Dear Diane – about this crisis…

Dear Diane Abbott

This week you took the opportunity presented by a speech at Demos to say some things I have been waiting to hear a British politician say for a long time, and for that I thank you. I’m particularly grateful for the attention you gave to the excellent work of the Men’s Health Forum, and their report which reminds us that men are more likely to take their own lives than women, have lower educational attainment at all levels of the education system, are more likely to be homeless, and are less likely to access NHS services.

I’m thankful too that you acknowledged the key role of fathers in family life and your support for father-friendly parenting classes, meaningful parental leave for men and more conversations between fathers and sons about manhood, all of which are thoroughly good things, at least in families where it is an option. I also agree with you, to a certain extent, that social and economic changes have left many young men, particularly from poor and working class backgrounds, unsure of their expected role. I have said much the same myself. The collapse of manufacturing industry and the restructuring of the family unit and family finances have left young men like Great Britain after the second world war: having lost an empire and not yet found a role.

All of these points were made and needed to be made. Unfortunately most of the media that covered your speech paid little or no attention to these important points. They focused on the other things you said. You know, the stuff about hypermasculine culture creating a generation of disaffected young men, fuelling heartlessness, homophobia, machismo and misogyny, as the Guardian put it. All the papers lapped up the line about “Jack Daniels and Viagra,” a real zinger.

I have no idea where the recipe for this particular cocktail originates. I’ve never heard of it before. Perhaps you are mixing up alienated young people with former members of Guns ‘N’ Roses, I don’t know. But as shadow minister for public health, I would expect you to have some idea of the official statistics and peer-reviewed research into the topics you discuss. Those data paint a picture of young people’s men’s lives which is utterly unrecognisable from the one you describe.

Earlier this year, the ONS published its annual report on juvenile crime. You should read it Diane, partly because it is fascinating and heartening, but mostly because, well, it’s your job. Here are just a few highlights.

Overall there were 137,335 proven offences by young people in 2011/12, down 22 per cent from 2010/11 and down 47 per cent since 2001/02. In the last year there has been a notable reduction in offences committed by young people, in particular; criminal damage (down 28%), public order (down 27%), theft and handling (down 23%) and violence against the person offences (down 22%).
There were 1,888 proven sexual offences associated with young people on the YOT caseload, this accounted for less than two percent of all offences.

In the data tables which accompanied that report, there is a section on proven offences by type, which compares to a decade earlier – 2001/2. Violence against the person: down 14%. Criminal damage: down 53%. Drugs offences: down 8%. The category ‘Other’ neatly captures most of the rarer types of behaviour that concern you: sexual offences; hate crimes and so on: they are down 47% since 01/02.

Most crime and anti-social behaviour, not to mention most problematic drink and drug use, is the work of young men below the age of 30, and always has been. When we look at trends in adult crime, it is for the most part young male adults we are discussing. And the trends with adult crime are the same. The trends with adult drug use are the same.

On less-easily measured topics, such as the homophobia you mention, official statistics are less helpful, although ever since ACPO started collecting data on hate crimes, just five years ago, the trend for every category except disability-related hate crime has been downward. You might also want to have a look at Mark McCormack’s work on homophobia in schools, which gives considerable reasons for optimism.

So too do the statistics on teenage conceptions, which are the best guide to sexual responsibility among young people. Such data suggest that young people are more sexually responsible than they were a few years ago, and vastly more so than either your generation or mine.

As a final point, your claim that gender-based violence such as sexual offences and domestic abuse invariably rise during recessions is simplistic and inaccurate. It has never been really true, and the most up to date statistics available show that such offences are continuing to decline, with no evidence that this devastating and prolonged recession is altering the trend.

One member of your audience from yesterday recorded her impressions of your speech in the Guardian. Like you, Laurie Penny makes some excellent and important points about men and masculinity, but she appears to have fallen for the sensational drama of your rhetoric. It was striking that in an article which pleaded for “us” to talk about the wellbeing of men and boys, and the nature of modern masculinity, she was diverted into defending first single-mothers and then feminists from unfair attacks. Like you, she appears to have fallen into the trap of thinking that the myriad social and economic issues confronting boys and young men today only really become a problem when they impact upon others – particularly upon women. Once again, to echo Glen Poole, a debate which should have been about how young men have problems has become a debate about how young men are problems.

Diane, I welcome your speech and Laurie’s article. We do need to talk about these topics, and some of the problems facing many young men are real and critically important. But I make one simple request of you. Please consider that one of the most damaging and corrosive social problems facing young men today is the widespread, irrational fear they face in the media and in society. Newspapers and politicians unfairly and inaccurately portray modern young men and boys as violent, abusive, feral and destructive. These stereotypes are in themselves enormously damaging, especially when it comes to a working class lad – and above all a black working class lad – finding employment and fulfilling his educational potential. These things can so easily become self-fulfilling prophecies.  If you really want to help solve the problems facing young men, I would beg that your first step should be to cease adding to the problems facing young men today.

