Malestrom pt 2: When anger is justified

In her 1970 book Sexual Politics, widely considered a cornerstone of radical feminism, Kate Millett wrote:

Excepting a social license to physical abuse among certain class and ethnic groups, force is diffuse and generalized in most contemporary patriarchies. Significantly, 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. Before assault she is almost universally defenceless both by her physical and emotional training. Needless to say, this has the most far-reaching effects on the social and psychological behaviour of both sexes.

Like most early feminists, Millett was not a social scientist, a psychologist or a criminologist. She was a literary theorist and sculptor. [She was also a relatively privileged, middle-class white woman, as reflected in the astonishingly frank othering of working classes and people of colour in the first few words of that extract, but I’ll skip over that here]. Millett genuinely believed that women were entirely incapable of inflicting physical violence.

There was no evidence for her assertion, but to be fair there were no evidence to the contrary either, at the time. As John O’Brien pointed out in a 1971 paper, the academic Journal of Marriage and the Family ran for 30 years, between 1939 and 1969, before they published a single title mentioning the word ‘violence.’  It wasn’t just that social scientists didn’t know the extent of violence in the family, they didn’t even think it possible to find out.

Around the same time as Millett’s book was helping to spark feminist activism, a small group of feminist social scientists were beginning the process of developing tools to objectively measure the extent and nature of violence in the family home. Suzanne Steinmentz, Murray Straus and Richard Gelles spent the first half of the seventies piloting and testing survey methods which would eventually become known as the Conflict Tactics Scale. When the results started coming through, they surprised everyone – not least the authors. It appeared that there were previously unimagined levels of violent conflict in a high proportion of US homes and, most remarkably, a significant proportion of it was being committed and instigated by women. Steinmetz coined the (then laughable) phrase “battered husband.” They concluded that much family violence was a consequence not of patriarchy, but of the interpersonal stress created by the systems of the family unit.

There was a theoretical response from pro-feminist writers, notably from Dobash & Dobash (1979) arguing that violence against women is different in extent, cause, effect and societal function to violence against men. It is important to note that many feminist objections to Straus, Steinmetz et al have come from a place of good faith and sincere interpretation of the evidence. Other academic responses, both at the time and ever since, have been anything but honest and ethical.

All of this is well trodden ground, but I revisit it here to make the point that in this debate, those who have argued for the significance of female perpetration are often portrayed as proponents of a whacky theory that flies in the face of the evidence. The truth is the exact opposite. Straus, Steinmetz and Gelles were producing evidence that flew in the face of a whacky theory – that the male alone is psychologically and technically equipped to perpetrate physical violence.

Away from the journals, the attacks on the academics were less subtle. Feminist activists embarked on a campaign of harassment against the pioneers of family conflict theory. Steinmetz was subject to a lobbying campaign to have her tenure and research funding removed. Hate mail and death threats culminated in a hoax bomb threat being called in to her daughter’s wedding. Murray Straus had his lectures and meetings disrupted, and he was falsely accused of beating his wife and sexually exploiting his students by the chairperson of the Canadian Commission on Violence Against Women, no less.

If the atmosphere was hostile within academia, on the frontline of activism and service delivery things were little better.  I’ve often had feminists say to me that feminism is not hostile to male victims, that if men wanted to set up services for abused men, there would be no complaints. This claim is simply untrue. Many efforts to acknowledge and address female on male violence, even just to provide support to victims, has been actively opposed and disrupted by feminist activists.

For many years there were systematic attempts to all but deny the existence of male victims. In 1999, Julie Bindel wrote “there are a few cases each year of women battering their partners.” The BCS estimate for male victims that year was 253,000. Worse still, victims, either individually or collectively, have been widely smeared as probable abusers themselves, under the assumption that any attack against them was an act of self-defence. The defamation has even stretched to murder victims.

I’ve long abandoned arguing about the exact proportions and numbers of male and female victims or the nonsensical concept of symmetry. My own broad position is that there is no such thing as domestic violence – there is a range of abusive and violent behaviours that can happen for different reasons and with different consequences, and contradictory findings are largely explained by differing definitions. Whether you agree, it is a fair and important ongoing debate. But what is now beyond any reasonable debate is that male victims are not uncommon and that at least some of them are suffering, at risk of serious harm, and in need of support and assistance. Kate Millett’s assertion that women are incapable of violence has been proved grotesquely wrong.

