There might just be one reason to be grateful to Katie Hopkins. With her column and comments about drowned refugees and her genocidal reduction of migrant people to cockroaches, she reminded me (and I’d guess a few others) how it feels to be properly offended. You know, that moment when you read or hear something so horrible that your solar plexus cramps up, you exhale a sudden whoa and your body seems to drop a degree in temperature?
Offence in that sense is a very real, human emotion. It seems to me that much of the time when we discuss issues of offence, it is not that kind of emotional pain that we are talking about. It is a more abstract, theoretical sense that someone has transgressed some fairly arbitrary line of acceptability. And most of the time, it seems to me, offence isn’t an emotion so much as a currency, traded for various advantages in ideological, political or economic power struggles.
This is not a partisan point. We are all guilty of it. The liberal/ progressive/ left is most commonly accused of manufactured outrage, often justifiably so. I doubt anyone was viscerally anguished by Matt Taylor’s shirt, but the ‘offence caused’ could be traded in for various points in debates about sexual objectification of women and workplace sexism, specifically in STEM. Whether you think that was a fair trade or not will probably depend on how much significance you attached to those issues in the first place.
Religions and the religious have, of course, mastered this over centuries. To this day in many countries we see brutal, murderous persecution, in the name of blasphemy, but in truth little more than the assertion of violent, ideological, totalitarian power. Even in comparatively secular democracies, religious interests of most flavours periodically use complaints of blasphemy and religious offence as a currency to buy influence and vie for position; cashed in for a slot on the news, a cancelled event, a letter of apology from someone… any demonstration of influence.
This week Breitbart and several other sites on the rabid right have picked up on a campaign run by a British MRA site called HEqual. They have had their claws out for a feminist called Sarah Noble. Who she? Well she’s a student activist with the LibDems (yes, apparently they exist) and sits on a few LibDem committees, including their Secular & Humanist and LGBT committees. She is also an angry young Twitter feminist with a predeliction for #KillAllMen #DieCisScum type outbursts.
[I should declare at this point that Sarah and I follow each other on Twitter, have had a few exchanges which have been funny and friendly, and while our politics are miles apart on some issues, I rather like her. I should also declare that the person(s) behind HEqual and I also follow each other on Twitter, we’ve had several friendly exchanges, and while I profoundly disagree with their politics and don’t really share their priorities in men’s issues, I’ve always found them to be respectful, thoughtful and honest, and have never seen them be aggressive, misogynistic or obnoxious – which sets them apart from most of the manosphere. In short, I have no particular grudge against either side here.]
The row was kicked off at the NUS women’s conference (yes, the jazz hands event) when Sarah tweeted:
We just voted to remove the word “men” from a motion re: razors. I said we need to remove men from society. #womcon15
Now, I hope I do not need to point out that this is a joke. Whether it is a good joke or a bad one, in good taste or bad is by the by. Any comedian or writer would recognise the structure – it has the set-up and the punchline, even the timing of a joke. It is structurally the exact same joke as when someone said corrupt ex-MP Neil Hamilton should be deprived of ‘the oxygen of publicity’ and the late great Linda Smith replied “I’m not even sure he should have the oxygen of oxygen.” Boom boom.
I have written before about the whole business of ironic misandry. For the most part I file it under the ever-expanding list of shits I could not give, but I think the bottom line is that if you are going to joyfully and ironically parrot silly slogans or make jokes about violence and hatred then fair enough, but you cannot reasonably complain if others assume you are violent and hate-filled. If your political territory is with Class War you can blaze that shit on your T-shirt, but it probably sits less well with the Liberal Democrats. HEqual is a site that mostly monitors perceived misandry and media portrayals of men, so I think it is just about fair game for such an activist/ site like to go after the issue in good faith.
What I found telling, however, was the tone of the Breitbart piece. Remember this is the site that gleefully champions the right to cause offence, indeed actively revels in it. It is the closest thing GamerGate has to a mainstream media champion. It is Fox News with an English public school accent. And yet suddenly here it is swooning like an Edwardian virgin at the sheer brutality of Noble’s language, her “string of sexist comments” and “multiple tweets of a disturbingly hateful nature.”
The latest HEqual blog includes a collection of the tweets sent to Sarah Noble after Breitbart’s Troll-in-Chief Milo Yiannopoulos tweeted about her. It’s an overwhelming torrent of outrage that is worth reading in full, but highlights include:
- Hitler wanted to remove Jews from society. Looks like you’d be a good partner for him; you share similar ideals.
- I’m like 80% sure you’re advocating genocide rn
- Rid men from society, says “equality campaigner” and hatemonger @sarahlicity
- Who the fuck actually thinks it’s a good idea to remove an entire gender from society? That’s worse than fucking racism mate.
- Hey, fuckface, saw that you advocated for the mass murder of all men earlier at a women’s conference. The fuck you on about?
There are dozens more like this. Now call me cynical but I don’t believe for a second that any of the people involved were actually personally offended by the bad taste humour of an obscure Twitter feminist or, for that matter, believed she was genuinely advocating mass murder. I’m pretty sure what they were actually doing was exploiting a perceived transgression of the rules of civility – the very same rules of civility the same people routinely disparage, despise and flout in other situations – to pursue different and larger points. What points? They would probably say their point is that feminism is hypocritical. My hunch is that deep down the agenda is not to police the language of the feminist left so much as to undermine arguments against hate speech and discriminatory language elsewhere. The Breitbart piece pretty much acknowledges this, when it says:
The Liberal Democrats currently take a robust stance on hate speech. They are currently championing a policy that would ban homophobic chanting on football pitches. Critics of hate speech laws say that they are too broadly drawn, and confuse the hateful with the merely politically incorrect. But as long as the Lib Dems defends the existing consensus, members like Noble, who are far more than just politically incorrect, represent a serious threat to their credibility.
And this is what it is all about. When LibDems / feminists / progressives / whatevers condemn or confront the vicious homophobia on the terraces, the misogynistic bile on the GamerGate threads or the festering racism of Murdoch columnists, their advocates and protectors can turn around and say “Look! You are just as bad!”
Jokes along the lines of killing all men are, for the most part, a bit tiresome and puerile. For those of us who care and campaign on men’s issues in the real world, whether health and longevity, mental health and suicide or violent crime and victimisation, they are unhelpful at best and downright corrosive at worst. However to conflate that with true hate speech and violent bigotry is disingenuous and ignorant. Hopkins wrote a screed that all but celebrated the tragic deaths of hundreds of migrants while their bodies were still being picked out of the water. Her words appeared while politicians were debating whether or not they felt inclined to use available resources to pull drowning babies from the sea.
Real hate speech fires the hearts of the murderous and the violent and drives the willing to spit, swear and swing kicks at the disabled, the gay, the trans, the poor, the different. When all this is happening, to claim equivalence for a puerile joke is not just inappropriate, it is positively crass.