Best wishes,

Ally

x

 

UPDATE:

Excellent blog, which could be seen as a companion piece to this one, picking apart more of the claims underpinning the supposed Crisis of Masculinity at Decline of the Logos

We don’t call this sexism, we call it, err…

SERIES: FROM THE HETPAT ARCHIVES

[Note: I was unsure which archive piece to reanimate next. This piece closely echoes some of the discussions in the comments under the two pieces on misandry, so I figured it made sense to bring it out now and we can officially declare this Misandry Week on Heteronormative Patriarchy for Men and get it all over with at once. I assure new readers, I really do talk about a lot of other things too, honestly, and we will move onto those shortly. In the meantime…]

First published July 25th 2012

 

We live in a viciously gendered world. Roles for both men and women are socialised into us from the day we are born and heavily reinforced from all quarters until the day we die. Men are raised to perform certain roles, just as women are. The masculine gender identity is built upon the  repression of many, perhaps most, emotions. We have self-preservation instincts trained out of us, with narratives around courage, heroism and self-sacrifice. Violence is integral – we are taught to tolerate and expect it from others and to inflict it upon others in response to attack, challenge or insult. And then we wonder why some boys grow to be violent men.

The result is a model of adult masculinity which must be directly implicated in mental and physical ill-health, suicide and criminality. It is exploited, and indeed encouraged, by systems of governance which turn boys and men into cannon-fodder. It largely explains why men make up 92% of workplace deaths and about 95% of prison places. It’s why male babies in England and Wales are 27% more likely to be murdered than girls before the age of one, 40% more likely before the age of 5 and 45% more likely to be murdered before the age of 16. It is partly why more males than females die among every age cohort, of pretty much every cause. It’s also why men are seen to be, and often feel emasculated by caring and parenting roles or working with children. It’s why male domestic violence victimisation is commonly mocked and usually unreported, like male rape and other sexual abuse.

It is often assumed that aggression, risk taking and violence are inherent to maleness, a product of testosterone or neurology. This seems unlikely. If it were true, why would boys need to have all of these traits literally beaten into us by parents, teachers and (above all) our peers? Why would we need such extensive social shaming and so many conformity triggers to make them stick? Perhaps there is a nugget of truth to some generalised assumptions about gender differences, but even if so, they are magnified many fold by social intervention.

And none of it, literally none of it, is a privilege. One salutory exercise, I think, is to pick up a war book like All Quiet on the Western Front or The Naked and the Dead or Michael Herr’s Dispatches, and read it through the lens of gender politics. What do we see? Young men, often still in their teens, dragged by legal and social obligation into visions of hell from Goya’s nightmares. They weren’t selected by suitability for the role by personality or physicality, they were sent to be killed, tortured, maimed and traumatised, and indeed to kill, torture, maim and traumatise others, on one characteristic alone: their gender.

I did recently pick up Norman Mailer’s book again and skimmed a few random chapters. When I first read it more than 20 years ago, I was shocked by the shameless misogyny. Only now could I recognise that the characters’ attitudes to women (and I suspect Mailer’s too) were forged in a furnace of dehumanisation and brutalisation. It must be hard to feel compassion for your wife at home or the prostitute on the corner when you’ve spent the day slaughtering other men. Mailer would later write that “Masculinity is not something given to you, but something you gain. And you gain it by winning small battles with honour.” Such as the honour, perhaps, of desperately trying to shove your best mate’s intestines back in through the gaping hole in his stomach.

Lest you think these atrocities now live only in history books and novels, bear in mind that there is still male-only compulsory military conscription in about 80 countries, or more than one third of the nations on Earth. Somewhere between 500,000 and a million conscripts are believed to have died in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. Had they survived, most would be younger than I am. This is not history. This is now.

Of course civilians, often women, die in huge numbers in modern warfare, in no less horrific circumstances. But they are not chosen to die because of their gender. And we should need no reminders of mass rape campaigns and other colossal war crimes against women and girls that so often accompany conflicts. The difference is that these are (rightly) identified as gender crimes and major international bodies are dedicated to campaigning against them, combating them and prosecuting the perpetrators. It is not uncommon for an army to conquer a territory, separate the women and girls to be raped, and the men and boys to be murdered. But only one of those is usually considered a gender crime.

The standard liberal feminist or egalitarian stance here is that it is patriarchy that genders war. Sexism decrees that women are too weak, too delicate for the battlefield so it must be left to the bigger, stronger, braver men. The solution, they argue, is for equal combat roles, equal conscription, equal numbers of women and men doing the killing and dying. I find that obscene. In what moral universe is it a better to have as many women slaughtered on the front line as men? As a culture we have always tended towards casual indifference to the deaths of ordinary men, and been comparatively sensitive to the loss of ‘innocent’ women and children. It’s the first value that needs changing, not the second.

Another feminist response is to say that, horrific though it may be, this is not sexism. Sexism is the systematic oppression of one gender by another. I don’t agree with that definition, but never mind. So this is not the oppression of one gender by another, it is the oppression of one gender by the values of the ruling class. What do we call that then?

