Is gender inherently oppressive?

In the founding principles of this blog, I wrote that I want to help build a world where gender is rarely a burden, never a prison and always a blessing. While that is undoubtedly easier said than done, it always struck me as a rather uncontroversial ambition. Who could disagree?

I appreciate that the debates around the nature of gender vis-a-vis sex, essentialism, binaries and spectrums are immensely difficult and opaque. Alex Gabriel ran an excellent blog this week spelling out why even the simplistic separations of male against female or biology against social construction are often inadequate or misleading. I don’t intend to delve into any of that, when others can explain it much better than I could.

One thing that has become apparent from recent ideological wrangles within feminism is that there is a significant bloc for whom the problem is not gender discrimination, gender inequality or gender-based oppression, but gender itself. It’s an argument that was laid out with unusual clarity by the feminist blogger Marina S this week. It seemed worth exploring just why I disagree with her so strongly. Her piece, entitled ‘What gender is and what gender isn’t‘ begins with a claim that had me screaming NO!

Gender is not the straightforward assertion that some people play with dolls while others play with trucks; it is the assertion that playing with dolls is an inferior pastime to playing deviant, and vice versa, and that this deviance must be punished with social sanction. In this way it creates a hierarchy between doll playing people and truck playing people.

She expands on the point with respect to sexual libido and career choices, but the premise is the same. Gender, she argues, is not a politically neutral identity or psychological and social trait that has been exploited to create arbitrary and artificial divisions.Gender is inherently hierarchical and oppressive, and is an assignation from which violence and economic exploitation inevitably flows. The goal of feminism, then, must not be just the elimination of gender inequality or gender oppression, but that abolition of gender itself.

The consequences of this thinking are profound. The most obvious victims are trans people whose very existence is of course denied by this logic. I don’t think it is a very subtle political model either. It would preclude hegemonic power dynamics that oppress men and boys in parallel to those oppressing women and girls. At a more trivial and superficial level, it doesn’t strike me as a particularly desirable utopia. I like living in a world of diversity and a society with a broad spectrum of gender, like a spectrum of sexuality, ideology, physicality, psychology and ideology feels healthier to me than a monoculture. I don’t want to live in a world of the gender equivalent of the Mao suit.

For all that, if Marina is right that gender is inherently and inevitably oppressive, it would be something that should profoundly influence our gender politics. So while I don’t want it to be true, could she be right?

At the heart of her blog is a long analogy to slavery. She is saying that just as skin colour was arbitrarily made into a delineator between slave-class and slave-owning class; so was binary biological sex made into a delineator between dominant class and subordinate class.

It seems to me that this analogy already contains a significant counter-argument. While she is entirely right to say that social divisions of oppression are arbitrary, they invariably have some sort of rationale. So while there might have been a brief period of Greek history where (literally) anyone could be a slave and anyone a slave-owner, for the vast bulk of human history, there have been other arbitrary divisions as to who could or could not be a slave – a conquered enemy, a criminal, a member of another tribe, another religion, another race. All those distinctions are arbitrary. All are (at least partially) socially constructed. All are reified and made real within the social and political realm. If our culture has shed the assumption that it is reasonable to make someone a slave if they were born on the other side of the river or practice a different type of prayer, could we not similarly shed the assumptions of hierarchical power we attach to gender?

The real meat of the argument comes later. I can only address it by quoting it at length. It begins here:

To say that the physical reality of women or of black individuals offers no humanly imaginable justification for their oppression is to make a clear and ethically cogent statement of fact.

(I agree)

The true roots of women’s oppression is located in a pursuit of power by small elites through the division of humanity into classes with opposed interests, one of which is constructed as inferior to the other.


(I agree)

 However, to take a further step into saying that this disconnect between the real and the purported cause of our oppression means that the fact that served as the purported cause does not exist, or is not meaningfully consistent, or is “a social construct” and therefore somehow “not really real”, is the most craven of attempts to smuggle good old fashioned misogyny by the back door of linguistically obtuse progressive theorising.


WOAH, no, stop right there!

Who is saying that physical sex is not really real? Is anyone making that argument? From my understanding of post-Butler, post-structural feminism, the argument is 1/ That the absolute binary of sex is not really real – the idea that all the world’s population can be easily and accurately divided (by anyone) into ‘male’ and ‘female’ is a myth, and 2/ That people are oppressed on the basis of gender and that many (not all) of the dynamics of patriarchal oppression relate to gender (the collective social), not sex (the individual physicality).

