A quick defence of nuance

(Note: Glosswitch has made her blog private, at least for now. No reason to believe it had anything to do with this, but for the meantime the Google cache of the blog this responds to is here)

Dear Glosswitch

I’m a bit puzzled by the misrepresentation here. I normally let these things wash over me, but about six people have now tweeted me demanding that I go read you, and it seems to make more sense to spell out my position..

I wholeheartedly agree with the first half of your post. However you then go on to say:

Today has seen plenty of men desperate to claim that misogyny has nothing to do with misogyny because hey, that’s way too simple, ladies!

You then go on on to quote me, and no one else, so I presume it is me you are talking about. But anyone who reads my post will see that right at the top, after taking a moment to remember the victims the first point I make is this:

[Mental illness] was never an adequate explanation. Mental illness alone very, very rarely drives people to kill. Hate, bitterness and rage, on the other hand, does so daily. Rodger may or may not have been ill, he may or may not had diagnostic label on his personality or neurological function, we do not know. What we do know, without question, is that he was spitting with misogyny.

Does that read like someone claiming that this was nothing to do with misogyny?

It might also have been slightly fairer to quote me at slightly greater length, because immediately after the paragraph quoted, I go on to say:

Rodger does not appear to have identified as an MRA, and a debate as to whether or not he should be so described will be a pedantic distraction. The ugly truth is that, across much of the manosphere, his rantings are not especially unusual. Somewhere on the internet right this very moment – whether on an Insel site or an MRA site or an MGTOW site or Twitter or Facebook or an atheist forum, it really doesn’t matter – an angry young man will be spitting out his hatred of bitches, whores and sluts.

In other words, the point about whether or not he is an MRA is not me trying to get them off the hook, but the exact opposite. Inaccurately calling Rodger an MRA simply allows actual MRAs to dissociate themselves from him, and lets them dodge their culpability in their shared misogyny. That was my whole bloody point there, and I don’t think I explained it too be clumsily to be understood.

The other point I was making, which may have been missed, is that while I wholeheartedly agree that misogyny and patriarchal entitlement were the driving forces here, there are millions of men with those traits who do not become mass murderers, and the temptation to write Rodger off as a simple and clear cut case of misogyny risks cutting off inquiry into other factors that may have been involved. I mentioned bullying, as one specific detail that seems to apply to every single school / spree shooter, but there may be others unique to Rodger.

In summary, I’ve found the arguments I’ve heard over the past 24 hours a little strange. Primarily, I have been criticised for asking for nuance. (One tweet directing me to this blog simply said “No need for nuance,”

I just can’t buy into that. There is always need for nuance. When Lee Rigby was murdered, I wrote a vaguely similar blog, which also called for nuance. Yes, Rigby was murdered by two Islamist terrorists, but does the story end there? No, it didn’t at the time and it still doesn’t today.

A lot of this reminds me of what John Major once said: “sometimes I think we need to understand a little less and condemn a little more.” I’ve never been able to buy into that. However much we condemn, we can always understand a little more.

I have no problem with people disagreeing with me on any point, telling me I am wrong. But very few people have been doing that over the past 24 hours. They haven’t been telling me I am wrong, they’ve just been saying “how dare you say that?”

I find that quite a depressing reaction in any circumstance.

Madman or MRA? Looking beyond easy answers to the Santa Barbara massacre

Note: I’m already concerned by the cult of personality growing around Elliot Rodger. While acknowledging that all discussions, including this one, risk adding to that, I’ve opted not to link to any of his YouTube videos, comments or his manifesto. I do not doubt you can find them yourself if you must. 

—————–

Katherine Cooper, aged 22, and 19-year-old Veronica Weiss were shot dead while standing outside a university sorority. Christopher Michael-Ross, 20, died while shopping in a deli. As I write, the names of three other victims of the murder spree in Santa Barbara, California remain unknown. [See note below] As so often with these cases, it is sickening but unavoidable that while the details of those squandered lives will soon be forgotten by most, the name of Elliot Rodger will forever lurk somewhere in the depths of our memories.

There is so much to this tragedy that we do not yet know, but conversely we already seem to know so much. It is never wise to leap to assumptions about the motivations of violent individuals. In the case of Rodger, this is proving almost impossible. Rarely has a crime of this nature appeared to have such an open and shut motivation.

In the first reports, he was described by witnesses on the scene as ‘a madman’ or ‘crazy.’ This was underlined soon after when it emerged that he had been under some form of psychiatric treatment. This was never an adequate explanation. Mental illness alone very, very rarely drives people to kill. Hate, bitterness and rage, on the other hand, does so daily. Rodger may or may not have been ill, he may or may not had diagnostic label on his personality or neurological function, we do not know. What we do know, without question, is that he was spitting with misogyny.

