible interpretation of the data would be that FGM remains a huge medical and human rights catastrophe in many parts of the world, but that when people move to the UK, with very few exceptions, they abandon the custom.

We still don’t have the statistics to speak about any of this with authority. As the academic cliché would have it, more research is necessary. If I had one wish on this front, however, it would be that when journalists, campaigners and politicians talk about the thousands of women in Britain who have suffered FGM they explain to people that the vast majority were living elsewhere when it happened. That little nugget of nugget of knowledge entirely transforms the debate and would do so in a much more constructive direction.

This Boy Can’t – Need, fairness and the funding of education

Cast your minds back a moment, to the ancient days of 2014 and 2015. If you’re living in England you will probably remember the TV adverts, the billboards, the posters on the sides of bus shelters, boldly proclaiming that THIS GIRL CAN.

The campaign was the work of Sport England, a quango funded through the Department of Culture Media and Sport with money from the treasury and the National Lottery. It didn’t come cheap, at £10 million or thereabouts, but by all accounts it was highly successful.

This Girl Can had its critics, of course. Some commentators argued that using the word ‘girl’ was demeaning and suggested that the campaign was overly sexualised and objectified its participants. The complaints, however, were about the delivery, not the intent. The statistics are clear and concerning – far too few women are engaged in sport and fitness activities and everyone agrees that something should be done.

Compare this campaign to the one which ran around the same time, imploring us to READ LIKE A MAN. This campaign, targeted at teenage boys and young adult men, was motivated by concerns about the plummeting literacy attainment among our boys. The campaign championed the benefits of reading for pleasure, showing boys being taken off on wild adventures beyond the stars, discovering new wonders of the world and losing themselves in diverse fiction and non-fiction more vibrant than any videogame. [Read more…]

The last great masculine delusion: What even Grayson Perry doesn’t get

In many respects the first episode of Grayson Perry’s All Man was one of the finest pieces of television I have seen this year. As a straight-up slice of documentary-making it was compelling, insightful and deeply moving. Even the doubts I felt about the initial structural conceit – Perry sets himself a challenge of creating works of art to represent his journey of discovery – was swept away by the reactions of his contributors, particularly the mother of a young suicide victim, to the two pieces he made.

The intellectual content was also unusually rich. The linkage of the rise of hypermasculine mixed martial arts cage fighting in the North East with the collapse of coal and other heavy industries is pertinent and important, so too was his characterisation of masculinity as a protective shell, a suit of armour that men use to protect ourselves while simultaneously weighing us down and restricting us, preventing change. These are points that I and many others of like mind have been making for a long time, but beautifully expressed here.

“I am beginning to frame masculinity as a callous, if you like, on men, to protect them from the hardships of working in very heavy industries so when they need to change, to be flexible in the modern workplace, to be emotionally resilient, they struggle because that carapace that they’ve built around them shatters or snaps or folds. It doesn’t bounce.”

With all deserved praise duly paid, there was a crucial point missing from the programme and it was this: Masculinity is a political construction. The nuance of this was revealed in the closing remarks, when Grayson Perry talked about men needing to relent, needing to let go, needing to change, as if the only force that was preventing that happening, or which could cause it to happen, was men’s own stubbornness, men’s own choices, men’s own shortcomings.

To illustrate this in practice, imagine for a moment a documentary made in the same tone about ideals of femininity, one which examined serious issues such as the gender pay gap or the lack of women in politics, boardrooms or in science and technology, and did so by going to meet ultra-feminine working class subcultures in the nail salons of Essex or Liverpool or amongst the trophy wife yummy mummies of Cheshire or Buckinghamshire. Imagine this documentary concluded that what women really need to do is to learn to let go of their gender roles, learn to change, learn to relent, basically just pull their socks up and behave a bit more like men do.

I’d imagine such a documentary would be roundly castigated for being naïve and simplistic, and the film-maker, rather than being applauded for sensitivity and insight, would be (at least metaphorically) soundly beaten around the head with copies of Naomi Wolf’s Beauty Myth and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique.

Is the situation here so very different? I don’t think so.

There is no doubt that men, or paradigms of masculinity, need to change. Tragic suicide rates are the most salient and inescapable illustration of this, but see also patterns of male violence and criminality, rates of alcoholism and addiction, untreated depression, social isolation and all the other topics that crop up on this blog, just for starters.