Even those intellectually dishonest racists who claim to “not see colour” don’t go as far as insisting that therefore differences in colour don’t exist. Race, nationality, religion, and other social constructs such as class and education, all profoundly shape gradients of power, domination and exploitation. So far, the only ‘social construct’ that is being theorised  out of existence by the Left rather than the Right is the oldest and largest (in terms of population size) of them all.


Is this true? I don’t see it. To take her analogy literally, I would aver that even those who claim not to see a binary of biological sex don’t go so far as insisting that therefore differences in sex don’t exist.

Sex exists. Gender – a hierarchy of the fully human and the merely animalistic, the properly intellectual and the merely emotional, the realised individual and the objectified Other – instrumentalises it. It does not depend on it. It is not directly – ontologically or otherwise – driven by it. But it is an inescapable fact of gender that its organising principle, its plausible cause of oppression, its fig leaf of necessity, is sex.

(I agree)

To theorise sex out of existence is to deny that sexism can exist. It is to refuse to accept that a class of human beings exist who have been economically exploited, raped, murdered, forcibly impregnated, exchanged as chattel, denied a history, a language and a right to their bodies since (literally) time immemorial. If we deny these people an identity based on the root of their oppression we are saying they, as a class, do not exist. Have no shared history. No conceivable political mission. No right to recourse. No community. No grievance. No hope.


Here’s my huge problem. I don’t think anyone is trying to theorise sex out of existence. However I do see people attempting to theorise gender out of existence, right here in front of me, and to theorise gender out of existence is to deny that gender oppression, including transphobia, can exist. It is to refuse to accept that trans people exist. It is to refuse to accept that a class of human beings exist who have been economically exploited, raped, murdered, forcibly surgically transformed, exchanged as chattel, denied a history, a language and a right to their bodies since (literally) time immemorial. And all the rest of it.

A more obscene act of woman hatred than to simply refuse to admit that women exist is hard to imagine. Tidier and cheaper than wholesale extermination, more economically self serving than foregoing the reproductive labour extracted from, the profound hatred of women qua women such an argument betrays is breath-taking. That it is an attitude espoused sometimes women themselves is no counter-argument, but a – relatively minor – entry in the ledger of the brutalising effects of patriarchal oppression.

I ask again, who is saying women do not exist? I’ve never seen it. I have, however, seen many people deny that trans people exist, who insist they are delusional, insane or sexual fetishists. Those hateful charges do not spring from thin air, but from an ideological well in which gender has been wished away and we are defined purely by the categorisation of our bodies.

After all this, I am still genuinely trying to understand why it should be that gender is inherently oppressive. I don’t see it. Marina argues well that to deny the existence of womanhood would be oppressive, but nobody is denying the existence of womanhood. At most, they are claiming that womanhood is not necessarily restricted to biological essentialism. Is womanhood somehow degraded or nullified by the inclusion of trans women? I’ve seen that argument made in its bigoted glory elsewhere, but I don’t think it is the case being made here and nor, I think, is it especially compelling.

For what it is worth, my hunch remains that gender, sex and sexuality continue to circle around each other like the rings of a gyroscope – related, independent, often overlapping, sometimes far removed. The only time any of them becomes oppressive in itself is when we insist they must all align.

Louise Mensch and the grotesque spectacle of white privilege

I have been trying to keep quiet on the ongoing schisms within feminism, and in particular the flare-ups between mainstream or ‘white’ feminism and those broadly grouped under the intersectional banner on social media. I’ve actually written and abandoned a couple of posts, realising they were going to help nobody and risked further hurting some who are already hurting.

Tonight a line was crossed and I can bite my tongue no longer.

On New Year’s Eve, Reni Eddo-Lodge and Caroline Criado-Perez appeared on BBC Women’s Hour as part of a review of the year. Along the way there was an exchange about intersectionality, transcribed here. Reni blogged her account of the experience. Caroline offered an apology. I declined to comment.

In the messy aftermath of the programme, Professor Liz Kelly, whom we might call a doyenne of British radical feminism, tweeted the most ill-advised hashtag I’ve ever seen in support of CCP – #reclaimintersectionalityin2014. I declined to comment.