I do not pretend I have a magic wand to hand. We are talking thousands of years of cultural habits that need to be challenged here, and quite literally all the powerful vested interests in the world. But then we said the same about feminism once. What I do know is that before you can solve any problem you have to recognise that it exists and identify it for what it is.

If you don’t want to call this sexism, then fine, call it what you like. By any other name, it smells just as foul.

——————–

CREDIT WHERE DUE: Much of the inspiration and booklearnin’ for this post, though not the conclusion, came from David Benatar’s recent book The Second Sexism, which I wrote about here.

Is misandry simply misogyny in disguise?

When I wrote recently on the misandry isn’t a thing thing, the counter-argument which I found most interesting and challenging went something like this:

All the examples Ally provided were cases of PHMT [patriarchy hurts men too]; if femininity and woman-ness weren’t considered bad things, then men wouldn’t be punished for “adulterating” themselves with such girl-cooties. And if women weren’t seen as inherently weak and passive, it would no longer be an Unthinkable that a man could be the victim of a woman. [Comment from Jadehawk]

A shorter version, put to me by several people on Twitter, was that what I describe as cultural misandry is nothing more than misogyny in disguise. Is it true? Not quite, in my opinion.

I would and do accept that misogyny and misandry are not opposing forces, but parallel, and very closely related. They grow from the same socio-economic roots and they complement, even actively support each other. That does not make them one and the same. There is a very similar theory about prejudice against gay men and transgendered people – that these stem from a hatred or fear of femininity in men. And yet nobody demands that we drop the words homophobia and transphobia as a result and simply refer to them as ‘misogynistic’ attacks. To do so would make invisible the specific nature of the offences, and imply that, for example, when gay men are beaten senseless in homophobic attacks, the real victims are women.

To illustrate, let’s look at one of the more infamous examples of cultural misandry from recent years. In July 2011, US chatshow The Talk discussed the gruesome sexual mutilation committed by Catherine Kieu Becker on her husband. The show’s hosts and guests, notably Sharon Osbourne, discussed the case with relish and celebratory delight, hooting and howling with laughter for a good five minutes.  The case that day was real and new, the victim was at that very moment hospitalised from his wounds, and the section on The Talk (for which they later offered a fulsome apology) was genuinely shocking and stomach-churning.

It is surely unarguable that this was a case of misandry. No other noun could suffice. The gender dynamics are obvious and inescapable. To describe this as misogyny would again imply that although it was a man who had been grotesquely mutilated and then gleefully mocked, the real victims here are still women.  That strikes me as a rather inhumane approach to the issue, which actively excludes a man’s suffering from the equation.

It would seem to me that a better way to understand cultural misandry is not that our society holds that male=strong / female=weak. It is that our society wants to constrain and imprison us into gender roles that match our genitalia. It is often noted that character traits which are considered positive in a man at the workplace (such as assertiveness or aggression) will be seen as negative in a woman (strident, bitchy, bossy). So assertiveness and aggression aren’t held to be negatives or positives in their own right, but become so when they are mis-gendered. The exact same thing is true of sensitivity and caring – seen as positive when displayed by a woman, negative when displayed by a man. It is certainly true that across the board typically female traits are considered less valuable and admirable than typically male traits – I am not saying our society is a post-patriarchal utopia – but it looks to me like the real crime in society is not so much displaying female characteristics per se as displaying characteristics which do not match one’s socially prescribed gender roles.

I don’t argue that patriarchy is the single dominant force in society, I think of it as just one of many oppressive dynamics which holds Global Inc together. Misogyny strengthens the patriarchy, which in turn props up the economic system. So too does homophobia, so too (indirectly) does racism, colonialism, the class system and, crucially, so too does misandry.

The related point, made by many of my detractors, is that oppression is not the same as prejudice. Oppression (such as sexism or misogyny) is prejudice + power. My own position is that while men do indeed have a dominant position over women in society, and this is a real and huge issue to be addressed, the systemic ruling class has vastly more power over both binary genders than either has over the other. Men and women alike are oppressed by capitalist culture. Yes, a significant part of men’s oppression is the imperative to oppress others, but to argue that men are not oppressed because they oppress others, or because they are not oppressed by women seems to miss the bigger picture.

I have no problem acknowledging that patriarchy hurts men too. I would go further, and argue that reciting patriarchy hurts men too should not be a way to end a conversation, but to begin one.  Why does patriarchy hurt men too? How does it do so? How do we help those who are hurt? How do we prevent others being hurt similarly? Those, primarily, are not questions for women/feminists to address, but for men. We’re not only the ones who sit on the receiving end, we are also often the ones doling it out to others.

When a feminist says in one breath “patriarchy hurts men too” then in the next breath “misandry isn’t a thing” it seems to me a contradiction. If patriarchy hurts men too, then we need the language and terms of reference with which we can discuss that. If misogyny is one principal mechanism by which the patriarchy hurts women, misandry is a principal mechanism by which patriarchy hurts men too. Denying the existence of misandry effectively denies that patriarchy hurts men too.