But for men to change, first of all society has to change, not the other way around and that is not a personal project but a political one. This is a key lesson that men can learn from feminism (and you don’t need to be a feminist yourself to agree.)  This is not to deny individual agency or personal responsibility for one’s choices, but the bottom line is that the circumstances of a single man are a lifestyle choice. The circumstances of ten million men are a political outcome.

Part of this is the basic sociology of hegemonic culture. What that means in essence is that the collated trends of human behaviour that we call a culture is not a random mutation. It has been shaped in specific ways to provide value to the powers that be. Traditional working class masculine gender roles  (risk-taking, violence, stoicism, protecting and providing) were obviously desirable to a society that primarily needed working class men to spend their lives risking life and limb on the fields of battle or agriculture, hauling steel over furnaces or ripping up coal from the depths of hell and playing their designated role in preserving the nuclear family (read yer Engels). If society continues to produce men with those values it is because at some level society still wants men with those values.

Of course none of this is a deliberate, conscious choice. David Cameron’s cabinet does not sit around planning how to best produce the next generation of compliant, long-suffering cannon fodder. Instead these processes are woven into the nap of society, permeating everything from education to entertainment and is as evident in the policies that are neglected as those which are adopted.

This week the Guardian carried an interview with Grayson Perry. At the bottom of the piece was a list of twelve suggestions for how men can change themselves to survive the modern world. I found this striking. Nowhere amid this was a single suggestion for ways in which public policy could change, society could change, culture could change. (I’d happily churn out a list of suggestions myself, everything from parental/fatherhood structures to educational policies to a strategy on violence against men and boys, but that is not the point here. The point is that we have not even started to ask the question.)

The bitter irony here, of course, is that this notion that men have the power to change themselves is the ultimate patriarchal delusion, one that even Grayson Perry seems to be buying into. At the same time as identifying and bemoaning men’s inability to admit vulnerability, weakness or needs, this atomized, individualised recipe for transformation merely recycles the same disease as a prescription. In other words, programmes like this condemn men for imagining they can solve their own problems by just pulling their socks up while at the same time suggesting that everything would be better if they just pulled their socks up.

As a society we find it really easy to understand that women are products of the culture that moulds them – consider all the concerns about Disney princesses, pinkification, gendered toys etc. We find It really easy to agree that women need help and support to be liberated and fulfilled, to have full opportunities in their life, education and careers. We find this easy because we are steeped in patriarchal values. For the exact same reasons we (as a society and individually) tend to fail dismally in recognising that the exact same is true of men. Men are not masters of their own destiny. We cherish the delusion that men are in control of their own destinies, when by and large they are anything but.

I welcome Grayson Perry’s careful consideration of modern masculinity. It is helpful that what he says can be heard. However we must recognise that what he is doing is identifying problems. Developing solutions is not a matter of art or psychotherapy, but of politics.

Defining gender-inclusive politics

A few of my more recent posts have used the phrase ‘gender-inclusive’ to describe the type of policy and political approach I advocate here. It’s led to a few interesting exchanges, and I think a few misapprehensions, among the comments, so I thought it would be worth spelling out what I mean by the term. I should stress that this is very much an idea in development, and I very much hope readers will contribute thoughts to the conversation down below.

A few months ago I was putting the world to rights with my pal Duncan from Survivors Manchester, when there was a mention of gender-neutral approaches to sexual violence support services. “No,” Duncan interjected. “We don’t need a gender-neutral approach. We need a gender-inclusive approach.”

That proved to be something of a lightbulb moment for me. The more I thought about it, the more appropriately it described the types of policies I’d like to see in all sorts of areas, not just around intimate violence but every topic from educational underachievement to men’s mental health to prison reform.

So, what do I mean by gender-inclusive?

Since we live in a fiercely gendered society, many areas of public policy have a gendered dynamic or require an element of gender analysis. (That is not a feminist or partisan statement by the way – if you believe male suicide rates are a problem requiring action, then you are already on board with gender politics.)

As I see it, only three approaches to gender-based policy are possible.  These are: 1/ Gender-neutral policy. 2/ Gender-exclusive policy, and 3/ Gender-inclusive policy.  If anyone can think of a fourth, I will be all ears, but until then allow me to spell them out as I understand each.