Shortly before the killings began, Rodger uploaded a series of increasingly horrific YouTube rants, in which he explained that he was going to kill women – specifically blonde, sorority girls – as revenge for their refusal to have sex with him. He had left hints of his plans, alongside overt race hate, on several other forums, under his own name. He had uploaded a 140-page justification for his crime to the internet, providing the world not only what mental health professionals call a ‘complete history’ but also detailed, gruesome details of his planned massacre, giving it the title ‘My Twisted World’. In keeping with the cliches of a cheap movie script, Rodger turned out to be the son of a successful Hollywood director. He was a good-looking, rich kid who drove a BMW and attended film premieres. And from his own words, he was a bitter, angry, hate-filled virgin.

It also emerged that he was an active member of a notoriously misogynistic internet forum for men called ‘PUA Hate.’ Several bloggers and online news sites immediately began describing him as the ‘MRA shooter.’ Strictly speaking, this is probably inaccurate. There is a corner of the internet known disparagingly as ‘the manosphere’ which has several distinct compass points, united only by their shared misogyny. While people and ideas certainly seep between them, in practice they have very distinct interests, and often spend almost as much energy hating each other as they do hating feminists. Among several other manosphere communities, there are men’s rights activists, (MRAs) who mostly deal in political issues and gender relations, and there are pick-up artists (PUAs), who strictly concern themselves with sex, specifically how to manipulate women into bed.

Beyond those groups however, there are strange fringes such as Men Going Their Own Way (MGTOW) and those who describe themselves as ‘Incels’ meaning ‘involuntary celibates.’ These are men who are not just angry because women won’t have sex with them, they’re even angry with the PUAs who suggest that women might have sex with them. It was in this last group that Rodgers appeared to have found a community.

In Rodger’s manifesto there is no sign of even a slight interest in gender politics. He does not use the vocabulary or logic of MRAs, there is no ranting at ‘feminazis’ or other tell-tale signs of MRA ideology. Indeed, it is striking that the manifesto, unlike that of Anders Breivik, reveals no kind of political consciousness at all. For Rodgers, this all appears to have been entirely personal.

Was Rodger radicalised by what he read online? It is likely that while his anger and hatred were consuming him, he sought out those he considered like minds, rather than vice versa. We may never know. He says in his manifesto that the PUA Hate site confirmed his thinking:

The Spring of 2013 was also the time when I came across the website PUAHate.com. It is a forum full of men who are starved of sex, just like me. Many of them have their own theories of what women are attracted to, and many of them share my hatred of women, though unlike me they would be too cowardly to act on it. Reading the posts on that website only confirmed many of the theories I had about how wicked and degenerate women really are. Most of the people on that website have extremely stupid opinions that I found very frustrating, but I found a few to be quite insightful.

I sense an inevitability to the debate that will unfold in coming days. Feminists and their allies are already spinning this as the work of an MRA and a consequence of men’s rights ideology. MRAs, I do not doubt, will become defensive and probably find some way to blame feminism – some PUAs are already going down that route. I don’t think any of that is meaningful or helpful, and may provide a convenient moral escape route for some people who should really be looking to their own hearts and consciences.

Rodger does not appear to have identified as an MRA, and a debate as to whether or not he should be so described will be a pedantic distraction. The ugly truth is that, across much of the manosphere, his rantings are not especially unusual. Somewhere on the internet right this very moment – whether on an Insel site or an MRA site or an MGTOW site or Twitter or Facebook or an atheist forum, it really doesn’t matter – an angry young man will be spitting out his hatred of bitches, whores and sluts. Could Rodger have been dissuaded had he been challenged, rather than indulged in his rants? Frankly I doubt it, he would merely have dismissed his detractors as yet more weak cowards, but can we be sure? I would challenge those who laugh along with violent misogynistic fantasies online to imagine looking in the eyes of the families and friends of Rodgers’ victims and declaring their consciences to be clear.

There is another sense in which the easy explanatory narrative may be dangerous and misleading. To blame either mental illness or online misogyny for these crimes is to dodge the question of where those deranged beliefs, the anger, the nihilism, the hatred originated. Spree killers, as Michael Kimmel recently pointed out in Angry White Men, are invariably racked by aggrieved entitlement – they believe they have an inalienable right to status, to success and to sex. When those natural rights fail to materialise, they become angry and violent. But there is another aspect to the profile of a spree killer, which Rodger also describes in detail in his manifesto. Like pretty much all known spree killers, Elliot Rodger was systematically and severely bullied by his peers. The boys beat him while the girls looked on and laughed. When a rampant narcissistic entitlement meets the social humiliation and mockery of the bullying victim, the results can occasionally be deadly.

I say this cautiously as an outside observer, but it seems to me that whenever tragedies like this occur in the USA, the media and political discourses hone in on gun ownership (entirely reasonably, I stress) and on teen culture – whether rock music, video games or violent movies. In this case we can probably add online men’s forums. I”ve yet to see serious attention be devoted to the culture of bullying that would appear to continue unabated, even actively encouraged as hazing rituals, within American schools.

