From street harassment to Clarkson: The first rule of causing offence

During my recent blogging hiatus, a couple of teacup-bound tempests blew up in which I detected a common theme. It’s a trend that can also be spotted in all sorts of debates around offensive or hateful language and behaviour, in many contexts.

First, the Guardian became embroiled in one of its periodic ding-dongs about everyday sexism and misogynistic street harassment. It began with a video which set out to turn the tables on catcalling and sexual harassment which, in my view at least, failed on every level – in its concept, its delivery and the message it conveyed. It then sparked a couple of follow-up blogs, culminating in a downright weird piece on Comment is Free by a chap called David Foster who seemed to believe that discouraging men from making unwanted and threatening sexual advances to strange women in the street would lead to the human race dying out. Or something.

In an apparently unrelated news, Jeremy Clarkson hit the headlines across the UK media after audio footage emerged of him joshing around hilariously with the hideously racist old children’s rhyme Eenie Meenie Minie Mo. In the ensuing farrago, Marina Hyde stuck out her (perhaps brass) neck and declared herself rather bored by the ritualised ding-dong between left and right over the casual, soft racism of Clarkson and his ilk, and suggested that rising to the bait merely entrenched the debate. This in turn provoked Musa Okwonga to pen one of the most brilliant blogs I’ve read this year: a weary, funny, dignified cry which nonetheless packed a punch like a handful of ballbearings in a silk stocking.

I believe in freedom of speech as a powerful guiding (if not quite absolute) political principle. I don’t think people should be censored or punished by the state for what they say or write, unless their words present a very clear and immediate danger to others. Where we create our own spaces (blogs, websites, homes, social networks, whatever) we can write our own rules and expect others to stick to them, but in shared common spaces, people should be free to cause offence.

I don’t agree with imprisoning drunken idiots who spout foul racism on public transport or who send offensive tweets to me or anyone else on the internet. I do not think it should be a criminal offence to proposition someone sexually on the street. The corollary to that – the inescapable quid pro quo – is that we all must take responsibility for our words and the impact they have on others. I think there is a rule of free human interaction which far too many people fail to grasp, and it goes like this:

None of us gets to decide how another person reacts to what we say or do.

The debates on sexual harassment sparked hundreds, if not thousands of comments that basically boiled down to (usually) men telling (mostly) women that they should be flattered if told A,B or C, that they should not be threatened or offended by behaviours X,Y or Z. The debates about Clarkson were spilling over with (usually) white people telling (mostly) black people that they should relax about racist language, it’s just a word, it doesn’t mean anything, or if Snoop Dogg says it, why shouldn’t I?

Fail. Fail, fail, fail, fail, fail.

I offend people, on a fairly regular basis, I know I do. I cannot write about the topics I cover without offending people from time to time with my ideas or my language. I swear a lot, including calling people cunts (note to US-based readers, where I grew up we pretty much use that word as a punctuation mark.)

As a citizen of a nominally free society, I assert and proclaim my right to offend you, and I champion and defend your right to offend me. However neither of us has the right to tell the other not to be offended.

It seems to me that if someone says “I was offended by that” there are several perfectly legitimate responses, including:

1. Oh, did it? I’m sorry, that wasn’t my intention.

2. Good. I fully intended to offend you.

3. Oh did it? So fucking what?

The two responses which I find extremely problematic are:

1. No it didn’t

2. You shouldn’t be offended by that.

What is the difference between the first set and the second set? It is all about ownership and control of another person. When I somehow impinge upon another person’s consciousness, I take the chance that he or she may be happy about that or unhappy about it, may react well or react badly.

If I strike up a conversation with a stranger at a bus stop I might generate a pleasant social interaction for us both, or I might totally freak the other person out. Either response is entirely legitimate. If I pass a woman in the street and say “Please don’t take this the wrong way, but I think you have the most beautiful eyes I have ever seen” then she might be walking on air all day or she might be posting online to Everyday Sexism within the hour. Either reaction is entirely legitimate. If I use the word ‘nigger’ or ‘Paki’ in public or print, someone might hear me and think I’m cheekily poking one in the eye of political correctness or that I’m a nasty racist. Either assumption is theirs to make.