Tonight, just as I sensed the passions and fury beginning to wane on both sides, Louise Mensch decided to march in with her hobnailed Christian Louboutin stilettos. In an astonishing series of tweets, the former Tory MP firstly accused Reni of bullying:

Reni was wrong and Caroline was wrong to give into her bullying. I wouldn’t have. #feminism

She then went on to describe Reni’s arguments as “rubbish” and “disgraceful” and accused her of trying to ‘silence’ other women.
I make it a personal policy these days to try not to march into debates between feminists, as it generally doesn’t help either side and it certainly doesn’t win me any friends. But this is not about feminism. This is about an embarrassingly privileged white person with wealth, fame, influence and platform on her side, stomping all over a young black person for having the temerity to offer ideas above her station.

The first point to make is that of all the people I know on the broad media left, Reni Eddo-Lodge is about the least prone to bullying and silencing others you could imagine. It is simply not her style. She does not smear others or troll opponents, she does not pick personal fights or call on people to check their privilege. Her blogs and tweets, though politically radical, are measured, studious and impeccably temperate. For what it is worth (and it is not especially relevant) they each contain more wisdom, insight and intelligence than Mensch could summon in a lifetime. I can only conclude that Mensch believes that simply by calling attention to racial dynamics within feminism, Reni is bullying and silencing… who? Well, racists, I guess. The alternative explanation is less flattering but perhaps more credible – that Mensch cannot be bothered distinguishing between one ‘intersectional’ woman and the next, and she was mixing up Reni Eddo-Lodge with some other woman. Do they all look the same to Louise?

We should bear in mind that Mensch has form on this. A few months ago, there was a polite exchange between Laurie Penny and Ava Vidal on Twitter. Laurie had advised ignoring a racist troll, Ava suggested that it wasn’t a white person’s place to decide how we should respond to racism. Laurie agreed, apologised and retracted. All would have been fine until Mensch decided this was some craven submission and wrote an article attacking intersectional feminism that was so ill-informed, ill-advised and ignorant it made your cortex bleed.

Many people are unsure how white privilege looks and is played out in modern society. This is it. This insistence that the racial dynamics structuring our society are the natural order of things and must be beyond challenge. This belief that any black person who does challenge existing systems is a disgraceful bully – however polite, educated and articulate she may be – and must be stamped on at the first opportunity. This is a grotesque spectacle of white privilege raised to an artform.

This week I’ve seen others within feminism ask why intersectional feminists and women of colour must be so mean, so intemperate, so rude. When we see how some in the white establishment treats those who are impeccably polite and mannered, I’m astonished they remain so restrained.

Zimmerman, Martin and patriarchal misandry: An intersectional analysis

The analysis of President Obama’s press conference on the George Zimmerman verdict focussed quite correctly upon America’s ongoing issues with race. I have no wish to once more revise the debate as to whether the verdict was reasonable or not (if you’re interested, I agreed with every word of Deborah Orr’s piece the other day) but there’s another aspect to the death of Trayvon Martin that has gone almost unnoticed.

When all the dust and bluster is cleared away, the inescapable likelihood is that Trayvon Martin would never have died had he been white.  However as Obama subtly acknowledged, there is another part to that equation. Look at his words carefully:

There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me. And there are very few African-American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars.

Not every reference in his address specified gender, but most did. Yes, black women are also subject to racism, to prejudice and suspicion, and I do not for a moment seek to downplay that. However it goes without saying that assumptions about race and ethnicity intersect and react with assumptions about gender to create very different outcomes.  It was not just that Trayvon Martin would be alive today if he were not African-American, he would probably still be alive today if he had not been male.

Black men in the US are the most vulnerable racial-gender group for almost every known health condition. in 2001 their life expectancy gap to Asian women was 21 years. In 1990 it was reported that black men in Harlem had a lower life expectancy than men in Bangladesh. There are similar statistics in education, in employment, in mental health and, most famously, in the criminal justice system as both prisoners and victims.

To understand this we need to appreciate not only the assumptions that are made about black people, but also the assumptions that are made about men. In both cases we are talking not only about the externally imposed prejudices, but also internalised markers of identity -what we ourselves believe to be the appropriate and acceptable ways for someone like us to behave, assumptions which are inevitably informed by and reactive to dominant cultural values, including racial and gendered stereotypes.

To understand why Trayvon Martin died, we need to understand how society perpetuates narratives about the criminality and violent tendencies of men. That helps to explain why Zimmerman made the assumptions he did about the 17 year old, and also perhaps why the pursuit became a deadly confrontation (without necessarily having to apportion blame on either side.)