As a general political principle, it always seems to me that we don’t overthrow the existing order (whether we’re talking patriarchy or neoliberal capitalism or whatever you want to call it) by exploding the entire edifice in a big bang. We undermine it by chipping away at every strut, every pillar, every beam that supports it. I don’t call on feminism to solve men’s problems for us. I do assert a need for the essential intellectual space and terminology to address them ourselves.

On the misandry isn’t a thing thing

SERIES: FROM THE HETPAT ARCHIVES

(Note: I have a follow-up to this post currently bubbling on the stove, so thought I would throw this up here now.)

First published: April 4th 2013

 

As I have written many times before, I believe people who are concerned about women’s human rights and wellbeing and about men’s human rights and wellbeing should be natural allies. That’s pretty much the core of my philosophy on gender issues. I’ve made clear my disdain for men’s activists who lay blame for most of men’s problems at the door of feminism. I also despair of the logic which says any and all feminist activism is, by definition, misandrist.

So all things considered, I should have been applauding Lindy West’s blog on Jezebel last week, where she basically made those precise same points. Truth is, I hated it. Partly that was down to the tone, which I found painfully patronising. In lecturing men on the male experience and the extent and nature of men’s problems, she provided a rare example of what we might call “womansplaining.” (Incidentally, a word to male readers – if you want to know why many women get so annoyed by us guys explaining to them what feminism is and should be, read the article, flip the genders and empathise.)

I’d add that in her “Part 4: A list of Men’s Rights issues that feminism is already working on”, she paints a rosy portrait of feminism which ducks most of the more credible complaints. To take just one example, she says:  “Feminists do not want women to escape prosecution on legitimate domestic violence charge” which, firstly, is not entirely true – there are a few feminists who argue that women accused of domestic abuse are almost invariably acting in self-defence. More significantly, it dodges the point that very many feminists have actively and furiously resisted attempts to highlight male victimisation and argue and lobby strongly against gender-neutral approaches to the problem.          

In amongst all that, one of her arguments in particular raised an issue that I’ve wanted to address for a while, and that is the meme “misandry isn’t a thing” (or in Lindy’s version, “misandry isn’t real.”) This is a common refrain within modern feminism, often used as a throwaway dismissal of a (perceived) male troll or heckler.  Here it is explained and used as a central basis to the argument, which gives us something to get our teeth into.

Dictionaries define misandry as hatred of men. A more detailed working definition might be something like ‘an extreme or irrational hatred, fear, demonization or contempt for men.’ Lindy West readily admits that there are some radical feminists or wounded women who really do hate men, and that our culture produces many derogatory and unfair portrayals of men, but insists that “misandry is not a genuine, systemic, oppressive force on par with misogyny.”

What feminists mean when they say ‘misandry isn’t a thing’ is that because our society systematically privileges men and disempowers women, misogyny serves a different cultural purpose, has different and more damaging impacts and grows from different roots to misandry. To a certain extent I agree with that, but saying misandry is not the mirror image of misogyny does not mean that misandry does not exist at all. I believe that arguing that misandry isn’t real is damaging to men, damaging to women and damaging to the struggle for social justice.

I would distinguish three common varieties of misandry which are most definitely real. The first is a personal prejudice, which may often arise from damaging or hurtful experiences at the hands of men, creating a negative stereotype heuristic. This may not be admirable, but it is often understandable. The second is an ideological misandry arising from certain strains of radical feminism, roughly caricatured as the ‘all men are rapists’ tendency. I think such ideas are wrong and harmful, but I’m also far from convinced that these people are anywhere close to being numerous or powerful enough to cause any real damage, except perhaps to feminism itself.

The third variety of misandry is the one that seriously concerns me, and it is worth looking in detail at what it is and what it does. Cultural misandry is a significant force in policing and constraining the roles of men, and indeed women in society. Our capitalist hegemonic culture (or patriarchy, if you prefer) considers it acceptable to routinely mock and denigrate men’s domestic and child-caring abilities because this acts strongly to discourage deviations from the gender status quo, from which vested interests profit. Our culture systematically devalues male deaths (in news reports specifying numbers of deaths of women and children, for instance) because economic interests require a degree of male disposability in the workplace and military interests may require the mass dispatch of young men to die on battlefields at a moment’s notice. When society mocks and reviles male victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse, the subtext is that that it is women’s place to be victimized and oppressed, not men’s.

When feminists say that misandry isn’t a thing, what I hear is that these issues are so minor, so marginal that they are insignificant. It is not just that they are unworthy of attention, they are not even worthy of a word to describe them. If Lindy West really wants more men to be allies to the feminist movement and wants us to believe that feminism really is on our side, then I struggle to see how this type of rhetoric is in any way helpful.

I’m not for a moment suggesting that feminism should suddenly drop its struggles for women’s equality, autonomy, safety and welfare in favour of challenging male-only military conscription or setting up hostels for male abuse victims, I don’t think that is or should be feminism’s job. Nor do I think that all allegations of misandry should be considered reasonable or accurate.  But I would suggest that if we want to end what Lindy calls the “endless, fruitless turd-pong” between men’s activists and feminists online, some rhetorical habits might need to change on both sides.

