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.

 

Abuse is not a team game

Like Suzanne Moore, I am in no rush to Tweet or blog my opinions on the allegations made by Dylan Farrow about Woody Allen. Of course I have my own suspicions about the most probable truth of events that occurred in her childhood, but not only am I in no position to do any more than guess, I struggle to see who gains from the kangaroo court of Twitter. The notion that expressing support for the alleged victim will provide comfort and succour to either Farrow herself or victims of sexual abuse at large strikes me as bogus – at the very least I can see how any comfort it might provide is more than cancelled out by the accompanying trivialisation. Likewise, the notion that standing up for Allen strikes a blow for the wrongly accused everywhere.

To make either claim is to generalise out from one specific, complex case with unique individuals and unique circumstances and make them symbolic representations, even totems for wider socio-political debates. We can (and should) do that with fictional and historical characters. To do so with real, living individuals and current cases strikes me as profoundly dangerous and misguided.

I have watched the debate unfold over recent days with gnawing, even nauseous discomfort in the pit of my stomach. I was able to pinpoint exactly what was wrong with it when I started to see the inevitable tweets hashtagged #TeamDylan and #TeamWoody – that was when I knew we were not dealing with a meaningful debate but a synthesized, mass-participation role-playing game in which people picked their sides, adopted their character, and went into a make-believe battle, one in which one can do the fighting without the bleeding, safe and secure in the knowledge that one can withdraw at any time and that the whole game will anyway be forgotten in a week or two.

I began to despise the #Team trend during the saga of Nigella Lawson and Charles Saatchi. Over the previous couple of years I had seen use of the tag migrate from tweets about reality TV shows like Big Brother to be adopted by fans of pop puppets – whenever a bad headline appeared in a tabloid, fans would rush to declare #TeamJustin or #TeamHarry. So far, so silly. Then one Sunday in June, a paper ran those horrific snaps of a famous, powerful man apparently assaulting his much-loved, more famous wife outside a restaurant. The photos set off a chain of events that included a marriage break-up (with children involved) and a court case with allegations of drug-use. I do not blame people for having sympathies or opinions about the events and the people involved. I do utterly condemn those who adopted the stylings and language of reality TV and pop gossip to engage themselves and make themselves part of the story, when the story is something a mortally serious as sexual or domestic abuse. [See footnote]

To declare oneself on someone’s team is to position oneself not as a supporter or a fan, but as a player, an active participant in an unfolding drama. Could anything be more narcissistic than to locate oneself in the midst of the human tragedy of others? Knowing that Nigella Lawson herself acknowledged and thanked #TeamNigella does not, to me, excuse or improve matters. It just emphasises that she was caught at the heart of an almighty public circus and that her private life was now public property.

What’s worse, I think, is that such language and behaviour actively degrades the suffering of real people. It is hardly an original insight to note that celebrities’ lives are experienced by the rest of us as fictions, the impressions we get of the famous are largely moulded and shaped for better or worse by publicists, by journalists, by editors, by agendas. There has to be a line where this stops being an acceptable source of colour, amusement, humour and harmless titillation in our postmodern lives and becomes exploitative, corrosive and degrading. I would propose that wherever the line is, sexual abuse of children and intimate partner abuse are well across it.

Commercial media has a vested financial interest in dehumanising celebrities’ personalities, caricaturing their complexities and fictionalising their lives into a soap opera or a reality TV show. For a long time, we went along with that. Thanks to social media, we are now the prime culprits.

 

UPDATED PS – Literally seconds after I’d posted this I saw that @stavvers had written a compelling blog as to why Suzanne Moore is wrong, focussing on another hashtag  – #IBelieveHer or #IBelieveDylan.

Just for clarity, I should point out that I don’t really have a problem with that. As I’ve written many a time before, “I believe her” (or him) should always be our default response to victims’ reports of abuse.  And I think “I believe”  is a perfectly legitimate expression of opinion.

That said, I remain deeply uncomfortable about using celebrities as avatars of profound political truths in circumstances like this – it quickly becomes less of a discussion than a circus.

Trollololol, BMJ

So, it is pretty funny that the British Medical Journal is trolling us.

 

Participants, setting, and design

To be eligible participants had to be part of a couple and willing to take part in the study. We carried out a parallel trial with one man and one woman in their own home. It was decided without consultation that the female participant would prefer to be right and the male, being somewhat passive, would prefer to be happy.