In all these examples, the other person might misunderstand my intentions, but that was the risk I took. It is crucial to understand that ‘I didn’t intend to offend you’ does not automatically lead to ‘you must therefore not be offended’ any more than ‘I didn’t intend to kill you’ does not automatically lead to ‘you must not be dead.

When I talk about the concept of privilege, I’m generally referring to a psychological process, a series of cognitions that are conditioned by one’s experience of status in the world. I think we see it really clearly here. There are few greater markers of a privileged attitude than believing one has the right to tell another how to react emotionally, how to think, how to feel.

We all have the right to be offensive. We also have the right to be offended.

Men, memes and misogyny

Last week the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland made one of his periodic forays into gender politics, sparked by the Liberal Democrats’ saga of sleaze, the latest Twitterstorms and a tacky plastic surgery game app.

I fully endorse the main message of the piece, that men should actively involve themselves in challenging and combatting misogyny and gender oppression. Beneath that I had several disagreements. I despise the ‘man-up’ cliche on which he concludes, especially when applied to the type of chivalrous protector role suggested here. This type of benevolent sexism seems to me very much part of the problem, not the solution. His suggestion that the forthcoming Southbank conference Being A Man should focus on what men can do to help women merely amplifies that.

At the heart of the piece is a section on the part played by women in propagating misogyny.

Some would seize on this evidence gleefully, to say women are to blame for sexism along with everything else routinely laid at their door. That’s adamantly not my point here. Rather, just as ethnic minorities can internalise the very worst things said about them over many centuries, so some women have imbibed so much misogyny, it’s eventually got under their skin and found a home there.

Viewed like this, the battle for equality no longer resembles the war between men and women of old. But there is a war going on. It’s a war against femaleness itself – one that is, to stress again, prosecuted chiefly by men, but all too often with the collaboration of women.

The notion of a ‘war against femaleness’ seems confused to me. Is he talking about the social construction of traditional female gender? If so, I’d say the opposite is happening – if there is a war here it is actually being waged on deviations from subordinate, compliant, superficial femininity. Or does he mean there is a war against women? That’s a familiar claim and one which I believe (just like the same claim about men) founders on its own hyperbole, to the extent that it becomes neither instructive nor functional.

What I really find intriguing in this section though is the way in which Jonathan seems to imply that misogyny is “imbibed” and expressed in ways that are fundamentally different for men and women. He’s not alone in this, a lot of feminist and pro-feminist writing makes the same assumption, that misogyny is something that is fundamentally owned by men, created by men, somehow essential to men, and when women join in it is as tourists, cheerleaders or bandwagon jumpers, rather than central co-instigators and participants.

I’m not convinced this is true. it makes more sense to me to think of men’s misogyny in the same way that Jonathan here describes women’s misogyny – that men have imbibed so much misogyny it’s eventually got under their skin and found a home there.

While people of different genders are, of course, differently socialised, they are not raised on Mars and Venus. We all swim in the same ideological waters, breathe the same culture, absorb the same messages. Boys (in western liberal societies) are not raised with specific instructions to hate or fear women, rather both boys and girls are raised with almost identical messages about socially acceptable gender roles, about socially acceptable (and gender-specific) sexual behaviour, how nice girls behave, what it is to be a real man. Consequently boys too often grow into men that despise women who fail to meet exacting beauty standards, but so too do women. Women who depart from the script of demure, modest and restrained sexuality will be reviled as sluts or slags by women and men alike.

In that sense, misogyny is not something men do to women with an occasional female collaborators. It is an ambient dynamic in society, a collection of attitudes, beliefs and values that are passed down through generations and shared, gradually evolving to survive and thrive in new environments, whether changing workplaces and cultural loci or the new reality online. In other words, misogyny can be understood as a rather classic example of meme theory.

I appreciate that at this point some readers will be spluttering that I’m trying to get men off the hook for the oppression of women. With respect, I don’t think I am. What I’m saying is that challenging misogyny and all forms of gender or other oppression will need to be a shared project.