This series is about widespread male anger towards feminism online. The politics of domestic violence are a vivid illustration that sometimes anger is justified. It is a topic about which I am passionate, and have become downright irate at times. It is also an example of where anger can be effective.

It’s rarely admitted by anyone, but the past few years have seen a significant shift in policy, media narratives and public attitudes. The 2010 Equality Act made it increasingly difficult for service providers to deny help on the basis of gender. The 2005 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act clarified that it could apply to men too. Last year, Respect – the organisation which accredits and supervises intervention programmes in the UK – published information aimed at female perpetrators for the first time. The issue has even crossed the ultimate threshold of “issue politics” – becoming a long-running (and generally well-handled) plot on Coronation Street.

From my own experience, five or more years ago it would prove almost impossible to persuade an editor to run a piece addressing male victimisation. Now they occasionally approach me first. Even Julie Bindel has toned down her rhetoric considerably. Yes there is a long way to go. Resources for male victims in most places are woefully inadequate (as they often are for female victims, it must be said.) Judicial and arrest policies not only create injustices such as male victims being arrested, but may also endanger women (especially those who are not white and middle class) by prescribing solutions that match the ideology, not their circumstances. (Linda G. Mills is brilliant on this point.)

What has brought on these changes? I suspect there are two reasons. The first is that the radical feminist case has simply collapsed under weight of evidence of male victimisation and violence in gay and lesbian relationships. The second is that the counter-arguments, for so long sidelined and dismissed, could be easily and widely disseminated online. (Witness the comment thread on the Libby Brooks piece linked above for an example)

In the long term, anger is usually only as effective as it is just, and on this topic feminist ideology, as applied in policy, has been demonstrably unjust. Men’s anger has won the day. This does not, of course, mean that all expressions of anger are justified. My contempt for the feminists who have actively obstructed efforts to help men is matched by my contempt for those men who seek to actively undermine women’s services with sneering, paranoid references to a ‘domestic violence industry’, or violently misogynistic reactions to any perceived provovation. Two wrongs do not make a right.  My own experience has also been that it has been much harder to raise these issues and champion the cause precisely because of the hateful behaviour of some of those who would appear to argue from my side.

The ultimate goal for us all, I hope, is to build policies and social values that provide protection for victims, or better, prevent them becoming victims in the first place. Anger is an energy. Use it well.

Malestrom pt 1: The rights and wrongs of anger

This is part of a series asking why (some) men are so angry. For the introduction and links to other posts in the series as they appear, go here


As I’ve said before, anger is not the enemy of empathy and compassion, it is often their offspring. Anyone who can survey the global landscape of injustice, suffering, oppression and environmental vandalism and not feel a surge of anger is, in my view, somehow lacking. It is essential to be angry. It is also essential to ensure that the anger is not cut adrift from its parents. Anger is an unruly child and like any child it is prone to stupidity and self-destructive tendencies. It needs the guiding hands of compassion and empathy to keep it in check and occasionally banish it to the naughty step to calm down.

In beginning this series on men’s anger, it was important to me to stress from the outset that there are good reasons to be angry at some of the issues that specifically affect men. Not only to be angry at those issues, but to include them in a very heavy bundle of things in the world one could be legitimately angry about.

Society treats men and boys in many ways that are unfair, unjust and harmful. Some of these are institutionalised and formal: the workings of the family courts (especially their inability to enforce contact arrangements for fathers); male-only military conscription in 40% of countries on earth; or the legality of male genital mutilation. Others are consequential – the (usually unintended) results of broader policy decisions which impact negatively and disproportionately upon men and boys – educational underachievement; provision of physical and mental health services; vastly disproportionate workplace deaths and so on.  Yet more are cultural – formally unwritten but woven through our beliefs, assumptions, prejudices and the way we socialise each generation: the belief that male victims of violence and abuse are less deserving of sympathy; the ‘man-up’ policing of emotional expression; enforced conformity of gender performance; the oppressive imposition of violence and aggression and so much more.

All of these problems disproportionately (or even exclusively) affect men and boys. That’s not to say they all affect all of us of course, but only a lucky few will dodge every one.  These are not the only problems in the world, and I am certainly not arguing that they are more significant or urgent than the problems created by racism, class or homophobia or the problems created by our society for women. However I do acknowledge that the problems are real and I respect and salute those who are angry enough about them to try to make them better – providing they don’t trample over the rights to justice, welfare and wellbeing of others in the process.