The male was informed of the intervention while the female participant was not (this form of pre-randomisation is known as the Zelen method2). The female participant was blind to the hypothesis being tested, other than being asked to record her quality of life.

Discussion

The results of this trial show that the availability of unbridled power adversely affects the quality of life of those on the receiving end.

Strengths and weaknesses

The study has some limitations. There was no trial registration, no ethics committee approval, no informed consent, no proper randomisation, no validated test instrument, and questionable statistical assessment. We used the eyeball technique for single patient trials which, as Sackett says, “more closely matches the way we think as clinicians.”3

Generalisability

Many people in the world live as couples, and we believe that it could be harmful for one partner to always have to agree with the other. However, more research is needed to see whether our results hold if it is the male who is always right.

 

It’s even funnier that the science correspondent of the Daily Telegraph, the Huffington Post and Medical Daily fell for it hook, line and sinker and, inevitably, Men’s Rights Activists are up in arms. 

Trollololol. Season’s Greetings, friends.

Why calling out Russell Brand is a revolutionary act

It has often been suggested that the demolition of the Berlin Wall marked not only the collapse of soviet communism, but the end of modernist political ideology – not only Marxism and state Fascism, but also nationalist liberation and anti-colonial movements, the European social democratic  consensus and other models of reformist controlled economies, each of which was based on some kind of empirical formula for managing and improving society.

Modernism had actually been dying for a while. Foucault famously identified one of the first major ruptures in modernism with his  writings of the Iranian revolution in 1979, which – at least on a superficial reading – gave qualified support to the spiritually driven, anti-modernist (if not postmodern) overthrow of the Shah and (more controversially) the nascent brutalities of a new Islamist theocracy. Around the same time in the USA, the Christian fundamentalist right was an emerging force, with powerful political figures devoting as much thought to predictions of the ascent of souls in a rapture as they did to the decline of the dollar in a recession.

Meanwhile the dominant economic narrative followed the zeitgeist, with an almost religious belief in the power of free markets and unfettered liberalisation and globalisation sweeping all before it.

Grassroots opposition to power took a similar turn. By the 1990s, overt opposition to capitalist power came not from democratic socialists in the Labour Party, or hardboiled Marxists in the trades unions, but from a rag-bag counterculture which grew out of the peace convoys to become eco-warriors and anti-roads protestors; Reclaim the Streets activists then the anti-Globalisation rioters of Seattle, Prague and Genoa. The same spirit now informs the global Occupy movements, Anonymous Hacktivists, UK Uncut taxtivists and, since approximately last Thursday, Russell Brand.

I have seen many of the movements above at very close quarters, and can say from experience that almost everything that could be said about the anti-capitalist movements of the past 25 years could be said about Russell Brand. He is our strengths and our weaknesses personified. On the plus side is the inescapable charisma, impertinent humour, imagination, intelligence, creativity and unwillingness to accept a status quo that is, in so many ways, unacceptable. On the downside an arrogance and self-righteousness that sits ill with a rather superficial analysis and prospectus; and a tendency to lean on and exploit the social privileges which we claim to be challenging.

But perhaps the greatest strength and the greatest weakness of all is our detachment from fundamental ideological principles. Modern anti-capitalists, for the most part, neither know nor care about Marx and Bakunin, Gramsci or Bookchin. We adhere to no dogma, subscribe to no agreed principles and champion no manifesto.  This can leave us like a feathery, gossamer strand, blowing with the wind. It is precisely that quality which allowed the Peace Convoys to evolve so easily into the environmental movement and from there to a mass global campaign against the World Trade Organisation and on down the line. I am glad of that. But it is also that post-ideological fluidity that can see the Anonymous brand being used one day to bring about a glimmer of justice for the Steubenville rape victim and the next to broadcast the most rancid anti-Semitism; it is the post-ideological detachment that saw representatives of Slutwalk London tweet their support for rape-charge dodger Julian Assange; the same ideological detachment that sees Occupy campers calling out for radical social change while attempting to cover up and excuse allegations of sexual assault and rape within their own ranks.

For the past week, the radical left (at least in the UK) has been twitching with the urge to support Russell Brand’s (at times) brilliant rhetoric about our sham of a democratic system and the grotesque injustices and inequalities of our world; while at the same time struggling to reconcile this with his history of overt sexism and occasional rank misogyny.  Laurie Penny and Richard Seymour debated the issues with at times alarming frankness.