This seems to me a grimly profound example of what feminists and critical race theorists call an intersectional relationship. When different strains of prejudice and oppression collide they are not just added to each other in a 1+1=2 formula. They react with each other like reagents in a test tube, to create a new and unique. I’ve argued before that contrary to some feminists’ claims, misandry is indeed a thing. So too is black misandry – the stereotyping, negative prejudices and oppression visited very specifically upon black men – which is different not just in degree but in quality from either half of the whole, in other words there are assumptions made about black men which do not routinely apply to either all black people or to all men (aspects of sexuality or probable gang membership, for example.)

One very useful insight of millennial feminism has been that different oppressive structures (eg sexism, racism, homophobia etc) are not independent, but mutually supportive. Patriarchy is strengthened by racism and so has a vested interest in preserving it. Homophobic structures are given protection by transphobic attitudes, and all the vice versas, all the different combinations. This is (broadly and simplistically) what is meant by kyriarchy. If one accepts this logic, it should be a contradiction in terms to be a transphobic feminist or a racist gay rights campaigner.

I do accept this. I believe that the systematic gender oppression of men is an essential element of the economic system, running alongside and parallel to the systematic gender oppression of women. Feminists say that patriarchy hurts men too. I’d go further – I believe patriarchy hates men too. Since my last couple of blogs on these issues I’ve cautiously started adopting the phrase patriarchal misandry. One Twitter feminist described this as “the single most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard” and given my general disagreements with the same person, I take that to be a validation. The phrase captures for me how psychological, emotional and physical traumas are imposed routinely or sporadically upon men purely as a result of their gender, in large part in order to nail them to their expected place in the social order. That place that includes being the oppressor of others, whether you want to or not, and it includes not just the gender hierarchies of society, but the racial, sexual, social and economic hierarchies of society.

Having said all that, I think anyone who is concerned about the welfare and wellbeing of men has to understand how sexism. racism, homophobia, ableism and every other form of oppression and imposition are all part of the same package. A men’s activist who remains indifferent to the mechanics of racism is as self-defeating as the transphobic feminist. A men’s activist who actively contributes to misogyny or homophobia is bolstering the very system he presumes to change.

The Trayvon Martin tragedy hinges on negative stereotypes, but in different contexts supposedly positive stereotypes can be equally harmful. I wrote recently about a men’s group co-ordinator from London called Kenny D’Cruz, who commissioned me to help tell his story of his struggles with his own mental health. Kenny came to the UK as a refugee from Uganda. Fleeing the most terrible dangers, he lived through months in transit camps and years of racism in a small, all-white Welsh town. But the oppression which may have done the greatest damage to his emotional wellbeing was when he was separated from his father at the airport in Uganda and told  “You are the head of the family now, you must look after your brother and mother.”

This expectation that a 9-year-old boy would be head of a household (which still included his mother, incidentally) is deeply patriarchal and sexist. It can also be deeply damaging, as it proved to be in Kenny’s case. It is simply unreasonable to expect a small child to take emotional responsibility for the wellbeing of a traumatised family, (however symbolic it may be, and in Kenny’s case it wasn’t). This is an extreme example of the social forces which, at root, can largely explain so many of the issues in health, wellbeing and social attainment for men today. The pressures which drive men to be big cheese on their block, in their gated community or in their merchant bank are to a large extent the same pressures that drive men to the prison gates and the psychiatric wards.

 

Report: Men’s experience of domestic violence in Scotland

I don’t normally do these quick signal-boosters, but I couldn’t let this one pass.

The charity Abused Men in Scotland have published a report, funded by the Scottish Government and written by Brian Dempsey of Dundee University law school, entitledMen’s experience of domestic abuse in Scotland: What we know and how we can know more.”  

It’s a superb piece of work that really gets a handle on the nuances and complexities of the issues. I’m particularly impressed by the way Dempsey leans without apology upon research and theory from across the ideological spectrum, applying valuable insights from feminist and non-feminist sources alike, while offering informed critique and criticism where required. Similarly, he is happy to jump between disciplines, describing Connell’s theories of masculinity one page and Dutton’s psychological theories of abusive personalities the next. He even applies intersectional thinking to the diverse experiences and lived identities of men which, I’ll confess, made me squee just a little.

Most importantly, it is practice- and policy-focused. Even if you don’t fancy reading the whole thing, please note the key recommendations, all of which could apply to the rest of the UK, and most of it elsewhere too.