Anger needs to be tempered and focused by empathy and compassion, because without them, the monstrous child will smash the nearest object to hand. This is when the angry dispossessed will grab for easy answers in fascism or religious fundamentalism, and where gender warriors often reach for the claw hammers of abuse and disdain.

Whenever I write about male gender issues such as men’s mental health or educational underachievement, I can guarantee a smattering of emails, comments and messages from a few feminists saying something like “Oh cry me a river” or simply “LOL”. I have nothing but contempt for such attitudes, just as I have nothing for contempt for those men’s activists who become so wrapped up in their own concerns around male victims of false accusations that they will dismiss, downplay or mock the extent and profound trauma of rape. Oppression and suffering are not zero sum games, and compassion is not a finite resource. If your anger is obscuring your humanity, you are doing it wrong.

I’m not one who argues that just because a men’s rights activist says something, it must be wrong. That is a logical fallacy of the first degree.  I try to be open to ideas whatever their origin, and when I disagree with MRAs (which is often) I’ll still look for strands of common ground that we can build upon. However there is one fundamental tenet of the movement which is so grotesquely, monumentally wrong that I can barely even begin to express it. It holds that those who are angry about the injustices and problems facing men should target their anger upon feminism.

This idea is so mind-shrivelingly stupid I rarely bother to engage with it, but this seems an appropriate opportunity. Not a single one of the real male problems I identify above originates with feminism, is supported by feminism or even significantly added to by feminism.  There. I said it.

Family courts are one of the most patriarchal institutions in the UK (and I suspect the same applies in most other countries). They routinely presume that women are more natural and competent carers and men, not women, should be in full time work. Those are not feminist ideas. The laws, procedures and precedents they follow have been laid down not by feminists, but by generation upon generation of (primarily) crusty old men with sexist attitudes.

Feminists did not invent male-only conscription or circumcision. Feminists didn’t mould the hegemonic cultures of violent masculinity and male disposability. It wasn’t feminists ordering women and children first onto the lifeboats (if that did indeed ever happen.)  It isn’t feminists who decide that teachers and child carers should be predominantly women, and it wasn’t feminists who designed the national curriculum. It certainly isn’t feminists running the banks, the IMF and the policies of globalisation that devastated the industries upon which working class men once depended.

Most controversially of all, it is not primarily feminists who mock, revile and dismiss male victims of violence and abuse. There certainly have been occasions when some, even most feminists have made it much harder to address the issue (something I will return to in my next post in this series) – but it is simple fact that it was very largely feminism that identified and popularised the issue of domestic violence and sexual abuse as a problem in the first place. It was feminism that created the language and the concepts, the support systems and the resources for victims that have since been adopted and replicated by supporters of male victims since. It was feminist analysis of sexual violence that began to show up the barbarity of our (lingering) attitudes towards prison rape, and it is not feminists that I see making the ubiquitous jokes on that topic. There were just as many male victims of domestic violence before feminism, but they were mocked as henpecked husbands, the pathetic butts of jokes that decorated greetings cards, cowering in fear beneath a raised rolling pin. It wasn’t feminists drawing those cartoons, but they may have helped to kill them off.

I applaud those who are angry that so many men sleep rough, so many men take their own lives, so many men have to face unnecessary physical harm, so many men and boys suffer in one way or another. I see many men who are angry for the right reasons, but at the wrong targets. When the anger such issues generate is aimed at feminism, it is misdirected and therefore wasted. Every hour spent angrily obsessing over the words and deeds of feminism, past or present, is an hour that could be spent making a positive difference. That so many men waste so much anger is, I believe, something to get angry about.

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.

Malestrom: Ten reasons why (some) men are so angry

Another week, more putrid pongs wafting from the trenches of the online gender wars. I started the week doing a little BBC breakfast TV thing alongside Laura Bates of the Everyday Sexism project. Laura explained why she started the project and described its success and impact over the past year; I explained why I fully support what they do and that I’d like men to acknowledge the problems and be part of the solutions. It was all very friendly, and neither of us disagreed on a word from the other.  A few hours later Laura tweeted. “Wonder if [Ally Fogg] who I spoke with on BBC this morning has had as many “stupid bitch” comments/emails as I have since….”  The answer, of course, was no. I had received precisely none. Not so much as a token “dick.”