I do not believe in utopias. Political struggles are never about building the world we want to see, because by the time we built it our needs and desires have moved on. We are always on a journey, never at a destination. Part of that journey has to be about refusing to accept what we find unacceptable. Above all, we must refuse to accept what we find unacceptable in those who are seen to be, or assumed to be in a leadership role.

I don’t know exactly what kind of revolution Russell Brand wants to see, I’m not sure he does either, but I’d assume that, like me, he believes in the power of change, the reality of alternatives. Part of that has to be a revolution in gender roles. As I say in the “About” section of this blog, I believe we should try to build a society where gender is rarely a burden, never a prison and always a blessing. To do that we need to challenge injustice, prejudice and discrimination. We need to minimise political and interpersonal oppression, abuse and violence. And we need to find compassion and empathy for those who suffer and struggle, whatever their identity, whatever their gender.

One implication of that belief is that we cannot pick and choose which injustices, prejudices and discriminations we indulge, and which we challenge. The solution to the Russell Brand dilemma, it seems to me, is neither to indulge or forgive what we might find unforgivable, nor to forever exclude anyone who has ever said or done a bad thing as if we were dividing the world into pure and impure. The solution is to challenge sexism, racism, class elitism, transphobia or whatever else, as and when it arises. That’s not to say that every challenge must be heeded and accepted uncritically, but everything must be up for critique.

Perhaps the most encouraging thing I have read from Russell Brand this week is in his Guardian piece today, where he says:

“One thing I’ve learned and was surprised by is that I may suffer from the ol’ sexism. I can only assume I have an unaddressed cultural hangover, like my adorable Nan who had a heart that shone like a pearl but was, let’s face it, a bit racist. I don’t want to be a sexist so I’m trying my best to check meself before I wreck meself.”

As ever with Brand, it is difficult to untangle the sincerity from the camp showmanship, but I’m prepared to take him at his word on this. He is reflecting on his own attitudes in response to criticism, and that is what we all should do when told that we’ve been a bit of a dick.

The modern anti-capitalist movement has no politiburo to lay down edicts, no tribunals to expel dissenters; no party constitution to consult on positions and it is all the better for that. However in their absence, we need a bit of internal analysis, self-awareness and a preparedness to criticise our own. Those who respond to that with reflection and a willingness to change are behaving in a genuinely revolutionary manner. The reactionary alternative is not challenging our own racism, sexism or oppressive tendencies, but indulging them.

One final exchange with Mike Buchanan

So I thought I’d said about as much as I wanted to say to Mike Buchanan of Justice for Men and Boys.

Then I received an email. Since in my last thread I’d publicly stated that if Mike were to offer one of his public challenges to me I would probably  file it in the bin, Mike didn’t issue a challenge. Instead he issued a “request.” And he’d gone to all the trouble of typing it up into a letter on headed notepaper and printing it to  a pdf and everything. 

I should have just filed it, as promised. But I couldn’t resist. My reply is below. After this, I promise, I shall move on to more interesting matters.

_______________________

Dear Mike,

Every day I read things that are not true. Our newspapers are full of things that are not true. Our politicians say things that are not true. People write me letters and emails telling me things that are not true.

For example, your letter to me, after a preamble and quoting my words at length, begins:

‘We live in an era when the EU has announced its intention to introduce legislation to ban anti-feminist speech, a matter not mentioned by any major news outlet in the UK to the best of my knowledge.’

The reason this has not been mentioned in any major new outlet is because it is not true. It is not just slightly  factually mistaken, it is palpably, unequivocally 100% false. The EU has made no such announcement. The EU does not have the legal power to prescribe domestic law on areas such as hate speech to nation states, even if it wanted to – and there is no evidence that it does
want to.

What the article on A Voice For Men describes is a document prepared by an NGO called the European Council on Tolerance and Reconciliation – which has no authority whatsoever  – who have submitted it to the European Parliament Civil Liberties Committee (which itself has no meaningful authority whatsoever) and if you read the actual document, it amounts to suggestions to nation states as to what laws they might want to pass against hate speech. I can find no evidence that the European Parliament Civil Liberties Committee plans to do anything with it. You really shouldn’t believe everything you read on the internet, you know.

You go on to say:

‘You must surely be aware of how feminist-friendly the British media are.’

No. I am not. The Guardian is certainly very feminist-friendly, as is the Independent. They have, between them, fewer than 300,000 daily circulation. The Daily Mail and the Sun between them have around 4 million. The Evening Standard, the Telegraph, the Star, the Express and the Times have another two and a half million or so between them. For every column with a vaguely feminist tint by Suzanne Moore or even Janet Street Porter, there are the dozens of columns by Richard Littlejohn, Melanie Phillips, James Delingpole, Peter Oborne etc etc etc.