I also consider this a rather more optimistic way of considering the issue. Analyses which describe misogyny as being somehow inherent or even essential to men or masculinity strike me as being ultimately disempowering. I refuse to accept that gendered hatred and oppression (of any flavour) is inevitable or invariable. If we consider misogynistic attitudes and values to be broadly memetic, then we accept that we can change our society in such a way that they will either wither and die or evolve beyond all recognition. I consider that a rather comforting thought.

Where’s the power? Some thoughts on Emer O’Toole’s feminist flowchart

I turned my back on the Guardian’s Comment is Free page for about five minutes on Thursday afternoon, and when I turned back around there was a piece by Emer O’Toole on men and feminism that had already reaped around 1300 comments.

I clicked, expecting some provocative outrage above the line and a savage feeding-frenzy below. It wasn’t really the case. The comments, by the standard of CIF feminism, included an unusually high proportion of interesting and astute points and constructive exchanges. The article itself centred on a flowchart designed to test whether or not a man (although I see no reason why it should be restricted to men) can be classified as a feminist or not.

Copyright  Emer O'Toole / The Guardian

Copyright Emer O’Toole / The Guardian

Although she’s too polite to say so, the post is really a demolition of the facile yet almost ubiquitous trope that goes “Do you believe men and women should be equal? Congratulations, you’re a feminist.” A lot of the controversy and dispute in the comments spiralled around a couple of points that I have made myself in the past and broadly agree with. The first is that feminism is (and should be) a woman’s movement, led by women, for women and with women’s rights, welfare and issues at its heart. Feminism is not a broader movement for social justice and equality of all sorts (including issues which primarily affects men). That’s not to say feminism cannot or should not sit alongside other social justice movements (including those which do focus on men) – simply that it is not feminism’s job.

The second point of agreement is that whether or not someone should be described as a feminist is not necessarily that big a deal.

You don’t have to be a feminist. There are plenty of ways to be awesome without working towards equal rights for women. For example, if you answered “Who do you think is more disadvantaged by gender inequality?” with “Women, but I’m still more interested in talking about men,” that’s fine.

Leaving aside the use of the phrase “be awesome” (cringe), and the fact that Emer goes on to pick out the Good Men Project as an example of said awesomeness (GMP and I have history) – I think this is pretty much spot on. There is no obligation to be feminist, and not being so doesn’t necessarily make you personally or politically bad.

It would be an interesting experiment to stop 100 random women in the street and take them through the flowchart. My guess is it would go a long way to answering the question which so often vexes mainstream liberal feminism, as to why a large majority of women choose not to identify as feminists.

That said, I do have a few issues with the analysis here. The first is the point of identification. This kind of reified, mechanistic approach removes any real personal choice from the question of whether or not someone is a feminist. It becomes a matter of pathological diagnosis instead (like “congratulations! You have syphilis!”) To me this misses one of the most important elements to the equation. I know several people who have made a conscious and conscientious decision to opt out of the label ‘feminism’ out of frustration, disgust or despair at the way the feminist mainstream deals with issues of concern to them – for example, white privilege and racism; sex worker rights or male victims of domestic and sexual abuse. It seems egregious to assume the authority to impose the label on people who may not wish to accept it, and arrogant to assume that everyone would want to be so defined.

My other theoretical issue with the post is that it positions feminism purely around matters of equality. As one persistent commenter rightly pointed out repeatedly below the line, the assumptions underpinning the question would be rejected out of hand by bell hooks, for starters, who would surely react by asking “equal with which men?”

Emer insists that to quibble over definitions of equality is enough to send you straight to the ‘Not a feminist’ box. Really? Meanwhile, I can’t help thinking of the kind of religious traditionalist who says things like “I believe Our Lord made men and women equal, which is why he decided that men should have the important job of going outside and earning money while women should have the equally important job of staying home, raising her family and keeping herself and her home all clean and purdey.” Is that a feminist belief?