On Tuesday I read Lindy West’s Jezebel piece which recounted the stomach-churning responses she’d received after arguing against rape jokes as a lazy vein of comedy.  Then yesterday Rebecca Watson shared the latest volleys from a two-year barrage of hate and abuse. Now it is Thursday morning. If I were to look, I do not doubt I would find another example of it starting all over with someone else. Meanwhile, across the internet, pretty much every feminist article or blog on a high-profile platform, irrespective of its truth or merit, will attract either a smattering or a deluge of abuse, mockery, fury and hate. The broad realm of the manosphere will publish yet more screeds about the iniquity of women and the evil of feminism.

Among the more common search terms that brings people to my blog are phrases like “angry men” “why men are angry” or sometimes the almost plaintive “why are men so angry?” I believe it is an important question, and one to which my thoughts keep returning. This week has prompted me to begin a series of posts that I have been considering for some time. There is no doubt that many men are angry, and specifically they are angry with feminism and/or women. But why?

Let me be clear that I realise there are many expressions of hate and anger in the world, and especially online. Many women are angry with men or other women (including feminists), many men are angry with other men, many people are angry with politics, religion, the economic system or whatever. The extent and causes of those angers are perfectly legitimate topics, but they are not what I am interested in at the moment.  This series will be about men’s anger with feminism and I make no apologies for that.

There is no single answer to the question above. In trying to make sense of the broad tide, I’ve so far narrowed it down to ten discrete strands of male anger, and I plan to discuss each of them in a separate post. Of course any one man may be angry for several (even all) of the reasons listed, and they will often interact, but I would argue that one could be angry for any one of those reasons without sharing any of the others. I also make no distinctions (yet) between legitimate and illegitimate anger, whether or not complaints are reasonable and justified, and whether they should be dismissed, challenged or attended to. That will come in due course.

For now, I’d be really interested to know from readers whether you think this list is comprehensive? Are there other possible reasons for anger that I’ve missed? Which do you think are the most significant? Are any of the reasons I suggest completely spurious? (In other words, would you deny that anyone, anywhere falls into such a category?) Should any be merged together (ie, do they describe exactly the same thing?)

If you’ve ever been angry with feminists, which categories would you recognise yourself in? If you’ve been on the receiving end of male anger, where do you mostly attribute it? Depending upon your comments and feedback, I may revise the schedule or add to the list as appropriate. To get the conversation started, here are my ten suggestions for possible reasons why some men are so angry. Please help me think them through.

 

  1. Compassion and concern? – From fathers’ rights to men as victims of violence and abuse; from educational underachievement to economic redundancy to judicial policies to men’s physical and mental health, there are many real causes for anger about male gender-specific issues. The real question, perhaps, is not whether men should be angry, but who we should be angry with.
  2. The feminist stranglehold? It is often argued that by controlling the reins of gender issues, feminism actively works against the gender-specific interests of men and prevents issues like those outlined above being adequately addressed.   Is this true or fair?
  3. Backlash – political and social conservatism?Some people are conservative and reactionary. They think society was better as it was than as it is, and are resistant to further social change. That applies to gender roles more than anything. Is hostility to feminism because it represents a challenge to the existing social and political order, and specifically to male privilege?
  4. Misogyny? There is no escaping the fact that some men simply hate women or hold them in contempt.  Is anti-feminism always misogyny, as Dworkin argued? How truly endemic is misogyny online and in society?
  5. Bitterness? There’s a cruel stereotype of the antifeminist keyboard warrior as a bitter geek, unlucky in love, sitting in his underwear in his mum’s basement complaining about the friend zone.  Is it fair? Is it relevant?
  6. Men as success objects? – Many complaints from men address issues like hypergamy. There is a palpable resentment at being expected to be the higher earner, provider etc in an era of female economic independence. Are complaints about men as “success objects” justified?  
  7. Someone on the internet is wrong? – Anyone who expresses an opinion must be prepared to be told “I think you are wrong” by others. It may be on a point of verifiable fact, or it may be a rational argument, but if we accept the possibility that feminists can sometimes be wrong about things, we must accept the corollary of disagreement and argument, which may often breed anger.   
  8. Imps and trolls? Some people like to make mischief. Some people like to be rude, threatening or downright cruel. How much online abuse is truly heartfelt and how much is disingenuous trolling, and ultimately does it matter, given the impacts on the victim?
  9. Bruised egos and male identity pride? Human beings take pride in their collective identities. For some it is nationalism or sports tribalism, religion or race, for many it is gender. Is feminism taken as a personal attack that makes men bristle?
  10. You’re not the boss of me now? People don’t like being told what to do, and since much feminism is perceived to be focussed on personal behaviour (do this, don’t do that) there is a kneejerk hostility. Could it be true that men particularly don’t like being told what to do by women?