This does not begin to address the point that the great bulk of news coverage – on issues such as family policy, female celebrities, coverage of crime, coverage of economic and political matters in the vast majority of British media is not what anyone could call feminist friendly.

You ask, ‘Is it not one of the duties of the media to challenge prominent figures who make ‘unequivocally, demonstrably false claims?’

Yes, it should be. And the more important the claim, and prominent the figure, the more important it is that they are challenged. When we look at the downright falsehoods uttered almost daily by Iain Duncan Smith about benefits claimants, by Michael Gove about schools; the utter falsehoods about the EU that regularly appear on the front pages of the Mail and the Express; about immigration and asylum seekers by the Sun and the Star, we should all be deeply concerned. These lies and falsehoods have a major and damaging impact on our political culture and democracy, and in some cases create real and often horrific hardship for vulnerable individuals.

In comparison to the above, whether or not the (with all due respect to her) almost entirely obscure and powerless feminist Caroline Criado-Perez is accurate in what she says about the impacts of women on the boards of companies strikes me as almost entirely trivial.

Quite a large proportion of my output as a writer is devoted to challenging or correcting falsehoods and mistakes on issues of gender that circulate in the media. Those include falsehoods and mistakes propagated by feminists,  by men’s rights activists, and by those such as Hanna Rosin who float somewhere between. I actively support and champion projects such as fullfact.org which are devoted full time to correcting the innumerable mistakes and falsehoods in the political and media realm. I don’t need any prompts, challenges or ‘requests’ to challenge any specific writers or campaigners, I have a whole media smorgasbord to choose from on any given day of the week if  I so choose.

I certainly don’t need advice to pick out feminists as being uniquely dishonest or untrustworthy. When compared to the shameless mendacity and full-blown propaganda of the corporate right wing media, feminist activists and journalists are, frankly, small beer. To single out feminists would be to imply that feminists are uniquely guilty of dishonesty or inaccuracy and that would be, ironically enough, both dishonest and inaccurate.

So the answer to your request is no. In the meantime, if you are really concerned about truth and accuracy, you might want to consider issuing one of your ‘public challenges’ (or indeed ‘requests’) to A Voice for Men to demand that they delete their entirely false claim that the EU intends to introduce legislation to ban anti-feminist speech.

You are very welcome to publish both your letter to me and this response, should you have the decency.  In the meantime, I don’t intend to continue our correspondence in any serious way. I find that in order to have a sensible conversation with you, I have to spend a good few minutes correcting the innumerable mistakes and falsehoods in everything you write, and to be honest, I have more important things to do with my time.

All the best

Ally

 

Magic Trick: Chris Brown and the disappearing child sex abuse

Less than a week after Victoria Coren-Mitchell was calling for nuance in how we discuss and describe difficult issues like the sexual abuse and rape of children, Decca Aitkenhead in the Guardian has adopted a novel approach – simply ignore it.

Aitkenhead was interviewing R&B star and convicted domestic abuser Chris Brown. She began the piece with a journalist’s conceit: promising her interviewee the benefit of a blank slate to tell his story. One senses how it is going early on.

His parents divorced when he was seven, and before long he and his sister and mother were living with her new husband in a trailer park, where in the past he has described lying in bed listening to his stepfather beat his mother.

A couple of paragraphs later, my stomach turned over.

He lost his virginity when he was eight years old, to a local girl who was 14 or 15. Seriously? “Yeah, really. Uh-huh.” He grins and chuckles. “It’s different in the country.” Brown grew up with a great gang of boy cousins, and they watched so much porn that he was raring to go. “By that point, we were already kind of like hot to trot, you know what I’m saying? Like, girls, we weren’t afraid to talk to them; I wasn’t afraid. So, at eight, being able to do it, it kind of preps you for the long run, so you can be a beast at it. You can be the best at it.” (Now 24, he doesn’t want to say how many women he’s slept with: “But you know how Prince had a lot of girls back in the day? Prince was, like, the guy. I’m just that, today. But most women won’t have any complaints if they’ve been with me. They can’t really complain. It’s all good.”)