Nothing can be done to bring back the victims of Elliot Rodger, or undo his evil. The best we can do as a society (including the international online community) is to ask ourselves what we might do to prevent another such incident occurring. Answering that question demands that we look far beyond the quick and easy solutions, however tempting they might be. 

 

NOTE: The names of Rodger’s murdered room mates have now also been released. Please spare a thought for the friends and families of Weihan Wang (22), Chen Yuang Hong (20) and George Chen (19)

A short list of shits I could not give

Pretty much every day I’ll be sent a message of some sort inviting me to show my support for some gender-based campaign, cause or petition. Often they are concerns that I share, and I will help as I can. Other times I will give the issue some thought and consideration and conclude hmm, nope, sorry, but I really don’t give much of a shit.

For the sake of discussion, let me offer a short, and by no means exhaustive list of shits I really could not give:

  • Books and merchandise declaring: Boys are stupid, throw rocks at them
  • Nipples on Page 3 of the Sun
  • Adverts portraying men as being useless in the kitchen or changing nappies
  • Men’s Health advocating an unattainable body beautiful for men
  • Lads mags in newsagents
  • Sexist T-shirts
  • Miley Cyrus videos
  • ‘All Men Are Bastards’ knifeblocks
  • Pink ladypens
  • The sexual politics of Grand Theft Auto
  • Builders stripping off in Diet Coke ads

The list could go on and on. I should explain that I don’t actually like any of the things above. On the contrary, I find them at best tacky and dispiriting, at worst hateful and depressing. In all cases the world would probably be a slightly better place if they did not exist. However every single one of them is less of a problem in its own right than a symptom of a deeper malaise. We live in a world in which the entire human experience is co-opted, synthesised, commodified and sold back to us in a never-ending cycle of demand.

I do not see how we can call upon the publishers of Men’s Health to tone down the chiselled abs in their photo spreads without acknowledging the niche it fills in a culture of narcissism and self-obsession, a spectrum that stretches from sculpted torsos (and airbrushed Vogue stars) to obesity and eating disorders. For too many people, the glossy fantasy fills a void, and the problem is not with the fantasy, but with the void.
In all these cases, the products themselves are not the problem, they are the representations, the totems, the Aunt Sallys which poke up from a swamp of cultural alienation, misogyny, misandry and gender construction. Knocking them down might make us feel better momentarily, but do nothing to purify the waters.

An argument I have often with feminists (and others) is whether so-called sexualisation or pornification of our culture is getting worse all the time. I would challenge anyone old enough to remember the 1970s, when I was a child. The janitor in my primary school had a nude calendar on the wall of his little store-room, which we would see every time we were sent to collect a bucket and mop after some little poppet vomited in class. When I went with my dad to any ironmonger shop, tyre repair place or garage there would be nudes all over the walls. Light family entertainment involved Benny Hill running around trying to molest nubile young nurses at double speed. Most of it is almost unimaginable now.

What happened? It had little to do with bans, prosecutions or petitions. Things got better because our culture slowly, gradually changed as a whole. What had looked funny began to look tacky. Awareness of sexism as an issue slowly spread. We grew up a bit.

Personally, I’m not so bothered about the kinds of cartoonish or extreme examples of sexism in the list above. Most of the time they jump up and down shouting “Look at me! Look at me! I’m a piece of ridiculous sexist trash!” and so can be easily ignored and dismissed. I’m much more bothered about low level, insidious, ubiquitous conditioning of restrictive gender roles, our personal interactions and (above all) our interactions with children.

It seems to me that most of the complaints about gender representations wilfully avoid context and ignore all counter-evidence. Here is a typical example:

We all know the stereotypes—the femme fatale, the supermom, the sex kitten, the nasty corporate climber. Whatever the role, television, film and popular magazines are full of images of women and girls who are typically white, desperately thin, and made up to the hilt—even after slaying a gang of vampires or dressing down a Greek phalanx.

I recognise these stereotypes, of course, but I’m also aware that when the TV is on in my house, it rarely shows anything like that. It shows Coronation Street, Emmerdale and Eastenders, with their arrays of strong, fully-rounded female characters driving the plot. Or if I have (rare) control of the remote, flashy trash like CSI or 24, with their full complement of women detectives, spies, scientists, pathologists and computer geeks.

Cultural misandry, of the type highlighted by Nathanson and Young in their series of tedious whingeing books, concerns me even less. Most of the time, our TV and other media present us with an endless parade of white, middle-aged, middle-class men being in charge. They’re in charge of the stuff going on on the news, they’re in charge of the murder investigations on the detective series, they’re in charge of the grand villainous plans in the movies, they’re in charge of the ball on the football pitch. They are saving the day, they are rescuing the heroine, basically if shit needs doing, we assume a man will be doing it. Anyone who denies this is true needs to log out of Reddit for five minutes and open their fucking eyes.

So when writers of sitcoms or 30-second commercials want a cheap laugh, what do they do? They play with and subvert our expectations, our deeply ingrained assumptions that men (and especially middle-aged white men like me) are in charge and in control. A middle aged white man? One of those people who is meant to be running the whole world and he can’t even work a washing machine! Hahahaha. Geddit? Am I amused? No, not really. Am I offended? Get a grip.