Blue touch paper lit, standing well back, over to you for now.

A quick interjection / open thread

Well this has been fun. It is hard to believe but I’ve only been here at FTB for a month and a day.

A quick update on the league tables

Posts = 14
Pageviews = 43,709
Comments = 1,381
Deleted comments (ex. spam) = 0
Banned users = 0
Stiff talkings to = a couple
Angry emails from a Member of Parliament = 2
Moments of intellectual stimulation = numerous
Moments of abject existential despair = sporadic
Moments of wry amusement = multiple
Violent hate mail = sparse.

So all in all, a pretty good start I think. Thank you sincerely to everyone for your visits and comments. I have left you to get on with many of the debates among yourselves, as I do have other things to be done in life, but I assure you I have read every single one of your comments and appreciated them all.

One thing I have come round to agreeing with (some) readers on – the nesting of comments (one deep) isn’t really working for me, so I guess probably not for you either. It’s just too annoying having to find the “reply” button, and harder to keep up with new comments without missing some.

So, sometime tomorrow I should be posting a new blog, the first of what I hope will be a series of interest to many of you. And just before I post it I shall turn nesting off altogether. I realise it will make some of your conversations on previous blogs go a bit haywire, but I think posterity shall cope.

I also intend to stop reposting old HetPat blogs and transfer the entire archive over here pretty soon. There are just one or two more reposts to come, I think.

In the meantime, do you have any other general thoughts? Opinions? Requests for future topics? Requests for widgets? Anything I can do to make your time here easier or more stimulating?

Or just chill and hang out. it’s good to be here.

 

 

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)

 

 

Why I am not a feminist

SERIES: FROM THE HETPAT ARCHIVES

(First published 26/06/12)

I had a lengthy chat with a producer from BBC Woman’s Hour the other day, about a feature they ran this morning on some men’s reluctance to identify as feminists. I missed out on the chance of a free BBC croissant in the end. This may have been partly down to my inconsiderate refusal to live in London like normal people, but in truth I think I lost her when I started channelling Nina Power on the reconstruction of feminism as a neoliberal capitalist accessory and the interchangeability of emancipation and consumption in the dominant discourse. With hindsight I should have stuck to the question of whether little girls can pee standing up.

The conversation did however give me pause to think about a fairly key question. I’m often told I am a feminist by others, in roughly equal measure as a compliment and an insult. I take it in the intended spirit either way. If others think I am a feminist so be it, but it is not how I define myself.  By coincidence, this morning also saw the launch of a new blog edited by Joseph Stashko, entitled Meninism, exploring the place of men in the movement. I had the honour of the first piece on there, in which I argue that the feminist trope “the patriarchy hurts men too” is not the solution to male-specific gender issues. The tl;dr version would be this: Even if patriarchy does hurt men too, that’s for men to realise and address; we can’t leave it to women and feminism to solve it for us.

Feminism is and should be a movement of women, for women and led by women. While any man can offer a voice of agreement, it is not for us to define the issues and prescribe the solutions. And with whom should we agree? Feminism is an impossibly diverse ideology, riven with internal argument and debate. To be a full participant in the movement, one needs to be able to take sides in those disputes. That puts a man in the impossible position of either telling half the feminists that you’re wrong and I know better, or else smiling and saying “well you both make very good points” like a liberal vicar trying to intervene in a pub fight.

If I’m forced to define my own politics, it would be in broad terms as a believer in social justice and human rights. From that perspective, I would have no qualms about telling a feminist that I think she is wrong about an issue. To take one example, there are many feminists who argue that there should be no prosecutions of women who make false allegations of rape. In my opinion, this is a patently unjust position, not from the perspective of feminism, but from the perspective of justice. A man who is grievously and maliciously wronged by such an act deserves redress, and others who may be so wronged deserve the protection of a legal deterrent. I can make that point more strongly and effectively if it is not prefaced by three little words ‘As a feminist…’ Indeed, I think a man who argues any point with those words is likely to find himself hoisted by the goolies, and probably deservedly so.