Empathy and the New Gender Wars

SERIES: FROM THE HETPAT ARCHIVES

(Note: Over my first few weeks at Freethought Blogs, I shall be reposting some pieces from the archives at my previous home, alternated with new posts. Once we all start to get bored with me recycling old material, I’ll transfer the entire archive for you to peruse at your leisure. I’ll begin  with the first blog I ever wrote for Heteronormative Patriarchy For Men.)

First published June 2012

 

In the spring of 1979, the long battle for social justice and equality in the UK entered a dramatic new era. In electing Margaret Hilda Thatcher as Prime Minister, the British people served notice that gender was no longer an insurmountable barrier to attaining even the highest office. The ultimate glass ceiling had been breached and shattered, and for twelve long years the shards would rain painfully down on the poor, the working class and the vulnerable, leaving deep wounds which bleed to this day in our inner cities and the former industrial heartlands of Britain.

At the precise same time, five hundred miles from Downing Street, I was watching at close quarters as a very different battle for gender justice raged. I was a first year pupil at a large state school in the East of Scotland, a mixed-sex comprehensive which merely aspired to the standard of bog. As was typical of the time, each week our class was divided for a couple of hours. The girls would learn home economics (a euphemism for cookery and sewing) while the boys would take technical studies – metalwork, woodwork and technical drawing. I was ham-fisted and uninterested in the subject, then as now, and my lacklustre efforts to shape some dowelling rods into a wobbly mug rack must have been as frustrating and pointless for my unfortunate teachers as they were for me.  More than once I’d pondered whether it might be more useful for me to learn how to boil an egg

In my form class were a couple of pupils, aged 12 or 13, who took exception to the school rules. Aileen and Helen were very clever and quietly assertive. One day they decided that their education might be better served by the rudiments of engineering than the need to whip up a sponge cake or let down a petticoat hem. They lined up for a battle for equality, flanked by supportive parents and, crucially, the head of the technical department. Across those trenches were the head of home economics – an elderly, fearsome traditionalist called Miss Dyer, the headmaster and school council.

Aileen and Helen’s claim for gender rights went all the way to the local authority, and they won. That September they joined the boys in the workshops, the first two girls ever to study technical subjects at Perth High. They were not only bright and gifted with their hands, but of course they were highly motivated and, almost inevitably, they finished the year at the top of the class by some distance. Their mug racks probably still stand to this day, while I never did master a soft boiled egg. A year later, the rules changed and both boys and girls were finally provided with a genuinely comprehensive education.

I don’t think anyone in my class objected to or resented the girls’ victory. To me, and I think the vast majority of my peers, their demands were palpably, unarguably just and fair. As a female industrial chemist was taking charge of the country, how could it possibly be right that girls were excluded from any subject?

My generation was born and raised with women’s liberation in the air. Those crusty old men who resisted the tide were mocked and branded male chauvinist pigs. From an early age our teachers and, in many cases, our parents impressed upon us a certainty that girls could do anything boys can do – if not always vice versa. The battle fought by two young girls in my own class was being replicated in other schools, workplaces and households throughout the country and the developed world. Legislation for equal pay and equal opportunities was in place and beginning to take chunk after chunk out of historic inequalities. If anything seemed strange to me, it was not that women were demanding and achieving equal rights, it was that those rights had ever been denied in the first place.

Jumping forward about 30 years, I find myself writing about the trenches of a new gender war. It is for the most part a war of words not bullets. Others have used a similar metaphor to allege or describe the War Against Women or the War Against Boys, detailing the physical, political and social impacts of our gender disordered society, I do not subscribe to either case. Instead, the war I describe is the frontline of the debate, the angry, vitriolic volleys of argument, abuse and insults that provide the mood music to all discussion of men’s and women’s issues online.

Of course like all media, the internet thrives on conflict. Arguments about religion, politics, ethnicity or the environment can also spark impassioned dispute and some nasty name-calling, but gender debates stand out for the sheer animosity. The threads and blogs are not just politically charged; they are wildly emotional and deeply personal.

Some see this as the sparks from the dying embers of a patriarchal era, the last gasps of male chauvinism. I believe the phenomenon is new, and different. Most of the people involved seemed to be younger than me, born and raised in the era of equal rights. Susan Faludi’s epic feminist tome Backlash detailed the reactionary forces of the capitalist establishment which strive to keep women in their place, from the media to academia to big business. Those forces still exist, as a quick glance at the Daily Mail’s Sidebar of Shame will reveal, but these new voices are different. They are not, for the most part, the custodians of power and privilege stomping on uppity egalitarian rebels.

The cry from that side of these trenches is more a chorus of despair from (mostly) young men who feel disempowered, maligned and yes, perhaps, emasculated by the prevailing analysis of gender issues. On the other side are feminists who mostly find it laughable that any man could complain about his place in the gender pecking order when it is still overwhelmingly men who run our institutions, our corporations and our governments. At the salient peak of feminism, we have women using their expensive private schooling, Oxbridge degrees, national newspaper columns and Westminster lobby passes to decry the privilege of men, be they billionaire bankers or homeless street-drinkers.