I spent many years writing feature interviews, albeit at a rather lower level then Decca Aitkenhead’s prime weekly national column. Nonetheless I know a scoop when I see one. Chris Brown is here disclosing that he was seriously sexually abused at eight years old, by a girl in her mid-teens. By that age he had already been exposed to so much pornography that he considered himself ready to be sexually active. You might think it warrants a follow up question or two, a few lines of journalistic commentary, anything to draw the reader’s attention to a dramatic and important revelation. In fact Aitkenhead does the journalistic equivalent of changing the subject after an awkward fart has slipped out.

The quoted paragraph is grimly fascinating. There is not the slightest suggestion that Brown considers himself a victim, not for a moment does he suggest he was anything but in control of the situation. First he makes a joke about it. Then he flaunts it as a badge of masculine achievement and slides quickly – far too quickly – into boasting of his sexual prowess. This is precisely how many abused boys rationalise and cope with their experiences in a culture where men can never admit to weakness, and particularly never admit to having been used and abused by a girl. By the end of the paragraph, the reader could easily forget that he was eight years old. Eight.

I can quite understand why Brown would think of the experience in these terms, and would not doubt for a moment that the way he described it to the Guardian is exactly how he describes it to himself. For this he should neither be chided nor condemned. However for Decca Aitkenhead to describe it simply as ‘losing his virginity’ is repugnant. Worse is the casual indifference with which the interview simply moves on from there to the next question. At no point is the term ‘abuse’ mentioned, far less ‘raped.’

Regular readers will know I am loath to play the rhetorical trick of reversing genders, but in this case it is surely appropriate. I repeat, he was eight years old. If a female interviewee described a sexual encounter at that age with a 14 or 15 year old boy, would Aitkenhead be so coy with her language, so casual with the reveal? It is inconceivable. Chris Brown is quite entitled to rationalise the incident in whichever way works for him, but the rest of us should not simply accept it without acknowledging that it is a profoundly unhealthy interpretation.

Of course we do not know what additional quotes ended up on the cutting room floor, but it is important to consider why this section of the interview was published as it was. The first factor is that our culture still has a real problem in acknowledging and recognising male sexual victimisation by women, even when it is verbalised vividly in front of us. There may also be a race element at play here too, the stereotype of the hypersexualised black man  – part demonization, part assumed status, part fungible objectification – may amplify damaging assumptions about insatiable masculine sexuality. I’m reminded of a 2009 interview with a different R&B star, when Lil’ Wayne made a similar disclosure to TV presenter Jimmy Kimmel. That interviewer persisted with a level of ‘wayhey’ banter about being “seduced” by a grown woman at age 11, even when it became clear that the star was deeply uncomfortable with the tone.

My strongest suspicion, however, is that Aitkenhead quickly moved on from the topic for another reason. Chris Brown sits on a very specific pony on the pop media carousel. He is the bad boy; the woman beater; the villain of the story. He is the abuser so shameless that he commissioned a tattoo on his neck looking remarkably like the bruised face of his battered girlfriend, Rihanna. To suddenly portray him as a victim of child sex abuse would upset the narrative, invite sympathy in place of scorn. It would be a brave journalist who would risk that barrel-ride. It is so much easier to present him as a porn-crazed sex beast from an early age. Unsurprisingly, it took the Daily Mail only a couple of hours to turn the Guardian interview into that precise story.

It is a mistake, of course. It does the victims of child rape no favours to assert a linear path from abused to abuser, and whatever light the new revelations might shine on Chris Brown’s personality, they do absolutely nothing to excuse or explain his own violence. He continues to choose his own path and must take absolute responsibility for his own behaviour.

Meanwhile it does no one any favours to hide the sexual abuse of children behind euphemism or journalistic sleight of hand.

Just checking in…

I haven’t had time to add any sparkling new content (or even sludgy prose) to this blog for a week or so, normal service should resume shortly.

In the meantime, a couple of pieces of mine have gone up elsewhere this week.

In the Guardian, I reflected on what Andy Murray’s victory at Wimbledon might mean for the people of Dunblane, where Murray himself survived the 1996 school massacre.

Men from central Scotland are not known for our smiley, flamboyant extroversion at the best of times. In Murray’s case one senses that he has constructed a thick protective wall around himself. Perhaps he cannot easily let emotions spill out, because with only the smallest crack, the deluge would be overwhelming.