By identifying as a feminist, I would have a lot to lose, and little to gain. My stance does not preclude supporting feminists where I support their aims. For example, I actively supported the Slutwalk movement last year, not because I am a feminist, but because I agreed with the fundamental aims; I applauded their inclusive approach to men and trans people; and I admired the fusion of assertive female sexuality with demands for bodily autonomy and personal safety. I don’t need to define as a feminist to say that. On the contrary I’d like to think my words carry slightly more weight precisely because I do not.

Over the years I’ve been called feminist, pro-feminist and a ‘mangina’, I’ve been called anti-feminist and misogynist, and sometimes those allegations have all come in response to the same piece. Once there was a time when I cared about how my views were labelled by others, these days I mostly just eye them with curiosity. I’ll try to call the issues as I see them, and you can call me what you like. Deal?


Addendum 28/05/13

Another thing that has happened a couple of times recently is being called either a “good ally” or a “bad ally” by feminists. There was a long period of my life when I would have actively described myself as a feminist ally. I now prefer not to.

The reasons why are much as above, but perhaps slightly more to do with personal psychology. Being pegged as a good or bad ally feels very like having cookies offered or snatched away, as if my ideological purity is being subtly policed.

I appreciate compliments and I appreciate thoughtful criticism. I also appreciate cookies, big chocolatey ones, feel free to send some of those my way.  But lest there be any doubt, my name is Ally (the standard Scots diminutive of Alistair.)

It rhymes with shally, not shall I?

What could really be done to reduce rape

If the prime aim of the interviews and comments provided by Nick Ross this weekend was to publicise his new book, it is safe to say mission accomplished.

Ross is the veteran presenter of BBC’s Crimewatch series, and now the author of a new book simply called ‘Crime.’ His comments on rape prevention were highlighted by the Mail on Sunday which, he insists, grossly misrepresented and hyped his views. It seems to me that selling serialisation and interview rights to the Mail and then complaining about being misrepresented is a bit like inviting a viper up your trouser leg then complaining about being bitten. Predictably, his comments have invoked a storm of criticism and controversy.

Plenty of other commentators have already pointed out why comparing sexual integrity to theft of valuables is misguided, unhelpful and offensive. Others have talked about victim-blaming and the myths that significant numbers of rapes can be avoided by women adapting their social and sexual habits, clothing or other behaviours. I fully endorse those critiques.

But to Ross’s credit, he makes at least one important and under-appreciated point. He is quite right to observe that many victims of rape do not think of what happened to them as rape. This is something well known to researchers and academics, and is the main reason why crime surveys (such as BCS/CSEW) do not ask respondents ‘have you been raped?’ but something like ‘have you been forced to have sex when you did not want to?’ The latter question reaps vastly higher positive responses than the former. Whether this is accounted for by ignorance of the letter of the law, psychological defence mechanisms or the fuzzy boundaries between coercion and compulsion is hard to say.

What Ross misses is that the exact same applies to rapists. One conclusion that can be drawn from the work of David Lisak and others who have replicated his work is that when men are asked whether they have forced someone to have sex or other sexual contact against their will, disturbingly high numbers will say yes (between about 5% and 15% in different samples). When asked explicitly whether they have raped or assaulted someone, far fewer will admit it.

It may be that many rape victims do not describe the experience as rape because they simply do not understand what constitutes rape in law. It may also be a cognitive defence mechanism – that it is easier to cope with and heal from the trauma of the attack if one doesn’t consider it as a rape. I would suggest the exact same thing applies to rapists.

One of the important insights contained in Nicholas Groth’s classic typology of sexual offenders is that power rapists – the most common variety – often delude themselves into believing the victim wants what is happening to (usually) her and will come to enjoy it at the time or afterwards. Power rapists may want to buy the victim a drink or a gift after the attack or make conciliatory approaches (sometimes in the form of a half-hearted apology) the next day. In other words, such attackers do not want to think of themselves as rapists.

Last July a thread on Reddit invited users to confess if they had ever raped someone. The results were startling and controversial. One striking feature of the contributions was that many of those who admitted attacks described themselves as having been racked by indecision, doubt and uncertainty.