It seems to me that something is often absent from these debates on both sides, and that is a willingness to view the battlefield from the other side. The hostile, accusatory tone of gender debates has led to many positions becoming defensive. The online wars become ever more entrenched. If we are to find a path out of the trenches, it will be on a map drawn with compassion and empathy.

I’m not the first to make this point, and if I am not standing on the shoulders of giants here, I’m at least treading on the toes of a few fellow travellers. Nonetheless I expect and indeed welcome plenty of disagreement with my positions from men and women, feminists and men’s rights activists alike. I’m not hoping or even attempting to fix the men’s movement, far less fix feminism. If readers take anything from this blog, I hope it is that amid the blogosphere’s myriad commands to check our privilege and check our facts, we make occasional effort to check our empathy too.

Yes, Joseph Harker, white society really is implicated in sexual abuse

In the Guardian on Monday, Joseph Harker wrote a piece which was met with equal parts disdain and acclaim. It reflected on around 18 months of horrific news of sexual abuse in the UK, which began with a succession of convictions for members of child grooming and rape rings, mostly but not entirely involving  British-Asian Muslims. This was followed by the ongoing scandal of sexual crimes and child abuse by an ever-lengthening list of prominent celebrities and public figures, some alleged and under investigation, some admitted, many, of course, involving the TV presenter and DJ Jimmy Savile – now believed to be perhaps the most prolific sex offender ever to have been unmasked, albeit only after his death.

Harker employed thick satire to contrast the ways in which the media and public debate has covered the two different scandals. The first focussed heavily on the culture from which the rapists and abusers were drawn, their ethnicity, their religion in particular. The second focussed on evil individuals doing bad things and their personal criminality or pathology. A couple of typical quotes:

“But after the shock has subsided and we have time to reflect on these revolting crimes, the main question in most reasonable people’s minds must surely be: what is it about white people that makes them do this?

and

“First, though, we need to find out what’s causing the problem. Is it something to do with white people’s culture?

Harker is quite right to point out the double standards at play in reporting the two scandals, and the racist undertones to much of the reporting of the first. But beyond that, I actually agree with what Joseph Harker says. I don’t mean I agree with his satirically veiled message, I mean I literally agree with the actual words he says – or at least quite a lot of them. Is this problem something to do with white people’s culture? Yes, Joseph, it bloody well is.

Of course it is questionable whether such a thing as ‘white people’s culture’ actually exists. It would be rather more accurate to say ‘white British people’s cultures,’ and even then it would obscure some vast diversity. But exactly the same is true of, say, ‘African-Caribbean culture’ or ‘the British Muslim community,’ though both terms are commonly cited, not least by African-Caribbean people and Muslims. So, for ease of argument, let’s assume we are talking about the full range of the ethnically European, monolinguistically English-speaking, culturally-Christian population or,more simply, the ethnic majority. The phrase ‘white culture’ might be deliberately provocative and problematic, but I think it describes something real. Since Harker has thrust the phrase upon us, I shall continue to use it.

Sexual abuse does not occur in a social vacuum. Yes, the personal psychology, selfish motivations or pathology of the offender are always the primary cause, but the human environment plays a vital role too. Offenders can be encouraged in their behaviour by prevailing social norms which recount that victims are “asking for it” by behaving or dressing in particular ways. That is culture. A default attitude of disbelief towards victims who report assaults allows offenders to continue to attack with impunity – we know that several victims of both Jimmy Savile and Cyril Smith attempted to report attacks and were rebuffed by police or other authorities. That is culture. The abusive behaviour of powerful people can be considered as entitlements, not only by offenders themselves but by their colleagues, subordinates and friends. That is culture. When such a prominent commentator as Richard Dawkins says that child sex abuse is less harmful than religious indoctrination, it does indeed trivialise abuse. That is culture. That is my culture. British culture. White culture. Yes, we should have a fucking hard look at ourselves and examine everything we, as a society, might have been doing over the decades to enable, encourage and cover up these types of horrendous acts and what we can do to prevent others.

This, of course, was not what Joseph Harker intended us to take from his article. His point, I’m sure, is that sexual abuse and exploitation happens in all societies, all communities, and of course he is correct. But this misses the point that the nature and circumstances of such crimes can change from one community to the next, as can the social roots which give rise to them. We live in a multicultural society and the attitudes which enable abuse in one culture may not be identical to those in another. The steps which might need to be taken to prevent future abuse in one culture may not be identical to those in another.

Bundling together all cases of child sex abuse as if they are all identical and require blanket solutions is a lazy, ineffective reaction. The problem of domestic incest is not the same problem as child rape tourism to the far East, which is not the same problem as abuse within the Catholic church, which is not the same problem as the exploitative debauchery of rich celebrities, which is not the same problem as child sex grooming rings in impoverished Northern towns.  There are similarities of course, but to pretend they are identical glosses over the specific details of each.