As most feminists identified decades ago, the central issue is not about simple equality, but about personal, political and economic power and their distribution at the micro and macro levels. That is precisely why feminism began talking less about equal rights for women, and more about patriarchy. They are not the same issues.

I suppose we could start the flowchart with the question “Do you wish to challenge social, cultural and political structures which curtail and prescribe gender roles which systematically entrench disproportionate power relations between men and women within the context of a hegemonic capitalist system that is sustained by interlinked networks of oppression?” but I accept you would struggle to squeeze it into a little box on a flowchart.

Empathy and the New Gender Wars

SERIES: FROM THE HETPAT ARCHIVES

(Note: Over my first few weeks at Freethought Blogs, I shall be reposting some pieces from the archives at my previous home, alternated with new posts. Once we all start to get bored with me recycling old material, I’ll transfer the entire archive for you to peruse at your leisure. I’ll begin  with the first blog I ever wrote for Heteronormative Patriarchy For Men.)

First published June 2012

 

In the spring of 1979, the long battle for social justice and equality in the UK entered a dramatic new era. In electing Margaret Hilda Thatcher as Prime Minister, the British people served notice that gender was no longer an insurmountable barrier to attaining even the highest office. The ultimate glass ceiling had been breached and shattered, and for twelve long years the shards would rain painfully down on the poor, the working class and the vulnerable, leaving deep wounds which bleed to this day in our inner cities and the former industrial heartlands of Britain.

At the precise same time, five hundred miles from Downing Street, I was watching at close quarters as a very different battle for gender justice raged. I was a first year pupil at a large state school in the East of Scotland, a mixed-sex comprehensive which merely aspired to the standard of bog. As was typical of the time, each week our class was divided for a couple of hours. The girls would learn home economics (a euphemism for cookery and sewing) while the boys would take technical studies – metalwork, woodwork and technical drawing. I was ham-fisted and uninterested in the subject, then as now, and my lacklustre efforts to shape some dowelling rods into a wobbly mug rack must have been as frustrating and pointless for my unfortunate teachers as they were for me.  More than once I’d pondered whether it might be more useful for me to learn how to boil an egg

In my form class were a couple of pupils, aged 12 or 13, who took exception to the school rules. Aileen and Helen were very clever and quietly assertive. One day they decided that their education might be better served by the rudiments of engineering than the need to whip up a sponge cake or let down a petticoat hem. They lined up for a battle for equality, flanked by supportive parents and, crucially, the head of the technical department. Across those trenches were the head of home economics – an elderly, fearsome traditionalist called Miss Dyer, the headmaster and school council.

Aileen and Helen’s claim for gender rights went all the way to the local authority, and they won. That September they joined the boys in the workshops, the first two girls ever to study technical subjects at Perth High. They were not only bright and gifted with their hands, but of course they were highly motivated and, almost inevitably, they finished the year at the top of the class by some distance. Their mug racks probably still stand to this day, while I never did master a soft boiled egg. A year later, the rules changed and both boys and girls were finally provided with a genuinely comprehensive education.

I don’t think anyone in my class objected to or resented the girls’ victory. To me, and I think the vast majority of my peers, their demands were palpably, unarguably just and fair. As a female industrial chemist was taking charge of the country, how could it possibly be right that girls were excluded from any subject?

My generation was born and raised with women’s liberation in the air. Those crusty old men who resisted the tide were mocked and branded male chauvinist pigs. From an early age our teachers and, in many cases, our parents impressed upon us a certainty that girls could do anything boys can do – if not always vice versa. The battle fought by two young girls in my own class was being replicated in other schools, workplaces and households throughout the country and the developed world. Legislation for equal pay and equal opportunities was in place and beginning to take chunk after chunk out of historic inequalities. If anything seemed strange to me, it was not that women were demanding and achieving equal rights, it was that those rights had ever been denied in the first place.

Jumping forward about 30 years, I find myself writing about the trenches of a new gender war. It is for the most part a war of words not bullets. Others have used a similar metaphor to allege or describe the War Against Women or the War Against Boys, detailing the physical, political and social impacts of our gender disordered society, I do not subscribe to either case. Instead, the war I describe is the frontline of the debate, the angry, vitriolic volleys of argument, abuse and insults that provide the mood music to all discussion of men’s and women’s issues online.