What this tells us, I think, is that rapists often do not think of themselves as rapists. Just like Nick Ross, and perhaps like many victims, they imagine a rapist to be the man in the bushes with a ski mask, not someone like them, not a (seemingly) ordinary guy who has a few drinks too many and refuses to take no for an answer.

It is vital that everyone understands that, in most respects, rapists are just like any other guy. It is equally important to understand that raping is not normal behaviour. By the best estimates, at least 90% of men will never rape anyone. Other men in the same situation would not do the same thing, because other men are not rapists. People who force sex upon others are statistical, psychological and moral aberrations.

This is why I, as a man, fully support feminist efforts to replace rape avoidance campaigns with genuine rape prevention campaigns. That means reducing the desire, the willingness, the motivation to commit rape in the first place. There are very good reasons to believe campaigns with slogans like “don’t be that guy” as opposed to “don’t be that girl” could be highly effective in reducing rape and sexual assault, because there are very good reasons to believe that many sexual offenders really don’t want to be “that guy.” They don’t want to think of themselves as abusers, don’t want to think of themselves as rapists. They are actively looking for loopholes which allow them to think that it wasn’t entirely their fault, the victim takes a share of responsibility, or that anyone would do the same in the circumstances. This is why even well-intended advice to women on their supposed responsibility to avoid being raped can actively contribute to the problem.

More importantly, I think, sex education (both at school and in the broader cultural conversation) needs vastly stronger emphases on the meaning, nature and importance of enthusiastic consent. This would also help to address the issue of forced penetration assaults by women on men, particularly within relationships, which is being increasingly recognised as a real and serious issue.

Slut-shaming, which attempts to stifle women’s expressions of their sexual desires and encourages them to play coy or hard-to-get, needs to be banished once and for all. There is perhaps no more dangerous cultural meme than the idea that “no means maybe and maybe means yes.”   

Realistically, there will always be sociopaths, sadists, damaged and damaging individuals for whom no amount of education or awareness will help. There will always be rape, just as there will always be assaults and murders. However changing appreciation of consent, improved awareness and a change in culture has already produced significant reductions in the incidence of rape. Those who said, 40 years ago, that rape was a fact of human nature and nothing could be done to change that, have been proven utterly wrong. I see no reason to believe that we couldn’t improve things much further still.

In defence of freedom of speech

SERIES: FROM THE HETPAT ARCHIVES

First published June 18th 2012

 

I am not the most dedicated gamer of my generation. I never owned a Pong machine or a Gameboy, a ZX Spectrum or a SNES. I’ve never played Grand Theft Auto, Tomb Raider or Final Fantasy. My only engagement with an XBox is the occasional attempt to prise my 10 year old son away from Minecraft, an experience roughly akin to dragging a hippie raver out of a K-hole. The closest I’ve come to pixellated sexual violence against women has been blasting a red shell up Princess Peach’s exhaust pipe on MarioKart.

So I don’t have much in the way of informed opinions about misogyny in video games, I’ll leave that to others. Nonetheless I couldn’t help but be sucked in by the debate surrounding Kickstarter Anita Sarkeesian, as good an illustration as we’ll ever need of the vitriol of the new gender wars. An intense storm of hatred was roused by her modest idea to crowd-fund research into sexism in the games industry. The many thousands of hostile comments posted on Sarkeesian’s YouTube video were of course heavily gendered and sexualised, but so too was some of the retaliation – notably Charlie Brooker’s description of the mob as “idiotic pebbledicks” who are terrified of women.

If one of the worst offences committed by sexists and anti-feminists online is to reduce women and their opinions to their genitalia and sexual worth, I’m not sure how the cause is helped by turning the precise same missiles around and hurling them back in the other direction – however deserving of mockery and disgust the targets might be.  Without doubt, the hate-fest directed at Sarkeesian was repellent and indefensible. It was a display of the madness of crowds which would have come as no surprise to Mackay or Le Bon (Gustave, that is, not Simon.) There were a few sane voices raised in defence of the gaming culture, and a few reasonable points made about creative freedom and the demands of the free market. But such comments were few and far between, and lost in a swamp of ugly abuse.

In all the online articles and commentary that appeared, a point recurred that this phenomenon is an inevitable price of freedom. If we grant free expression, we also grant freedom to abuse, insult and offend. It’s a seductive argument, with a lot of merit. Offence is indeed in the eye of the beholder, and there has never been an opinion of value which didn’t cause offence to someone. But just as my right to swing my fist ends where it meets your right to not be punched in the face, so my right to freedom of speech does not extend to the point where it silences others.