I’ve even seen it suggested that these types of representations of men prove there is no such thing as patriarchy or male privilege. This is, frankly, the dumbest argument this side of a UKIP conference. The truth is the exact opposite – the demeaning representation of men in popular culture is a corollary and a direct consequence of our privilege. If you want a world where middle-aged men aren’t brought down a peg or two, help to create a world where middle-aged men don’t need to be brought down a peg or two.

Having said all that, I wholeheartedly approve of efforts to monitor and critique the media we consume. Some representations are actively harmful – I would include within that, for example, portrayals of sexual violence as glamorous, sexy, or enjoyable to the victim, or portrayals of domestic violence as legitimate reactions or expressions of frustration (and I include the stereotypical soap opera wife throwing cups at her husband or hitting him with a frying pan.) Some media representations actively undermine efforts to improve our society and they must be subject to criticism.

So in a way I am kind of glad that someone out there is berating Rupert Murdoch for continuing to flog his tabloid bogroll via Barbara from Basildon’s bare boobs. I am kind of glad that someone is pointing out that actually most men are quite capable of working a washing machine. Just don’t take it personally if I fail to share your outrage.

Slap-happy columnists and the dangers of generalisation

I hate to say I told you so, but when I wrote last week that our culture has a problem conceptualising female violence, one or two of those commenting below seemed less than convinced. Perhaps I didn’t explain myself clearly, but with impeccable timing, up popped the Observer columnist Barbara Ellen to provide the perfect illustration.

In discussing the Jay-Z / Solange incident, she made several bizarre and troubling claims. It began with a now-familiar slice of victim-blaming,  pondering what Jay-Z must have done to ‘provoke’ Solange. It got worse when she elided group generalisations with the specifics of an individual incident: “The differences in physical size and/or strength between the sexes mean that most men are simply not physically scared of most women.” 

This is probably true, but has no bearing on whether any one man is physically scared (never mind physically hurt) by any one woman. Ellen’s entire column showed zero understanding of the real dynamics of interpersonal violence, and particularly the complexities of how men react to violence, and female violence in particular.  The real stunner, however, came in a paragraph that was so wrong as to verge on the downright wicked. I am utterly stunned that the editors allowed it through:

What’s more, women tend to be aware of this, if only subliminally. Some females might have periods in their life when they get “slap-happy”, primarily when socialising, maybe when attention seeking, usually when drunk (guilty!). When they stop this behaviour, it’s usually because they’re ashamed, embarrassed or have belatedly realised they’re disgusting dogs who can’t hold their drink. Whatever the reason, it’s unlikely to have anything to do with men being frightened of them. On the contrary, it’s wired into the female DNA that in the main they’re under threat rather than the threat. 

When I wrote about our difficulties in conceptualising female violence, this is precisely what I was talking about. Ellen cannot conceive of female on male assaults as violent crime, just as embarrassing drunkenness. What do these women do when they are going through their “slap-happy” phase?

Consider Coral Millerchip, perhaps, who last summer attacked Jovinder Singh, a frail, 80-year-old man, dying with Alzheimers, knocking him to the ground and then spitting on him. He was so traumatised that he lived out his remaining few months of life in fear, unable to venture outside alone.

Or maybe she is imagining the high-jinks of the Hackney woman who last week greeted the gardener on her housing block by pouring sulphuric acid drain cleaner over his head. Or the Devon nightclubber who assaulted two men, one of whom she leaned in to whisper in his ear then sank her teeth into his cheek. Apparently she is ashamed and embarrassed now, which sounds familiar. Another woman who is ashamed, embarrassed and forgetful this week is the Ipswich woman who removed her shoe and used it to beat three men around the head.

These are just a few snapshots of the 75,000 women arrested for violent crimes in this country each year, picked out from the first few pages of Google News.  Their crimes are not a joke, a rarity or an irrelevance.

Notwithstanding the usual debates about rates of intimate partner violence, It is certainly true that for every woman committing a violent act, there will be several men. Male violence, in both prevalence and severity, remains the most pressing criminological trend in our society. To acknowledge that does not require us to simply ignore or dismiss female violence, whether targeted at men, women or children.

In one respect Barbara Ellen is correct. Context does matter to this debate. It is not necessarily ‘the same’ when a man hits a woman as when a woman hits a man. It is not the same when a large, physically fit music superstar is being attacked with a burly bodyguard to protect him as when a frail, disabled man like Eddie Kidd is being battered behind closed doors by the woman he loves.  It is not the same when Charles Saatchi grabs Nigella Lawson around the throat in a public restaurant as when a couple of destitute street-drinkers brawl over their last swigs of lager. The truth is that no two violent relationships are the same, no two violent incidents are the same, no two victims are the same, no two  perpetrators are the same. It is impossible to say sure how dangerous a person is based on their identity or gender, how scary, or indeed how scared such a person might be when placed in a violent situation.