 

And today in the Independent I cover the astonishing survey from the Royal Statistical Society which revealed just how grossly skewed is our typical assessment of the state of the nation, from benefits and the economy to crime figures and religious affiliations.

our impressions of society are formed by looking at individual factoids and scare stories as if through a long thin tube, only ever seeing a snapshot rather than the full panorama. We then depend upon cognitive biases and heuristics to fill in the gaping blank spaces.

Your thoughts on either of these would be welcome. Or alternatively just continue arguing about all the other things you’ve been arguing about on all the other threads which, let’s face it, is exactly what you’ll do anyway.

What do men see when they see Page 3?

SERIES: FROM THE HETPAT ARCHIVES

Note: Four months on from writing this, Rupert Murdoch has yet to announce the scrapping of Page 3 in the Sun.  However this week he has announced that they’re abolishing the patronising little speech bubbles ‘News In Briefs.’ Sarah Ditum has applauded the decision at the New Statesman. Her argument is persuasive, I think, except for where she digs up the same myth about male sexuality that I took on here.

First published, February 12th 2013

 

So Rupert Murdoch has hinted on Twitter that he may be rethinking his 40 year mission to deliver a daily couple of nipples to the breakfast tables of the nation.

In a reaction on Comment is Free, Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett argued that nudity is not the principal problem with Page 3. “The presence of a few designer labels in the crucial areas makes little difference if the poisonous attitude remains the same,” she wrote. I broadly agree. My general take on the issue is that The Sun is a paper which peddles the exploitation, vilification and undisguised hatred of, well, just about everyone. The focus on Page 3 seems to me to miss the broader point, but more precisely, my problem with the tradition is not the nudity, but the way that it uses women as decoration, implying that a woman’s most significant role in the news media is to provide eye candy for a predominantly male market. Related to that, my main problem with the campaign against Page 3 is that by focusing on the nakedness, it veers rather close to an anti-nudity, even anti-sexuality narrative. It seems to say that exploitation is just fine, so long as you keep the boobs covered up.

While I generally agreed with Rhiannon’s main point, there was one paragraph in the article that betrays a profoundly mistaken view of what Page 3 is and does, and how it is viewed by men. It’s an extreme example of an argument that is often made by feminists within this debate.

I remember, as a teenager, how awful it was to be sitting next to a man on the bus leering at Page 3. I remember the embarrassment, the discomfort, at the lascivious drool coming from his chops, and the physical revulsion at his presumed erection from looking at a girl pretty much the same as me

…it’s about the sense of entitlement, the presupposition that an entire page of a national newspaper should be given over to the sexual gratification of men

Of course one can never underestimate the diversity of human personality and sexual behaviour, and I need no convincing that women experience the most rank sexual harassment and intimidation on public transport. I will take it on trust that at some point(s) in her life Rhiannon really did find herself sitting next to some freak who was “leering at Page 3” with “lascivious drool coming from his chops” in such a way that she presumed he had an erection from all the “sexual gratification” on display. I do, however, strongly reject the implication that this is how men typically view Page 3.

Straight men generally find pretty young women attractive. They are drawn towards them. Pretty young women with clothes on are attractive, and pretty young women with fewer clothes on are even more attractive. Boobs are nice to look at. I don’t think I’m sticking my neck out too far in making that assertion.

Murdoch started putting semi-naked women in his newspapers back in 1970 to attract buyers, in exactly the same way that car show exhibitors drape models over the bonnets of their cars. He figured that if men are attracted to women with their tops on, they would be even more attracted to women with their tops off. And he was probably largely correct about that.

However attraction is not the same thing as sexual arousal. If images in The Sun or any other paper were genuinely sexually arousing they would actually lose readers. Murdoch has always wanted The Sun to be something that families could have lying around the breakfast table. That’s why the classic Page 3 look has always been strangely sexless and innocent, all happy cheerful smiles rather than the sultry, seductive pouts of pornography, even softcore porn.

Here is a fundamental truth about men: we hate getting erections at inappropriate moments. It is embarrassing and (literally) uncomfortable. The greatest horror is to get an erection at work or when surrounded by your mates. Men (and teenage boys in particular) develop all kinds of squirming techniques and tactics to try to disguise them. If we thought reading the Sun was likely to produce spontaneous erections at inopportune moments, we wouldn’t buy it, or we would but would keep it hidden under the mattress with the porn mags.

I suspect one of the reasons why Murdoch is now considering covering up the nipples on Page 3 is because he realises that they’re not actually that important a part of the equation. He started using them 40 years ago because he thought he could get away with it and it might add to sales. He now knows he could take them away and it wouldn’t really make any difference, because the nipples really aren’t what it is all about.  The likelihood is that Murdoch can grant campaigners their victory, get some good PR, and continue to use women in the same exploitative, sexist, decorative way he always has.