  • Policy responses to, and service provision for, men who experience domestic abuse should be evidence-based. Appropriate methodologies can be developed for both academic and practitioner research.
  • The needs of children affected by abuse perpetrated against their fathers or other male carers must be addressed by central and local government and other service providers as a matter of the greatest urgency.
  • As a priority, resources should be devoted to capturing and respecting the “lived experience” and the “voice” of men who experience domestic abuse. Attention should be paid to the potentially different experiences, challenges and strengths of a diverse range of men (e.g. older men, BME men).
  • Research into, and policy responses to, the experiences of abused men should engage with insights from gender theory to explore how gender inequality and hegemonic masculinity negatively affect abused men. Insights from the work on gay, bisexual and trans men’s experience of domestic abuse should be developed.
  •  The role of the “public story” of domestic abuse in marginalising men who experience abuse should be considered in policy development and research. Anti-domestic abuse campaigns should include reference to, and images of, men. Representation of domestic abuse in newspapers, magazines and television should be inclusive of men’s experiences.
  •  Those working in the legal system (including solicitors, police, procurators and the judiciary) should identify and remove barriers to men seeking to access legal protection, whether civil or criminal.
  •  Service providers should address their responsibilities under the Equality Duty and/or the charity regulator’s equality requirements by following good practice demonstrated by, e.g., Citizen’s Advice Scotland and Victim Support Scotland. Where services wish to make themselves available to abused men and their children that should be made clear by way of overt statements and inclusive imagery and case studies.
  • Public sector service providers such as the NHS, local authorities and the police must, as a matter of urgency, review their compliance with their legal obligations under the Equality Duty and may draw on Children in Scotland’s project “Making the Gender Equality Duty Real for Children, Young People and their Fathers”.
  • Police Scotland, the NHS and others should build on already existing good practice to seek ways to ensure that abused men are able to disclose their experiences.
  • Where some men trivialise the abuse they experience as “just something that happens” that should not be used to justify lack of recognition and support.  Awareness raising campaigns should be developed that make clear that domestic abuse in all its forms is not something that will be tolerated or ignored in Scottish society.
  • Innovative service provision for both women and men who abuse their male partners should be developed.

 

Final note, just in case anyone needs reminding… AMIS (like the Mankind Initiative who do similar work elsewhere in the UK) always emphasise that providing services and policies to meet the needs of men should only ever happen in addition to services provided for women, never at the expense of women in need. Something I wholeheartedly endorse.

Oh ye cannae shove yer Gramsci off a bus

SERIES: FROM THE HETPAT ARCHIVES

NOTE: apologies for another repost – have spent a few days taking some deprived inner city kids* out into the Peak District to experience nature. Came back to find the blogs abuzz with Louise Mensch’s grumbles about intersectionality and privilege, so it seemed appropriate to give this one another airing. See also Laurie Penny’s response to LM.

(*my own) 

First published April 18th 2013

 

I’ve been thinking a lot about Antonio Gramsci lately. Hey, a guy’s got to have a hobby. If it makes you feel better, I’ve also been thinking about Britain’s Got Talent, where to find the last gold bricks on the Lego Harry Potter game and Beyonce’s nipple tassles, but will perhaps return to those another day.

In his Prison Notebooks, Gramsci analysed the history of the Risorgimento, the resurgence of the 19th Century which resulted in Italian unification under a capitalist model then, just a few decades later, the ascent of the very Fascists who had imprisoned him.  He noted that there was a strata of society he called organic intellectuals who performed a different function to the intelligentsia of academics and theorists. His example was the victorious faction within the Risorgimento called the Moderate Party, who served capitalism through a period of crisis and transition, by acting as its agents and deputies in organising the dominant hegemony – the prevailing cultural values that protect the economic status quo by shaping popular perceptions of what is “normal”, “inevitable” or “common sense” (the status quo) and what isn’t (any meaningful challenge to the status quo.)

These organic intellectuals were what we would now call progressives or liberals, speaking the rhetoric of concern and reform. They would wrongly think of themselves as being just like ordinary people. the representatives of the masses, even the voice of the masses, and this was crucial to their role. Genuinely believing they were doing the right thing, they would stifle and quash less privileged voices, preventing the emergence of alternative intellectual input from the ‘people-nation.’ (Gramsci famously believed that everyone is or can be an intellectual, whether one knows it or not.)