Generalising about how someone might react to being violently attacked, generalising about someone else’s capacity for violence is a fool’s errand. If we are serious about reducing violence in society, we will not get there by starting with a position that some types of violence are somehow more acceptable than others.

 

Solange, Jay-Z and our problem with female violence

So much needs to be said about the assault on Jay-Z by his sister-in-law, Solange Knowles, and the subsequent media reaction. A lot of it is should be so self-evident it barely needs spelling out. Yes, if the roles were reversed the reaction would be very different. No, headline writers of the world, this was not a “fight” – that word would imply mutual participation, this was a unilateral assault. No, social media users of the world, an incident of family violence is not the most hilarious topic for your jokes and memes. Yes, corporate PR executives who hijack jokey hashtags about violent crimes to share advertising slogans, you do have an extra warm and spiky corner of Hell awaiting you. And no, concerned observers and commentators of the world, you may not speculate on what Jay-Z might have said or done to provoke or deserve it. Physical assault is never justified by the victim’s behaviour. Do I really need to point out to where that kind of thinking leads?

Buried within all this, the affair shows up a peculiar problem our society seems to have in conceptualising women’s violence. Had the wobbly security camera footage shown a man assaulting a woman, we would have had a full range of explanations and an accompanying vocabulary immediately to hand. He’s a batterer, a bully, an abuser. Had it been one man attacking another man, he would be a thug, a lout, a hooligan. A violent woman, by comparison, does not compute, we do not even have the words to describe her. This may well explain the initial instinct either to laugh or to blame the victim, the latter leading to an equally contemptible urge to applaud or even celebrate the assault, despite a complete lack of any background information.

We may not have the language to describe them, but violent women are far from rare. In England and Wales alone, around 75,000 women were arrested for violence against the person last year, accounting for more than a fifth of all such arrests. Far more women were arrested for violence than for shoplifting. It is often assumed that any violence women instigate is relatively harmless, but the evidence suggests otherwise. According to the Crime Survey of England and Wales, women are around 50% more likely to be victims of any kind of partner abuse, but when restricted to ‘severe force’ that difference almost vanishes, with 1.1% of men and 1.3% of women being victims in the past year.

Where does this reluctance to acknowledge women’s capacity for violence originate? It would appear to be the offspring of a bizarre marriage of convenience between traditional, patriarchal social conservatism and a rather blinkered and idealistic textbook feminism. Compare and contrast the patriarchal view of women as nurturing, maternal, gentle and submissive with those of influential feminist pioneer Kate Millett, which I have quoted before but are worth recalling: “Force itself is restricted to the male who alone is psychologically and technically equipped to perpetrate physical violence. Where differences in physical strength have become immaterial through the use of arms, the female is rendered innocuous by her socialization.” I think it is safe to say she never went to any pubs round my neck of the woods.

Many of us have lived a reality that belies the wishful thinking of patriarchs and feminists alike Violence can explode as a reaction to anger, frustration, disrespect or – above all – a threat or history of violence. Scientists are now beginning to piece together the neurological mechanisms by which a person who is exposed to violence will develop an increased capacity to inflict it upon others in turn, and that is not restricted by gender.

If we wish to live in a society with less violence of any kind, we do not get to pick and choose which violent episodes we find tolerable. The society which is laughing and cheering when a woman kicks and punches her brother-in-law in an elevator is a society where children are growing to learn that violence is an acceptable response to insult or frustration. That is a society where violence against our partners, families or strangers can be justified and excused, and thereafter a society where we are bidding farewell to our sisters, daughters, brothers and sons in an ambulance or a hearse.    

How to confuse an American: The politics of the c-word

In my last blog, I noted in passing that I am prone to using very offensive language, including the word ‘cunt.’ I think it was coincidence, but around the same time Ophelia blogged on that very topic, and inadvertently created a perfect case study of the phenomenon I was discussing.

As PZ noted in a follow-up called ‘How to drive a Brit crazy’, anyone objecting to the use of that word is likely to reap a torrent of comments saying “it’s a perfectly acceptable word; everyone says it in England.”

I’ll return to the question of whether ‘everyone says it in England’ in a minute, but first let me observe that what PZ describes is a classic example of the “you shouldn’t be offended by that” fallacy. Irrespective of how the word is used in other cultures, to many people – and especially to most Americans – ‘cunt’ is a deeply offensive, sexist and misogynistic word. In truth I use it very rarely on the internet / social media, because I know there will be people reading who will be upset by it and I have no wish to hurt them. I quite consciously modify my language out of respect for the sensibilities of some people who might read my words. That just seems like the decent thing to do.

Occasionally I will weigh up that risk of offence against whatever point I wish to express by using it, and jump in with both feet. If someone objects, I may or may not apologise or regret my choice of word, but never would I tell someone that s/he is wrong to be offended. That would be outrageously presumptuous. The “But in England…” defence is indeed a pile of cack.