There is a tendency among some feminists to assume the worst of male sexuality. I understand where that has come from, but it can lead debates on topics such as sexualisation, porn and objectification to be conducted rather at cross purposes, and to generate a lot more heat than light. I don’t doubt for a moment that when a woman (especially a very young women) sees a man looking at The Sun, and specifically Page 3, she might be made genuinely uncomfortable by it. She may genuinely believe that the man is awash with lust, drooling with sexual gratification and sheltering a raging boner underneath his newspaper. I would suggest that unless the man has just escaped from decades in a monastery or is about 12 years old, this is almost certainly not the case. Much more probably he is thinking something like “she’s cute, nice tits, what a ridiculous speech bubble they’ve given her. Wonder if United will win tonight.

Perhaps there was a time when Page 3 was still sufficiently new, daring and shocking to produce a frisson of genuine sexual excitement, but those days had passed long before even I hit puberty  – a long, long time ago. When I was 13, round about 1980, we boys were on a perpetual hunt for sexual stimulation of any kind. Copies of Mayfair and Penthouse would be dealt and shared like valuable contraband. Even then Page 3 would barely register. It was what you might wank to if you couldn’t get hold of your mum’s Kay’s Catalogue lingerie section.

This wouldn’t matter too much were it not for one nagging concern. I can’t help thinking that the reason many women suppose that Page 3 is the salient tip of a huge iceberg of slavering male sexual desire is because so many other women have told them that Page 3  is the salient tip of a huge iceberg of slavering male sexual desire. Perhaps it is time to turn the page on that particular myth.

I have no wish to undermine or resist feminist campaigns against Page 3, on the contrary I think it we’d have a slightly better society without it. On the other hand, I’d prefer if we could have that debate and that campaign without the need to further demonize male sexuality. Whatever Page 3 might be about, it is really not about sex.

 

How not to write about false rape allegations

Over the past few days, two different male writers on my radar have run against the rocks on the issue of false allegations.

The first was “Prisoner Ben” Gunn. I really value this blogger. He brings an irreverent and sharp mind to issues of criminology and penal policy, informed by extensive study and 32 years of imprisonment, from the age of 14 until last year. He was nominated for an Orwell Prize while blogging from behind bars, and has continued since his release. That gives him a rare and valuable perspective. He campaigns and writes, often brilliantly, about issues of judicial reform and miscarriages of justice. More power to his elbow.

Last week Ben Gunn took issue with the Twitter hashtag #ibelieveher, which sprang into life in response to the grotesque shaming, blaming and online outing of the victim of convicted rapist and footballer Ched Evans. As he later wrote on his blog:

It began when I saw a campaign headed “I believe her”, propagating the view that all rape victims should be believed. I assumed even the dimmest or most ideological could glimpse the flaw in that idea – sometimes an accusation is false. To simply “believe” is to throw out the justice process, essentially renders the trial process pointless. Thought everyone would appreciate my concern…. Well. They didn’t.

I understand what he was driving at, but also understand why others didn’t see it that way. What Ben misses, I think, is that the single biggest obstacle to justice and personal recovery for rape victims is excessive disbelief. It is disbelief that sees too many reported rapes being “no-crimed” by police or inadequately investigated. It is disbelief that sees rape victims being branded liars or sluts by internet vigilantes, and it is the fear of disbelief that deters many victims from reporting the crime in the first place. If we genuinely want rapists to be convicted for their crimes, saying “I believe her” (or for that matter “I believe him” in around 10% of reported rapes) has to be the default starting position for police, media reporters and social media commentators alike.

This does not imply that belief trumps evidence. I don’t think anyone is suggesting we “throw out the judicial process.” Nobody is suggesting police, prosecutors and juries abandon the collection and analysis of evidence and testimony, or the requirement that someone be proved guilty beyond all reasonable doubt. The moral payback, I believe, is that when allegations have been properly investigated and there is no proof that an individual is guilty of the offence, that person is held unequivocally to be innocent, without a stain on (usually) his character.

It is blunt truth that in the real world many rapes happen without witnesses or physical evidence of non-consent. Many rapes will always go unpunished. Many others will be lost in a mist of uncertainty, with insufficient evidence of guilt or innocence to proceed. Then in a small proportion of cases, there is actual evidence of fabrication and falsehood by the alleged victim, sufficient to warrant prosecution for perverting the course of justice or just wasting police time. This leads us to this week’s second unhelpful contribution to the debate.