Yes, Joseph, white Britain needs to take a deep hard look at our own culture, far beyond condemning the vile acts of individual abusers. And yes, British Muslim communities need to take a deep hard look at their own cultures, far beyond condemning the vile acts of individual abusers. So too does the Catholic church, so too does the British entertainment industry. Further afield, so too does the US college sports culture that enabled the Steubenville scandal, so too does the Indian society that has been so shaken by a succession of horrific rapes and murders. So too does every culture, every community, every society, every nation. None of us should be given a free ride on this score.

I have no problem with the suggestion that white society needs to look at its own culture. I do have a problem with the implication that British Muslim communities do not.

Welcome to Global Inc. Here is your induction pack

Imagine for a moment that you join a large multinational company, which we shall call Global Inc. Nobody is quite sure who owns the company, indeed no individual really does own it. Ownership and profits are spread across disparate stock markets, investment funds, banks, even governments.

You are recruited to a specific department. It might be the board of directors or senior management team. It might be IT support, the manufacturing production line, cleaning or maintenance. On your first day you are handed your induction pack. This contains all the strict rules and regulations of the company along with some softer policies, codes of practice, descriptions of your entitlements and even helpful tips on how to use the canteen. Much of it is devoted to your specific job description, what you will be expected to do in your role. Your first week is spent learning every page in the binder.

Then, when you settle into your department, you quickly learn that your new team also has its own unique, unwritten culture and ways of doing things. It is dynamic, evolving, it doesn’t quite match the descriptions in the binder. But so long as the department is doing well enough, meeting its targets and making profits, the hierarchy at Global Inc doesn’t really mind too much, and doesn’t interfere.

Members of some departments have much more power, influence and prestige than others, and of course some are paid much better than others. The power relationships between departments don’t need to be spelled out, they are universally understood. Someone in the IT department can insist that a cleaner scrubs the bathroom window, but the cleaners can’t suddenly demand some SQL subscript code in return.  Nowhere does it say that IT outranks sanitation, but everyone understands. However, woe betide the SQL programmer who starts scrubbing the office floor, s/he will find him/herself angrily berated by a cleaner for overstepping accepted lines of demarcation  – and probably using the wrong detergent or missing a bit.

Within each department there are one or two eccentric individuals. There’s old Chunders Charlie who works in his underpants at his desk every day and Mystic Mary who dangles feathery dreamcatchers over the kettle in the kitchen. Again, so long as Charlie and Mary are hitting their targets and making profits, they’re allowed to get on with it. However occasionally there will be an employee who deviates so far from the departmental culture that it starts to interfere with the departmental culture, causing upheaval, stress and damaging attainment. Let’s call him Awkward Ollie. When Ollie’s corrosive idiosyncrasies first emerge, the rest of the department react with social disapproval, gossiping and sniping behind his back, using group psychology to try to enforce conformity. If that doesn’t work Ollie will soon find himself being yelled at, bullied, socially ostracised and eventually booted out of the department. The easiest thing for Ollie to do is to fall into line with the demands of his department, and usually he will.

So each individual has a vested interest in maintaining their own role within their department. Each department has a vested interest in protecting its own position within the company and maintaining mutually supportive (if unequal) relationships with other departments with which they network and interact.

I said Global Inc. was a large company. I didn’t say quite how large. It has thousands of departments within it, perhaps millions. In fact Global Inc. employs seven billion people – every single one of us. The binder full of policies and procedures is written into laws, into religious books and moral codes, into the myriad threads of social systems and culture that teach us how we are meant to behave if we are born male or female, black or white, British or Bangladeshi or any combination. The induction period happens not over a week, but across the early years of our childhood and beyond.

The company is clever enough to evolve constantly, to incorporate the changing cultures within each department. Until recently, in much of the world (and still in many parts of the world), someone deviating from the strict policy on heterosexuality would be considered Awkward Ollie and be punished. But increasingly, Global Inc has been able to create entire new departments with their own culture, economy (“the pink pound” as we call it in the UK) and latterly the ultimate symbol of conformity to the company – licensed marriage. Even active counter-cultures can be co-opted. As the Clash once sang: “haha, ain’t it funny – turning rebellion into money.” Naomi Klein’s brilliant anti-capitalist tracts are published by Rupert Murdoch, remember.

Occasionally people can move from one department to another. A mixed-heritage Euro-Kenyan boy, born in relative poverty in Hawaii, can rise to become chairman of the board. However the system has evolved in such a way that such cases will always be exceptions, not the norm. Indeed, such an exception acts as a pressure valve to prevent the whole edifice exploding. “If one person can do it, anyone can do it” says one page in the binder, and it may be true, but that is entirely different to saying “if one person can do it, everyone can do it.”

***

I have concocted this grand and rather clumsy analogy to illustrate a key point of my political views, which underpins everything I write on this blog and elsewhere. Socialised gender roles are not there by accident. They are functional. Oppressive acts of sexism, misogyny, misandry, racism, homophobia, transphobia, class prejudice and the rest do not arise from individual weakness or venality but because we have all been induced to retain and reinforce them as essential components of our role within the company. Necessary social progress in emancipation, liberation and human rights will be indulged by Global Inc when it can be turned to the company’s advantage – the welcoming of women into the professions, for example – and fiercely resisted when it challenges the bottom line, such as union rights or decent parental leave entitlements.