That said, the debate raises (or more accurately, misses) a point about the c-word that I find fascinating. In my experience, whenever foreigners, and especially Americans, fail to grasp a nuance of British habits, it is because they are almost entirely oblivious to the function and history of our class system, which runs like deep scars into every aspect of our society, our politics and – above all – our culture. The c-word is a quite splendid example of this in action.

It is simply not true that everyone in England says “cunt” all the time. It is not commonly considered sexist or misogynistic (note, I’m not saying it isn’t – I’m saying that’s not how it is considered) however it is undoubtedly considered exceptionally vulgar. Vulgarity in British culture is inextricably wrapped up with the performativity of class status.

It is not a huge exaggeration to say the debate over the c-word began at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. For the next 400 years or so, English peasants spoke endless regional variations on middle English, (the language of Chaucer, most famously.) The ruling class (nobility) spoke Anglo-French. Over a couple of hundred years, roughly between the times of the Tudors and the Georgians, the English language began to standardise, and people learned to perform a place in the social hierarchy according to whether one’s vocabulary and vocal stylings leaned more to the Norman / Anglo-English or the older, more ‘vulgar’ Anglo-Saxon.

Before spelling was standardised, Chaucer had the freedom to improvise, and makes a rather clever visual pun by spelling the word cunt as ‘queynte’ – deliberately echoing the word ‘quaint’ meaning ‘a pleasing thing’ and he used it liberally and without any hint of embarrassment. By Shakespeare’s time, the bard was reduced to hinting at it like a naughty schoolboy – and he did, often.

However, there was no United Kingdom at the time of Chaucer or Shakespeare. The further you drifted from the Norman influence, the less the people’s language was polluted by the aristocratic gentility and Latin constructions of the Normans. We Scots had 0ur own languages (lowland Scots, a close relative of middle-English and Highland Gaelic – which we share with the Irish) the Welsh had theirs of course, and still do.

So long before the notion of sexism or misogyny had even been conceived, the word ‘cunt’ had become a battleground in a long-running and bitter culture war and those who were most keen on its erasure were the aristocrats, the theocrats, the patriarchs, and those irritating Puritans that we shunted off on the Mayflower and hoped to never hear from again. As Laurie Penny rightly points out here, excising ‘cunt’ from people’s language was in itself an exercise in controlling and shaming women’s bodies and sexuality. The modern British taboo against saying ‘cunt’ in the presence of a “lady” has much more to do with perpetuating the patriarchal Madonna-whore dichotomy than any kind of acknowledgement of sexism.

As late as 1790, the Scots’ national poet (and a personal political hero, incidentally) Robert Burns was not just toying with vulgarity, he was positively revelling in it. Sometimes it was jocular, 18th century vaudeville, like his poem superficially about a hat called ‘Cock up Your Beaver‘ at other times he didn’t even bother with the pretence. Burns, the son of a ploughman, had a strained relationship with the nobility in both Edinburgh and England whom he felt courted his talent while patronising him and mocking his origins. By writing such unapologetic vulgarity, Burns was very deliberately performing the role of the common man, for the common man – and woman.

Jump forward another couple of hundred years, and to one of my all time favourite films, Shaun of the Dead. Near to the beginning, Shaun (Simon Pegg) is in the pub, trying to explain to his pretentious, upwardly mobile friends that his best mate Ed is really a good guy. Ed cheerfully strolls up to the table and beams “Can I get any of you cunts a drink?”

Where I grew up in Eastern Scotland, the word cunt is used prolifically. I once heard two elderly women in Dundee talk about their grandchildren, including the memorable phrase “och, the pair wee cunt’s got the maist affy colic” (translation: “Oh, the poor little soul has the most terrible stomach pains.”). Such usage serves a social and political function. It states, very forcefully, that the speaker resides proudly among the vulgar, not the refined. It is used in full knowledge that it will cause upset and offence to those of a delicate disposition. It is a statement of political identity, and I have no doubt that largely explains why it is so much more prevalent in the further flung homelands of Scotland and Ireland – not to mention Australia – than it is in England. Even within England, it is used more commonly the further you get (both geographically and sociopolitically) from the ruling class and the bourgeoisie.

This is not a justification or a defence. I could be entirely correct about the above and it could remain true that when used as a slur, the word is deeply misogynistic, positioning women’s bodies and sexuality as something dirty and negative. It can also be true that words change, gather or lose layers of meaning over time. Even if it was once used without intrinsic misogyny does not mean it remains free of those semantics today.

So in that sense, I am not seeking to shift the debate as to the acceptability of the word in either direction. However I am convinced that there is a profound difference between British and American usage. In Britain the word is mostly used for the performative power of its vulgarity, and its misogyny is unnoticed and incidental. In the US, the word is mostly used for its performative misogyny and it is the vulgarity, in terms of social class, which goes unnoticed and incidental. 