Of course like all media, the internet thrives on conflict. Arguments about religion, politics, ethnicity or the environment can also spark impassioned dispute and some nasty name-calling, but gender debates stand out for the sheer animosity. The threads and blogs are not just politically charged; they are wildly emotional and deeply personal.

Some see this as the sparks from the dying embers of a patriarchal era, the last gasps of male chauvinism. I believe the phenomenon is new, and different. Most of the people involved seemed to be younger than me, born and raised in the era of equal rights. Susan Faludi’s epic feminist tome Backlash detailed the reactionary forces of the capitalist establishment which strive to keep women in their place, from the media to academia to big business. Those forces still exist, as a quick glance at the Daily Mail’s Sidebar of Shame will reveal, but these new voices are different. They are not, for the most part, the custodians of power and privilege stomping on uppity egalitarian rebels.

The cry from that side of these trenches is more a chorus of despair from (mostly) young men who feel disempowered, maligned and yes, perhaps, emasculated by the prevailing analysis of gender issues. On the other side are feminists who mostly find it laughable that any man could complain about his place in the gender pecking order when it is still overwhelmingly men who run our institutions, our corporations and our governments. At the salient peak of feminism, we have women using their expensive private schooling, Oxbridge degrees, national newspaper columns and Westminster lobby passes to decry the privilege of men, be they billionaire bankers or homeless street-drinkers.

It seems to me that something is often absent from these debates on both sides, and that is a willingness to view the battlefield from the other side. The hostile, accusatory tone of gender debates has led to many positions becoming defensive. The online wars become ever more entrenched. If we are to find a path out of the trenches, it will be on a map drawn with compassion and empathy.

I’m not the first to make this point, and if I am not standing on the shoulders of giants here, I’m at least treading on the toes of a few fellow travellers. Nonetheless I expect and indeed welcome plenty of disagreement with my positions from men and women, feminists and men’s rights activists alike. I’m not hoping or even attempting to fix the men’s movement, far less fix feminism. If readers take anything from this blog, I hope it is that amid the blogosphere’s myriad commands to check our privilege and check our facts, we make occasional effort to check our empathy too.

Welcome to Global Inc. Here is your induction pack

Imagine for a moment that you join a large multinational company, which we shall call Global Inc. Nobody is quite sure who owns the company, indeed no individual really does own it. Ownership and profits are spread across disparate stock markets, investment funds, banks, even governments.

You are recruited to a specific department. It might be the board of directors or senior management team. It might be IT support, the manufacturing production line, cleaning or maintenance. On your first day you are handed your induction pack. This contains all the strict rules and regulations of the company along with some softer policies, codes of practice, descriptions of your entitlements and even helpful tips on how to use the canteen. Much of it is devoted to your specific job description, what you will be expected to do in your role. Your first week is spent learning every page in the binder.

Then, when you settle into your department, you quickly learn that your new team also has its own unique, unwritten culture and ways of doing things. It is dynamic, evolving, it doesn’t quite match the descriptions in the binder. But so long as the department is doing well enough, meeting its targets and making profits, the hierarchy at Global Inc doesn’t really mind too much, and doesn’t interfere.

Members of some departments have much more power, influence and prestige than others, and of course some are paid much better than others. The power relationships between departments don’t need to be spelled out, they are universally understood. Someone in the IT department can insist that a cleaner scrubs the bathroom window, but the cleaners can’t suddenly demand some SQL subscript code in return.  Nowhere does it say that IT outranks sanitation, but everyone understands. However, woe betide the SQL programmer who starts scrubbing the office floor, s/he will find him/herself angrily berated by a cleaner for overstepping accepted lines of demarcation  – and probably using the wrong detergent or missing a bit.