Gender-neutral policy

This is a superficially attractive approach, but in many respects profoundly inappropriate. Gender-neutral policies treat everyone as ‘people’ without gender. The problem is we do not live as people without gender, we live in a society that expects us to behave and live according to gender scripts.

One of the more abhorrently ignorant liberal political trends of the past year or so has been the ‘All Lives Matter’ meme, that emerged rapidly in the wake of Black Lives Matter. It was a profoundly reactionary slogan, because the original BLM hashtag accurately situated the deaths of young African-American (mostly) men at the hands of police into the context of structural and institutional racism. ‘Black Lives Matter’ was a desperate cry of response to a society that appeared to insist that black lives don’t matter. Appropriating that slogan to insist that ALL lives matter instantly depoliticised those deaths, removed their political context, served to deny the very existence of a racial dynamic, and in the process helping to sustain that institutional and structural racism.

In many respects, calls for gender-neutral policies and services are the All Lives Matter of gender-politics. Gender-neutrality strips away the politics, the social processes, the structures of a gendered society. I don’t think it matters much what your politics are, whether you are feminist or masculinist, radical or liberal or post-Marxist social theorist, gender-neutrality blocks your analysis and input and freezes gender issues in aspic as if we lived in some post-gender utopia.

There is also a practical issue, in many areas of policy. To return to the example above, The people and organisations who are best placed to work with female survivors of sexual and intimate violence are those with proper understanding of female-specific gender issues. The same is true for men, and the same is true in a long list of gender-related policy issues, from educational underachievement to mental health to international development.

Gender-exclusive policy

The direct opposite of gender-inclusive policy is not gender-neutral, it is gender-exclusive policy. What is that? Well, if your social policy is designed with one and only one gender dynamic in mind, then you’re gender-exclusive. A pure Duluth Model approach to domestic violence, for example, is one example of an explicitly gender-exclusive policy.

Gender-exclusiveness, however, takes considerable mental gymnastics to sustain. A classic example is the categorisation of all sexual and intimate crimes as “violence against women and girls.” When Martin Daubney was on BBC Daily Politics last week talking (very effectively, I must add) about male DV victims, Tory minister Brandon Lewis pointed out that the £80m of funding just awarded to prevent violence against women could also be used to fund activities for male victims. I wish Martin or someone had pointed out that we really shouldn’t be funding male-specific services in this way, for two reasons. The first is that every penny of that £80m (and then some) is needed for women’s organisations, and service providers should not be dipping into it to help men here and there, which immediately has the effect of pitting male and female victims against each other in competition for resources.

The second reason is that it is not desirable, or constructive for male victims and survivors to be told that what they have experienced is “violence against women.”  Issues around demasculation and male pride amongst survivors are complex enough without the government telling them that they are being categorized as women and girls in the funding of their services.

It is this type of effort to squeeze diverse and multifarious gender dynamics (and I very much include issues such as violence in same-sex relationships or the exclusion of trans people from services in all of this) which leads advocates to desperate, counterfactual denialism over rates of violence or the numbers of male survivors, or the attitude that male survivors and their advocates are somehow a threat to women and their needs.

Gender-inclusive policy

If I may offer one example of how gender-based policy can differ, let’s look at education.

A gender-neutral approach assumes all children are identical (at least across gender lines) and would, for instance, preclude policy measures to encourage girls or boys into areas where they were underperforming or under-represented.

A gender-exclusive approach would educate girls and boys alike but then look for areas where girls are underperforming, notably STEM subjects, and make efforts to engage and inspire them, while entirely ignoring those areas where boys underperform. I would argue that in practise this is more or less what has been happening in the UK and many other countries in recent years.

A gender-inclusive policy would look for where girls are underperforming and seek to address those, while ALSO looking for areas where boys are underperforming (a long list) and devise strategies and policies to address those too. Everyone benefits.

Gender-inclusive politics is about recognising that girls and boys, women and men, have different gender-based experiences of society, different needs, different obstacles, different opportunities. It neither assumes nor requires any particular approach to gender politics (I would hope the principle could be accepted by feminists and non-feminists alike, for starters.) It is not really about demanding that everyone stays in their lane so much as asking for recognition that the lanes are there in the first place.