There have long been – and continue to be – debates amongst British people as to the c-word’s function and acceptability. Even amongst women and within British feminism there is no kind of consensus on either side, and anyone who claims there is must be disingenuous or mistaken. I do not seek to persuade anyone that the word should be considered harmless or benign, but I would call on everyone to understand that to British people, the politics of cunt are perhaps much more profound, complex and encumbered with historical baggage than you could possibly imagine.

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.

O HAI! Remember me?

I know, I know, I’ve been neglecting you and ignoring you and have done a reasonably impressive vanishing trick for the last month or so.

Just so you know, I’m fine, not ill, haven’t been arrested as a perennial suspicious character, haven’t been killed in a bizarre gardening accident or anything like that.

If you’re really interested, I have been performing a really boring balancing act of assorted work/life issues and this blog has kind of tumbled down through the gaps. Probably also felt a need for a bit of battery-charging time, if I’m honest.

But I’m happy to report I have now reverted to something approaching my usual routine and will hopefully be furnishing you with some topics of intrigue and scandal to get your teeth into very soon.

 

A

x

 

Girls, boys and gangs: beyond villain and victim

Right wing thinktank the Centre for Social Justice is the latest body to turn a concerned gaze upon the issue of girls’ involvement with gangs. This is one of those stories that seems to surface every few months and is reported every time as a shocking, scandalous new exposé.

In truth there is little or nothing in the CSJ report that wasn’t reported in the Deputy Children’s Commissioner’s report in November last year, or by Channel 4′s investigation in 2012 or by Carlene Firmin of Race on the Agenda (ROTA) in 2011 and 2010.

It was Firmin whose work really deserved to be considered groundbreaking, and is still shocking today. She interviewed 350 girls who were directly involved in gang culture or gang-affected communities, who reported endemic sexual exploitation and rape alongside experiences as victims, perpetrators and conspirators in various violent and serious crimes.

Firmin’s work with ROTA was a milestone because, at least as far as the public and media narrative was concerned, it marked the end of a decade of textbook moral panic and folk devils about girls and gangs – gleeful tabloid tales of knife-wielding girl gangs roaming the streets like XX chromosome droogs. As the work of Susan Batchelor has convincingly shown, there is little evidence that girl gangs, in any meaningful sense, have ever existed in the UK. That is not to say that girls are not involved in gangs, but the nature of that involvement remains opaque.

The ROTA reports highlighted how a lack of serious research and investigation into the extent and nature of girls involvement with gangs was hampering provision of necessary support and exit services. Subsequent research has added nothing to this dearth of meaningful data, indeed the new report quotes Patrick Regan of charity XLP saying:

“The biggest issue with girls and gangs is that we simply don’t know the full extent of what is going on. Everything seems to be indicating that we are only looking at the tip of the iceberg and the current data fails to reflect the majority of the girls’ involvement.”

Into this vacuum has slipped a new narrative that risks taking on the character of a whole new moral panic. Over the past four years, discussion of girls in gangs has been strictly limited to the position of victim. Part of this is about social and economic victimisation, with reference to childhoods in care, or abusive families or social exclusion, slum housing and poverty. Overwhelmingly, however, the headlines have focussed on sexual exploitation.

There are many horrific accounts in these reports of gang rapes, punishment rapes, revenge rapes and more. The anecdotal evidence is plentiful enough that no one should doubt that youth gang culture is sheltering some appalling sexual violence, even if we really have no idea about the true extent of the problem. Alongside that, however, there is a rather salacious subtext that is exoticised by a glossary of street talk – “links”, “line-ups”, “wifeys” that pays scant interest to issues of consent, agency, motivation and intent. The assumption seems to be that a sexually active young woman from a poor background is, de facto, being exploited.

I spent the best part of a decade doing community media projects in a notoriously gang-affected area of South Manchester. I worked with and alongside young (and sometimes not so young) people who were inside, outside and exited from gangs, including work with convicted young offenders. I saw a lifestyle and culture that is entirely built on exploitation. The street gangs exploit the vulnerability, fear and hopelessness of brutalised and neglected young people just like themselves. Older drug dealers and thieves to manage their businesses by exploiting the aggression, anger and territorial habits of teenagers and their clawing, desperate desire for some kind of status, respect or validation.

Within that, it is all but impossible to untangle who is exploiting and who is exploited, who is the villain and who is the victim. The reality is that almost everyone involved meets either description from one day to the next, or at the same moment. People do horrible things, commit horrible crimes, as a way to avoid becoming victims of horrible crimes. All of this is true for boys just as much as it is for girls.

The perfect illustration of this is contained in the CSJ report. In the section on sexual exploitation, they provide testimony that on occasion, “female gang members in their late teens are being pressured to have sex with young boys in gangs, sometimes as young as 10, as part of the initiation process of those boys into the gang.”

Both in the report itself and the attendant media coverage, this anecdote was presented purely as an example of girls being exploited by gangs. It does not appear to have occurred to anyone that what is being described here is not just the sexual exploitation of a young woman but also a crime of serious child sex abuse against a young boy. In the reporting of this one piece of evidence we see the male victim of a serious, psychologically traumatising crime being entirely erased. Within the narrative the boys are instrumentalised to the point of irrelevance – they only feature as incidental objects. Am I the only one who finds this shocking? And am I the only one who thinks that our willingness to overlook the brutalisation of young boys might be a bloody big part of the problem?

