The Calais children caught between racism and misandry

It has been a long time since we’ve dwelled on the topic of misandry, the individual, institutional or structural fear or hatred of men as a gender. Depending who you listen to, it is either the most powerful prevailing discrimination in a gynocentric feminazi society or a fictional, imaginary construct dreamed up by bitter MRAs playing me-too oppression Olympics in a desperate bid to deflect attention from the real gender oppression of misogyny.  You say tomayto.

As long-term readers may recall, I don’t really buy into either version. In brief, yes, of course misandry ‘is a thing.’ No, of course misandry as ‘a thing’ is not a mirror image of structural misogyny within a patriarchal society and asserting its existence as a social phenomena does not and should not in any way detract from or act as some kind of contradiction to prevalent misogyny elsewhere.

This week, the British media and political classes have been playing out some of the most extreme and overt misandrist attitudes I can ever recall, splashed in banner-sized fonts across the front pages of the nation’s bestselling newspapers.  Those who are normally jumping up and down yelling “MISANDRY!” at the first whiff of an incompetent dad in a detergent commercial are entirely silent about this. Those who normally protest the loudest about any other structural prejudice and discrimination seem entirely oblivious to what is happening, even while they sympathise with the victims on other grounds. [Read more…]

Abuse, disclosure and speaking ill of the dead

Last night the comments on my previous post had drifted far enough off topic that they were skipping between Donald Trump, Jimmy Savile and the disclosures made in Peter Hook’s autobiography about his abusive marriage to the late Caroline Aherne.

Marduk left a comment which I’ll repost here uncut, because it leads nicely onto something I had wanted to write about anyway.


It’s weird Savile and Aherne are coming up here because the two are fairly linked in my mind.

This is in part because the story broke the morning after the Theroux documentary was screened, and for me at least there was a certain connection. Theroux was trying to explain how Savile got away with his crimes, how people were so obstinately unwilling to think ill of him (and in some cases still can’t) and how being a popular national figure protected him. Part of the problem in understanding this, and why Theroux was having to actually argue for events that happened in the lifetimes of everyone watching the show, is that in retrospect it seems completely unthinkable.

And the next morning I woke up to read another popular figure had done some bad things she’d almost sort-of confessed to anyway (there were several interviews about ‘things she did that she regretted’ and so on) and people aggressively didn’t want to believe it and certain papers didn’t even want to report it, let alone discuss it.

She did very different things, I don’t believe she hid deliberately behind stardom and I think the reasons for her doing bad things were arguably a bit less about evil and a bit more about mental health (although DV campaigners would generally argue against that distinction) but still.

It was weird how people couldn’t put the two together but of course their failure to be able to do so ultimately proves Theroux correct. Because of course, at the time the well-loved figure is well-loved, they look nothing like those other people we know are despicable criminals and how dare you try to tar them with that brush. Caroline Aherne was lovely, all her Guardian guest columnist friends say so, she doesn’t sound like the person who’d do those things.

It’s very hard to learn the lesson except in retrospect unfortunately.

[Read more…]

How the Labour party just kicked domestic violence survivors in the teeth

Only two people know what happened on the night Sarah Champion and her then-husband Graham Hoyland were arrested and cautioned for domestic violence. It is likely that even those two people have very different memories and perceptions of events, and of the eight-year marriage which preceded them.

In the absence of hard facts, this weekend the shadow minister for preventing abuse and domestic violence and her ex-husband used rival tabloids to present their versions of historic events, and to deny the claims of the other. In the Mirror, Champion described the arrest as occurring in the midst of a bitter, acrimonious marriage breakdown, when she ‘felt very vulnerable’ after ‘months of tension spilled over.” [Read more…]

Cynical skulduggery or lazy indifference? How the Director of Public Prosecutions continues to betray male victims

Autumn is drip dripping down my  window pane and in true back-to-school spirit, I fully intend to drag myself out of my near-total blogging hiatus, with a few interesting developments on the way. But to get us started, this week we can revisit an old favourite.

As you may have seen, I had a piece in the Guardian yesterday, the latest volley in the ongoing campaign to drag some clarity out of the Crown Prosecution Service over the figures they describe – wrongly – as Violence Against Women and Girls. [Read more…]

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.