Within each department there are one or two eccentric individuals. There’s old Chunders Charlie who works in his underpants at his desk every day and Mystic Mary who dangles feathery dreamcatchers over the kettle in the kitchen. Again, so long as Charlie and Mary are hitting their targets and making profits, they’re allowed to get on with it. However occasionally there will be an employee who deviates so far from the departmental culture that it starts to interfere with the departmental culture, causing upheaval, stress and damaging attainment. Let’s call him Awkward Ollie. When Ollie’s corrosive idiosyncrasies first emerge, the rest of the department react with social disapproval, gossiping and sniping behind his back, using group psychology to try to enforce conformity. If that doesn’t work Ollie will soon find himself being yelled at, bullied, socially ostracised and eventually booted out of the department. The easiest thing for Ollie to do is to fall into line with the demands of his department, and usually he will.

So each individual has a vested interest in maintaining their own role within their department. Each department has a vested interest in protecting its own position within the company and maintaining mutually supportive (if unequal) relationships with other departments with which they network and interact.

I said Global Inc. was a large company. I didn’t say quite how large. It has thousands of departments within it, perhaps millions. In fact Global Inc. employs seven billion people – every single one of us. The binder full of policies and procedures is written into laws, into religious books and moral codes, into the myriad threads of social systems and culture that teach us how we are meant to behave if we are born male or female, black or white, British or Bangladeshi or any combination. The induction period happens not over a week, but across the early years of our childhood and beyond.

The company is clever enough to evolve constantly, to incorporate the changing cultures within each department. Until recently, in much of the world (and still in many parts of the world), someone deviating from the strict policy on heterosexuality would be considered Awkward Ollie and be punished. But increasingly, Global Inc has been able to create entire new departments with their own culture, economy (“the pink pound” as we call it in the UK) and latterly the ultimate symbol of conformity to the company – licensed marriage. Even active counter-cultures can be co-opted. As the Clash once sang: “haha, ain’t it funny – turning rebellion into money.” Naomi Klein’s brilliant anti-capitalist tracts are published by Rupert Murdoch, remember.

Occasionally people can move from one department to another. A mixed-heritage Euro-Kenyan boy, born in relative poverty in Hawaii, can rise to become chairman of the board. However the system has evolved in such a way that such cases will always be exceptions, not the norm. Indeed, such an exception acts as a pressure valve to prevent the whole edifice exploding. “If one person can do it, anyone can do it” says one page in the binder, and it may be true, but that is entirely different to saying “if one person can do it, everyone can do it.”

***

I have concocted this grand and rather clumsy analogy to illustrate a key point of my political views, which underpins everything I write on this blog and elsewhere. Socialised gender roles are not there by accident. They are functional. Oppressive acts of sexism, misogyny, misandry, racism, homophobia, transphobia, class prejudice and the rest do not arise from individual weakness or venality but because we have all been induced to retain and reinforce them as essential components of our role within the company. Necessary social progress in emancipation, liberation and human rights will be indulged by Global Inc when it can be turned to the company’s advantage – the welcoming of women into the professions, for example – and fiercely resisted when it challenges the bottom line, such as union rights or decent parental leave entitlements.

It is simplistic nonsense to think of patriarchy, in particular, as a system in which men oppress women by choice and for our own interests. Patriarchy often requires men to do horrible things to ourselves, to each other and to women. Patriarchy imposes dominant roles on men whether we want them or not, and punishes us when we fail to fulfil them adequately.  It’s all there in the job description. It is equally simplistic nonsense to imagine that male suffering (on the battlefield and in homelessness, suicide rates, alienation and loneliness) is a consequence of women’s behaviour, choices or social liberation.

Perhaps one day Global Inc. will collapse under the weight of its own internal strains. There may be a few things we can do to help hasten that day, if we are so inclined, but I’ll agree it is a dauntingly big challenge, and it is easier to criticise the company we have than agree on what we would like in its place.

What we can do, every one of us, is work on the culture of our own immediate departments, think of how our own behaviour is influencing or indeed oppressing others, and remember that ultimately the company is made up of innumerable smaller units, each of which can be changed. Above all, we can consider what exactly is in the binders that we hand on to the next generation of new employees and what we can do to improve them.

This blog is my own small contribution to making that happen.