As I see it, we have made significant progress in how we consider girls in gangs. Yes, at times the media can be patronising and romanticise away the agency of young women who willingly choose to exercise disturbing violence, brutality and cruelty, not least to other young women. It is, however, better that we err on the side of compassion and understanding of how they ended up behaving like this.

What I struggle with is our unwillingness to apply the same rational framework, the same degrees of empathy and sympathy to young boys who are similarly victimised, brutalised and vulnerable. A paradigm which holds all gang-involved young women to be innocent victims in need of rescuing and all gang-involved young men to be vicious, sexually exploitative criminals is not only infantile and inaccurate, it is actively obstructive to producing the shifts in policy and culture that could help to keep safer young women and young men alike.

How to be a douchebag

There’s a marvellous scene in Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket when the brutal drill sergeant played by Lee Ermey asks the raw recruits what they know about (Texas spree killer) Charles Whitman and Lee Harvey Oswald. He goes on to praise their marksmanship, points out that they learned to shoot in the marines, and tells his young charges that before they leave the camp, “you will be able to do the same thing.”

I was reminded of this scene when reading Clive Martin’s piece in Vice today entitled How Sad Young Douchebags Took Over Modern Britain. I couldn’t help but be impressed by the vicious, murderous accuracy of the sniping, I just felt deeply uncomfortable about the morality of the choice of target.

Lined up in Martin’s telescopic sights were the young men one sees in bars and clubs, primped and pumped up with bench-presses and anabolic powders, inked with tatts and soaking up admiration, primarily of their own gaze. They were variously described as ‘erections in vests’; ‘a Calvin Harris remix of a Springsteen song that doesn’t really work’ and ‘Ken dolls dipped in tea and covered in biro.‘ Like I say, you have to admire the sniping.

Beyond the creative insults, there is some genuine insight. Late in the piece Martin acknowledges:

 

But while it’s easy to scorn the banality – and the vanity – of the modern British douchebag, they’re only products of their environment. An environment that has very little to offer them any more, other than gym memberships, intentionally ripped clothes, alcohol and creatine. The institutions that gave British men a sense of wellbeing have been ripped apart. Nobody trusts the police any more; nobody wants to join the army because no one believes in its wars; traditional industries have been decimated and the only thing to replace them are stifling, mind-numbing positions in service and retail. 

Because of this, British men have tried to reimagine masculinity, in a hyper-realised, childish, desperate way. A new kind of machismo, built on fake bravado and vanity. British men are looking up to faux-hawked, peacocking, rich maniacs like Mario Balotelli for inspiration, because they really have nowhere else to look. Their bosses hate themselves and their dads hate them.

I can’t help but look at this emerging culture and wonder if they’ve basically retreated from a world that doesn’t want the young British male any more.

Boiled down, what we have here is Diane Abbott’s speech on the crisis of masculinity rehashed with added abuse for a hip, sneering audience, the MPs description of a Viagra and Jack Daniels generation served anew as ‘Monster cocktails and Creatine.’ Like her, the piece picks out a hugely salient but tiny minority and demands that they represent the grand themes of a generation. Where they differ is in their concerns. Abbott at least presumed to be concerned about the actual harm caused by her phantasms of moral panic – particularly the violence, abuse and exploitation of young women, but also the harm done to these men themselves. The Vice article does not even begin to make such accusations. There is no suggestion that the young men under discussion are abusive, criminal or violent, indeed they are mocked and denigrated for being fundamentally ‘soft’ under their muscle mass. Their only offence, it seems, is aesthetic. The author slates them as douchebags and arseholes, not because they have done anything to harm anyone, simply because they offend the author’s delicate sensibilities.

On first reading, I understood the piece as an exercise in arrogant, elitist, class-based anthropology. On closer inspection, I realised it was worse than that. At no point does the writer indicate that he has ever talked to the men he describes, ask them what motivates them, what their interests are. Does he even know that they are the ‘sons of the miners and the metrosexuals’ left in ‘mind-numbing positions in service and retail’? For what it is worth, the two guys I’ve known who most closely fitted the stereotype on display here were middle class kids with degrees, working on the creative design side of the media. Go figure. What we are presented with here is not social anthropology, but a sneering freakshow.

There are plenty of reasons to be concerned about the social consequences of a post-industrial neoliberal society, in which the traditional gender roles that once operated simultaneously as safety blankets and straightjackets have been ripped away. One manifestation of this might well be a superficially puerile, hedonistic narcissism that is more likely to nourish self-destructive depression than fulfilment or social progress. Another might be an individualistic, scornful self-righteousness, cultural snobbery and deeply divisive cultural circus sideshow peddled by Vice magazine.  

There’s more than one way to be a douchebag.