Organic intellectuals were genuinely well-intentioned, considering it an act of worthy charity to speak on behalf of the less eloquent and less privileged. They were not only intellectuals, they were political organisers, but drawn from a very narrow social demographic. They would be company bosses, rich farmers or entrepreneurs – “a real organic vanguard of the upper classes to which economically they belonged.”  Their influence was not directly upon the working classes, but upon their liberal admirers in the bourgeoisie, including teachers, writers and creators of popular culture who distribute the messages to the masses in turn.

Why the sudden interest in mid-period Marxist political theory Ally, I hear you ask? Well, back in the late 1920s, Gramsci could not have imagined a purer example of the organic intellectual class than the modern commentariat. In the early, optimistic days of the internet, I naively imagined that unfettered access to new media platforms would threaten the foundations of the organic intellectual. The new world of blogs and social media would shatter the portcullis keeping the hordes from the castle gates, new ideas, new voices would come flooding through. I underestimated the ingenuity of hegemony.  Rather than levelling the playing field between the elites and the masses, social media has simply provided whole new mechanisms for keeping the rabble in line.

This morning, Zoe Williams became the latest blue-chip liberal feminist to join the circling of wagons around the poor, oppressed national newspaper columnists and magazine editors. As you probably know, a powerful clique of intersectional feminists and trans activists have installed themselves as the playground bullies of Twitter, stealing the dinner money from delicate souls like Suzanne Moore, Helen Lewis and Caitlin Moran, who have nowhere to turn for support but their hundreds of thousands of followers, their national columns or their extensive circle of similarly prominent friends.

Apologies for the sarcasm, but the reality is that this is not a fair fight. Nor is it a debate about intersectionality, gender or privilege, because there has been very little engagement in those actual issues. What is happening is a concerted effort by the gatekeepers of feminist discourse to marginalise, pathologise and even intimidate into silence their own internal critics.

She who controls the past controls the future, as Orwell didn’t write, and for an example of how this works, see how the Moore-Burchill saga is now being written into history as having begun with Moore’s comments about Brazilian transsexuals, thus erasing her vicious and offensive tweets in response to being politely challenged. This entirely changes the story to one in which the columnist is the victim, rather than the instigator of the affair. Similarly, a passive-aggressive flounce from Twitter can generate waves of sympathy, notably from fellow /sister members of the elite Twitterati, who (understandably) sympathise with the experience of copping a timeline full of flak from angry detractors, and are quick to tweet about how sad it is that so-and-so has been bullied off Twitter to their vast followings.

This is not me taking sides. For what it is worth, I often disagree with the same groups of (mostly) young, angry intersectional feminists, and have had to devote days to fielding abuse, argument and insult when I’ve written something they don’t like. (I copped a sackful for my last blog, for starters.) It also looks to me like some of the anger is excessive and disproportionate or misguided at times. For example, I found the grief aimed at Helen Lewis over a recent New Statesman debate on feminism rather mystifying. That said, we’d be in a sorry state if there weren’t younger, more passionate voices hurling brickbats at the establishment in frustration at the world. If a few are ill-aimed, that is a small price to pay to avoid reactionary stasis.

It is more important to recognise when the anger and disagreement is coming from a place of good faith. It is perfectly reasonable to reject criticism, perfectly reasonable to block and ignore those who resort to personal abuse and insults, perfectly reasonable to argue back, and perfectly reasonable to quietly turn off Twitter for a break (indeed it is actively recommended.)  I don’t think it is reasonable to use one’s disproportionate profile and platforms to portray one’s critics as bullies or trolls, thereby absolving oneself of any obligation to engage with them.

Zoe Williams ends her article with something of a volte face, acknowledging the need for intersectional approaches and recognising reasons to challenge transphobia. But not before she has added to the celestial chorus of voices from above that have portrayed intersectional critics as a feral, irrational mob of bullies.

For all the talk of intersectionality, privilege, oppression and assorted other post-structural jargon, I can’t help feeling there are more established ways of understanding the dynamics at play. Organic intellectuals have a collective, mutual interest in maintaining their own stranglehold over culture, discourse and language, which sustains their position near the top of the status pyramid.  The collective outrage from much of the liberal-left over recent twitterstorms is, I think, not really about angry disagreement with the points being made and not really about personal abuse and insult. It mostly strikes me as a media elite showing collective affront at being challenged on their inalienable right to set the terms and limits of debate and discourse. What I find most discomfiting in all of this is the tendency of the commentariat to rush to each others’ defence on social media or in their national newspaper columns. If that is not the behaviour of a privileged elite closing ranks, it sure as hell looks like it.