The Daily Mail’s resident men’s issues correspondent, Peter Lloyd, is angry. He’s angry that false accuser Lindsey Attridge was spared a jail sentence after fabricating allegations against two men. He’s also angry that feminists and women’s charities aren’t stepping up to loudly condemn false accusers for their wicked deeds and for undermining the credibility of rape victims.

There is a lot in the article I’m unhappy with, but first let me deal with an absolute travesty of a claim. I’d like to think it is down to careless wording rather than either ignorance or mendacity,  but on an issue of such importance and sensitivity, there is no excuse even for that. Let me quote the paragraph in full:

In 2010, an official enquiry report led by Baroness Stern – a prison reform campaigner – ordered [Harriet] Harman to stop misleading the public about rape statistics. For years she’d been pumping misinformation that only six per cent of rapists are brought to justice, when the reality is actually very different.

Actually, the rate is more like two in three – a figure which is much higher than comparable numbers for other violent crimes. Yet still we are told that only 4 per cent of rape attacks go to court.

For anyone unfamiliar with the statistics, there are several different figures at play. Stern rebuked Harman for not distinguishing between the conviction rate for rape (the proportion of cases heard in court resulting in guilty verdicts – about 60%) with the attrition rate (the proportions of reported rapes which withstand the full process of report, investigation and prosecution to result in a guilty verdict – about 6% in Harman’s day, slightly higher now.) Both statistics are meaningful and useful, although Stern was right to demand that they be used with clarity and accuracy. Neither tells us what proportion of rapists are brought to justice.

We know that the vast majority of rapes are not reported and so the vast majority of rapists will never even face the possibility of prosecution. The British Crime Survey gives an approximate estimate of 85,000 rapes happening last year. There were around 2,400 guilty verdicts, or roughly one conviction for every 35 rapes that occur, one conviction for every 14 rapes reported to police, and three convictions for every five cases brought to court. All of those statistics are true and compatible. To suggest that two thirds of rapists are “brought to justice” is dangerously misleading and frighteningly ignorant. For good measure, it also implies that the 40% of defendants cleared in court are unconvicted rapists, a disturbing assertion.

If what Peter Lloyd said was bad enough, perhaps worse is what he didn’t say. At no point did he reveal to readers that the five cases he found of convicted false accusers walking free from court are atypical. Many women convicted of making false allegations are jailed, often for long terms – his paper takes great delight in reporting them every couple of weeks. Nor does he provide any context as to the prevalence of false allegations in comparison to prevalence of rapes.

It is genuinely impossible for anyone to say for sure how many false allegations occur. As I’ve written elsewhere, there is not even consensus on what we actually mean by a false allegation. We do know that in 17 months, the CPS considered only 132 cases for prosecution, which equates to about 0.6% of reports. These could be considered a bare minimum. There must be more allegations which are false but not provably so. About the only thing we can say with certainty about false allegations is that they do sometimes occur. Anything more specific than that is a statement of faith, not evidence.

However by the same system we can note that if the Daily Mail recorded and reported proven, convicted rapes with the same zeal and efficiency they afford to false accusers, they would report 200 new cases every month, that’s seven pages of their paper every single day of the year. Peter Lloyd’s article was especially problematic in the context of his paper, which pursues an editorial policy that creates a vastly skewed impression of the prevalence of known cases of false rape allegations in comparison to actual rapes, and therefore greatly inflates public perception of the likelihood that a rape allegation might be false, and the risk to (primarily) men of being the victim of a false allegation.

I’ll confess that it does frustrate me that many commentators and rape campaigners seem to refuse to engage with the existence of false allegations or suggest that they are so rare they are not worth considering. The possibility that an allegation may be false is a hugely important factor in the prosecution equation and can’t be ignored as an inconvenience. I also wish some feminists would refrain from suggesting that being falsely accused is no big deal, when it is often devastating for those affected. Making a malicious false allegation is a horrible crime, and no one should be reluctant to say so. This debate desperately requires nuance and balance, but is often marked by factional polarisation.

To return to our starting point, rape victims require belief. That belief is certainly undermined by proven cases of false allegations, but it is also undermined by heavily skewed public impressions of the extent and nature of the problem. To complain about the former while actively contributing to the latter would seem to be disingenuous to say the least.

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)