 

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I believe there are three strong reasons for advocate gender-inclusive politics.

The first that it is an accurate reflection of society as it is. We do not live in a gender-neutral society and there are few elements to modern life that are genuinely gender exclusive. This is a political approach that reflects the real world.

The second is political and ethical: it is the right thing to do. You will look far and wide to find someone who would argue that a male rape survivor should not have access to services, and yet millions of men in this country live without a gender-appropriate service within a hundred miles of their home, purely because of their gender. That cannot be right.

The third reason is tactical and political. Debates around male-specific gender issues are often pitched as an argument between gender-exclusive and gender-neutral policies. For those who would actively obstruct and oppose providing help to men (whether for ideological or stingy fiscal reasons), that is a comparatively easy win. Arguing against gender-inclusive politics would be a much more tricky challenge. I’m not suggesting that advocates of gender-exclusive approaches will simply roll over, but I reckon this would at least help move the debate forward.

On that note, I will state again that this is very much a think-piece and I’ve put it here in the hope that readers will chew it up and spit it out and we’ll see how it looks when you are through.

Over to you.

 

We know domestic abuse of men is a problem. The real question is, what do we do about it?

This week at Manchester Crown Court, Sharon Edwards was convicted of the murder of her husband David. His death was the end of a short but horribly violent relationship. Pathologists found sixty different wounds at the post mortem, including older stabbing injuries all over his body. Friends and colleagues told the trial how he had regularly used make up and a litany of lies and excuses to cover up his injuries. After the jury’s verdict, it emerged that the murderer had a series of previous arrests and convictions for domestic violence against her ex-partners.

The verdict sparked a flurry of media commentary and discussion of varying levels of accuracy and insight. The most depressing exchange of the week came on BBC Woman’s Hour which invited Mark Brooks from the Mankind Initiative to explain that men being murdered by their female partners was a bad thing, and radical feminist violence researcher Marianne Hester, apparently to argue the opposite.  Hester responded to questions about female-perpetrated domestic homicide by saying it happens because women need to use weapons because they aren’t as big and strong as men, and suggesting repeatedly (and without a hint of a shred of evidence), that women who perpetrate deadly violence against male partners are usually doing so out of self-defence – in effect slandering the victims of domestic homicide and blaming them for their own deaths. (For the record, the only UK research to have investigated women’s motives in intimate partner homicides found that a fewer of a quarter of offenders cited self-defence as their motive. Most killed out of anger or jealousy.)   [Read more…]

A case of marital rape and the limits of legal protection

A horrible sexual violence case has collapsed in Exeter, in the south west England. Last year a woman reported to police that her husband had repeatedly raped and sexually assaulted her. After he spent four months on remand, the wife has now decided that she wants to move on with her life and is now unwilling to testify in court.

Because it is a case of marital rape allegations, the accused cannot be named as that would identify the alleged victim. [Read more…]

The left must speak uncomfortable truths about migration and sexual violence

I have mostly spent January eye-rolling so hard I’ve practically detached my retinas. It began when news first crept out from Cologne after New Year’s Eve, as across the media and the internet vast swathes  of anti-immigrant right-wingers and racists who had never in their lives uttered a word of concern or complaint about sexual violence suddenly  reinvented themselves as the bestest feminists in town, for whom nothing was more important than ensuring that never again would an innocent (ie white) woman be mauled by a disgusting, patriarchal (ie brown) man.

Well, racists gonna racist. But I was eye-rolling too at my peers on the broad left, the manner in which they continue to squirm and tiptoe around the extraordinary, horrific accounts from Cologne. I thought this had peaked last week with the remarks of Jess Phillips MP on Question Time that equated those events with any Saturday night on Birmingham’s Broad Street. The criticism she has since received has mostly focussed on outraged residents, coppers and civic leaders from the city saying “how dare you malign our city?” while simultaneously denying, downplaying or disbelieving women’s experiences of the extent of sexual harassment and assault on a typical British night out. I saw it the other way around. I was stunned that Phillips could so easily deny or downplay the statements from nearly seven hundred women that they had been sexually assaulted and/or robbed within a few city blocks in just a couple of hours, and so blithely dismiss the unique severity of that. I’m sure Phillips did not intend to suggest Cologne was really no big deal, but that was the precise effect of her words. [Read more…]