Let there be no doubt, the hate campaign waged against Anita Sarkeesian was a concerted attempt to silence her voice, using intimidation and psychological warfare. The misogyny expressed may have been rooted deep in the personalities of her antagonists, but in most cases I doubt it. Instead I suspect it was instrumental, using vocabulary consciously chosen to wound as deeply as possible, and aimed at the (assumed) weak points of a woman and a feminist.

The use of hate speech, threats and bullying to terrify and intimidate people into silence or away from certain topics is a far bigger threat to free speech than any legal sanction.

Imagine this is not the internet but a public square. One woman stands on a soapbox and expresses an idea. She is instantly surrounded by an army of 5,000 angry people yelling the worst kind of abuse at her in an attempt to shut her up. Yes, there’s a free speech issue there. But possibly not the one you think.

This boot can sometimes be on the other foot. While there is no direct symmetry, we have seen the same principle at play in the concerted attempts of some feminists (mostly, but not entirely historic) to stifle debate about male victims and female perpetrators of domestic violence, with activists, writers and academics being branded misogynists and abusers for even raising the issues. Anyone who dares to raise a sceptical voice in many feminist blog spaces can expect more aggression and abuse than reasoned debate. The urge to silence opponents is probably a human one, and for that reason it is all the more important we are conscious of it in ourselves and wary of it in others.

Those who participate in online hate campaigns are not the champions of freedom of speech, but its worst enemies. If they consider themselves libertarians, they are a disgrace to the label. It is not easy to see the solution. Censorship is never the answer, far too many babies go out with the filthy bathwater. Nor do I want to see our prisons filled with hot-headed flamers and trolls.

All we can do is be wise to the nature of these online flame wars, and be prepared to challenge abusive, insulting, silencing behaviour wherever it emerges; be prepared to confront bullies and mob mentality wherever they arise.

We can do that by questioning what they pack in their politics, not what they pack in their pants.

Terror and the Unknown Soldier

“In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation. ”
– Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle

In the afternoon light of a busy London street, two young men smash their car directly into the fragile flesh of a third; jump out, and hack his broken body into pieces.  Hands red with blood and heavy with weapons, they linger over their victim, awaiting reaction.

Women of unimaginable courage impose themselves between killers and killed, preventing further desecration of a lifeless corpse, which lies in a T-shirt proclaiming “Help For Heroes.”

All around camera phones are held in shaking hands, freezing the scene as jpeg, liquidising it as mpeg. Exclusive interviews granted to random lenses, a garbled manifesto of anger, hate, despair and confusion.

A cub-scout leader engages the assassins with Akela’s calm authority, trying to persuade them to lay down the blades and the gun, avert further violence. “My mum is a mutherfuckin badass.”

Sirens, helicopter, state-sanctioned bullets, more blood.

“Mate ive seen alot of shit im my time but that has to rank sumwhere in the top 3. I couldnt believe my eyes. That was some movie shit”  

A million tweets and updates hail down with ostentatious bravado.

Around 6pm a source close to government issues the official kite-mark of a capital T. This was not an act of criminality and hate, not a moment of horror but an act of Terror. Gloves off.

Fascists gather to gleefully parade their anger and display their drunken might. Black and brown neighbours shelter at home, fearful of violent reprisals from those who declare their opposition to Terror with a strictly capital T. Brave defenders of decent Christian values mask themselves behind matching EDL-branded balaclavas and hurl bricks at the police.

Hot from the presses, the papers prepare to grace the breakfast tables of the nation. From the front page of the world’s leading liberal voice stares the eyes of a killer, black-clad, black-skinned, red-handed, his words afforded banner status: “You people will never be safe.” An act of terror with a strictly lower-case t.

Meanwhile a young man about whom we know nearly nothing lies dead, unseen, unnamed, all but forgotten; no different to the countless bodies from either side littering the landscapes of Afghanistan and Iraq. But unlike them, he is a casualty not of war, not of hate, not of anger, not of madness, not of religion, not of politics. He is a casualty of spectacle.

 

UPDATE

About 12 hours after I posted this blog, the victim of the Woolwich attack was named as Drummer Lee Rigby, from Crumpsall, Manchester, aged 25, and father to a two year old son named Jack.

RIP.