Gramsci, smart old cookie that he was, anticipated all of this and even provided a solution for those who would presume to represent the downtrodden, the oppressed and the marginalised.

“If the relations between intellectuals and the people-nation, between leaders and led, is the result of an organic participation in which feelings and passion become understanding and thence knowledge… then and only then is the relation one of representation.”

Twitter, Facebook, online commenting and blogs have offered us an unprecedented opportunities for organic participation, in which feelings and passion can become understanding. When one withdraws from engagement, when one marginalises and diminishes one’s critics, and when one loses faith in the honesty of critics on our own side, then one loses the right to represent those critics.

That’s a hell of a price to pay for a placid timeline.

 

Note: Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks are available as a free PDF. So too is Roger Simon’s excellent reader Gramsci’s Political Thought

Note on the title, for anyone not Scottish and of a certain age. I grew up listening tothis song, and have been waiting for an opportunity to use this joke for about 20 years)

 

 

Intersectionality? It’s been a privilege

SERIES: FROM THE HETPAT ARCHIVES

[Note:  Have done a slight edit on this one to clarify a couple of points and incorporate some useful feedback] 

First published October 25th 2012

It’s fair to say that I’ve found the reviews, critiques and comment pieces inspired by Hanna Rosin’s End of Men rather more thought provoking and educational than the book itself.

One of the first pieces to come out was in The Atlantic, where Chloe Angyal drew comparisons between Rosin’s argument and the lives portrayed in the much-hyped HBO series Girls.

“the anecdotal data, the experiential accounts of what it’s like to be a young American woman in this particular cultural moment where women are on top and men are “ending,” suggests that even if the statistics say that they’re winning, young women feel like losers. This year’s critically acclaimed new HBO series Girls, created by and starring Lena Dunham, takes that experience of floundering and lays it out for all to see. Dunham’s Hannah and her friends, despite their privilege, don’t feel like they’re running the world.”

I must confess this made me smile. It inadvertently (I presume) illuminates the irony at the very heart of the notion of privilege. One’s own privilege is, according to the classic metaphor, an invisible knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks – invisible not to others but to ourselves. Privilege doesn’t feel like privilege, it just feels like a natural state of being, the norm.

I’ve already explained my reasons for rejecting the theory of the End of Men, and I don’t for a moment believe that women are now the dominant or privileged gender. But it is worth pointing out that if they were, according to feminism or critical theory, this is exactly how it should feel. The girls in Girlsdon’t feel like they’re running the world but, get this, nor do the vast majority of men. I believe much of the anger directed towards feminism from the angry dudes of the internet boils down to the disconnect between a narrative that tells men they are privileged, and the lives being lived by those guys, which feels largely powerless. They don’t feel privileged, they feel like losers, they’re floundering, they don’t feel like they’re running the world. Hey ho.

In the weeks since Rosin’s book was released, a quite almighty stramash has erupted within feminist circles. You can’t have missed it, and I won’t reiterate the arguments here, but it began with Caitlin Moran and her statement that she ‘couldn’t give a shit’ about the all-white line-up of the cast of Girls. It has since spiralled into an angry, sprawling debate that orbits around issues of privilege and intersectionality.

Of the near-endless articles and blogs thrown up by the debate, the one I liked best was by Stavvers. She offers an analogy for the concept of intersectionality that is as good as anything I’ve read on the topic by a feminist.

“one can think about a four-way junction (or, as the Americans call it, an intersection). One road is not being male. Another road is not being white. Another road is not being able-bodied. The last road is not being cis. Now, if you stand in the middle of any one of these roads, you’re going to be dodging traffic. But if you stand right in the middle of the junction, you have cars coming at you from four ways, and you’re going to have to do a fuckload more dodging than you would have if you were just in one road.

I don’t know if that’s why it’s called intersectionality, but if not, it should be.”

I love the vividness of this analogy, but it doesn’t quite fit with how I understand society. I’d like to offer a slight twist that perhaps illustrates a key difference between my gender politics and those of many feminists.

Stavvers describes her roads in negative terms (not being male, not being white etc) whereas the analogy works better for me if we think in terms of who we are, rather than who we are not. That is all I know.

When people compile privilege checklists they often include many negatives – bad things that don’t happen to you because of who you are. I reject this. Not being harassed on the street is not a privilege enjoyed by anyone but is a fundamental right that should be enjoyed by everyone. Occasionally there are actual independent advantages to being white, straight, male etc, but they are rare. However there is a real privilege is not even having to be aware of the nature of the traffic on someone else’s road.

I’m a white, straight , cisgendered, middle-class, able-bodied male. I cannot accurately know what it feels like to be anything else, but I know perfectly well how all those things do or do not impact upon my life.  I’d prefer to think of Stavvers’s traffic as all the various pieces of shit, large and small, that life throws our way simply for being who we are. If you’re a black, lesbian, disabled woman, yes, that shit is coming hurtling at you from all sides and however hard you try to avoid it, some of that shit is going to mess you up.

Some of the traffic is driven by individual actions of racists, misogynists or individuals who otherwise oppress others but most of it is institutional and necessary to the socioeconomic system.

I know what it is like to be a pedestrian on the highway marked ‘White.’ It’s a breeze. The amount of shit-traffic heading my way down that road is all but zero. I could lay out a sleeping bag across the white lines in October, set my alarm clock for Spring and lie down to hibernate, safe in the knowledge that not one single car, truck or bus will squish my toes. Being white is a piece of piss. The same goes for the road marked “straight.” The same goes for being middle-class, able-bodied and cisgendered. All those things are just big old lonesome highways without so much as a trundling tractor to disturb the bliss. I should know, I’ve been walking those roads for 45 years.

Crucially, however, this isn’t exactly how it feels to be male. Not to me, and not to many other men either. Standing in the middle of the road marked ‘Male’, I have to dodge loads of traffic. Whizzing by on one side are the gender expectations, the demands to be a stoical, self-sacrificial breadwinner and provider, a sexual conqueror, all that old, stubborn heteronormative and patriarchal bollocks. Whooshing past on the other are the prejudices and assumptions about male aggression or violence, laziness, criminality, domestic and parental incompetence and all the rest. All around are the institutional shit-trucks sent by legal structures, education policies, health services, military traditions and more. Is the road marked ‘male’ busier and more difficult to traverse than the road marked ‘female’? No, I don’t believe it is, but it doesn’t need to be, this is not a competition.  If you’re a woman and/or a feminist and you’re reading this and sneering, thinking “that stuff doesn’t sound too difficult to me, what’s your problem?” then congratulations – you’ve just entered the precise, privileged mind-set of every angry anti-feminist MRA dude on the internet. Of course you don’t see it – it’s not your road.

Personally, all that male shit-traffic is pretty easy for me to dodge. I’m not at a busy junction. I don’t have to worry about being caught on the blindside by a juggernaut hurtling down the White Road or the Straight Road, so I’ve mostly found it pretty easy to sidestep all that shit on the Male Highway. But if you’re a boy from a poor background in a poor neighbourhood at a poor school, you’re likely to find one vehicle marked “you’re stupid” racing at you in one direction while another marked “you’re lazy” arrives from the other, and bang, the result is often academic underachievement and a NEET future. If you’re a working class black lad then you’ve got one shit-truck marked “you’re trouble” and another marked “you’re a criminal” and another marked “you’re violent” and bang, unless you’re lucky you are another stop and search statistic or another reluctant conscript into gang culture.

Understanding intersectionality in those terms is very useful for me. It’s a great example of how we can apply feminist thinking to the male experience and male-specific problems. It doesn’t require one to sign up to either a feminist or an anti-feminist agenda and could fit comfortably with either. It gives me a sense of perspective on my own (fairly fortunate) place in society, why the world looks like it does to me, and crucially, why it might look entirely different to others who stand on a different intersection.

So it is useful in understanding where we are, but I think it is also useful in terms of where we would like to be. At a political level, we can ask what it is about our society that is sending so fucking much shit-traffic down some of the different roads – the disabled road, the  black road, the Muslim road, the women’s road and, yes, the men’s road too. We can not only ask how we can reorganise society so there is less shit on anyone’s road, we can also constantly ask ourselves whether our behaviour, our deeds or our words and language are sending a bit more unnecessary shit-traffic down someone else’s highway.

As my final word on Rosin’s The End of Men, I’d observe that the book does not describe an improving world. It describes a world where there is more shit-traffic than ever on women’s roads, and more shit-traffic than ever on men’s roads. When I write that the transformation of the workplace and domestic realm is not a victory for feminism but a victory for capitalism, this is precisely what I mean.  If we aspire to a better society, socially and economically, for men and women alike, then counting the vehicles on the various highways of shit might be a very good place to start.