It is simplistic nonsense to think of patriarchy, in particular, as a system in which men oppress women by choice and for our own interests. Patriarchy often requires men to do horrible things to ourselves, to each other and to women. Patriarchy imposes dominant roles on men whether we want them or not, and punishes us when we fail to fulfil them adequately.  It’s all there in the job description. It is equally simplistic nonsense to imagine that male suffering (on the battlefield and in homelessness, suicide rates, alienation and loneliness) is a consequence of women’s behaviour, choices or social liberation.

Perhaps one day Global Inc. will collapse under the weight of its own internal strains. There may be a few things we can do to help hasten that day, if we are so inclined, but I’ll agree it is a dauntingly big challenge, and it is easier to criticise the company we have than agree on what we would like in its place.

What we can do, every one of us, is work on the culture of our own immediate departments, think of how our own behaviour is influencing or indeed oppressing others, and remember that ultimately the company is made up of innumerable smaller units, each of which can be changed. Above all, we can consider what exactly is in the binders that we hand on to the next generation of new employees and what we can do to improve them.

This blog is my own small contribution to making that happen.

Hello, hello, is this thing on?

You know that feeling when you arrive alone at a party where you don’t really know anyone, and you sort of hang around in the kitchen for a while pretending to talk on your phone until you see someone who might be willing to talk to you? Yeah, me too.

Well just this once I’ll try to be the guy who marches straight into the middle of the living room with a crate of beer and a bong, ejects the Goldfrapp CD that had been beiging up the ambience, and replaces it with Ace of Spades, turned up to 11.

So, hello Freethought Blogs! I’m Ally, the newest member of the FTB family, and it is very, very nice to be here.

In a day or two I will post my first proper blog, which will get into the meat and potatoes (not to mention meat and two veg) of my politics, particularly my gender politics. There will be plenty of opportunities to argue about all those kinds of things in the weeks, months and (hopefully) years to come. But it is a bank holiday weekend here in the UK, and it seems appropriate to begin with a bit of a housewarming party.

Being desperately ancient and chronically unhip, I have yet to get into the whole Ask FM wotchamagoogle. But I am told it is all the rage among borderline narcissists and troll-baiters (hello world, you called?) So in the spirit of the times, I open myself here to your questions and impertinent queries. I might edit a few answers into the post here, at least until it starts to get unwieldy.

I’ll give you a few to get you started:

Ally? Isn’t that a girl’s name?

Don’t you oppress me with your binary gender conformity. And no, I’m not a woman, I’m Scottish, (long settled in Manchester)

Why does your blog have such a ridiculous name?

It started as a photoshop joke and spiralled horribly out of control. But when you’re a straight, white, middle-aged, middle-class man explaining gender issues to the world, it helps to be upfront about these things.

What do you call a man with four planks on his head?

I dunno, but Edward Woodward would.

(From Thil) What do you mean when you call yourself middle-class?

Here in Britland, class is something we are incredibly attuned to and it plays out with all sorts of intricate dynamics. I’m very much lower middle-class. Dad was a teacher, mum a home-maker. So I grew up in a family with more books on the shelves than quids in the bank. I went to a mediocre comprehensive school then a mediocre university. I’ve continued to live my life with more books on the shelves than quids in the bank. I live in a ramshackle house in a very poor inner-city area, and my own kids are growing up in the same kind of cash-poor, love-rich household that I did.

The labour I sell is my brain, not my brawn, and that is primarily what makes me think of myself as middle-class. But I have little or nothing in common with the upper-middle classes with their inheritances, trust funds, private schooling & health insurance and useful old-school tie connections. I’ve never been more than a paycheque away from destitution. So in comparison with most people in the national media in the UK, I’m pretty much a filthy pleb with a big ol’ fuck off chip on my shoulder as a consequence.

 (From Artor) Just curious- What’s Ally short for? Are you an Aleister? Albert? Alicorn? Ally-ally-oxen-free?

I’m an Alistair. Or at least I am to my mum when I’ve been naughty.

(From oolon) do you have a comment policy?

Yes, see here. I have no hard and fast rules. There are no specific rules on what words or ideas are or are not acceptable, but that doesn’t mean anything goes. As the great philosophers once said: “Be excellent to each other”

(from Kamaka) Are you an atheist?

Yes. It’s something that feels so natural and obvious to me that it barely warrants mentioning. I tend not to write about it because I never really know what to say. It always strikes me as an odd thing to get passionate about. I’m a rationalist, but I’ve long resigned myself to accepting that people believe in weird and whacky things, like god existing or homeopathy working or Coldplay making interesting music. So long as they don’t attempt to impose such weird beliefs on me, I see it as none of my business.

So I’m not a passionate atheist, but I am a passionate secularist and a passionate believer in human rights. When religious people claim dominion over women’s wombs, little boys’ foreskins, children’s schooling or political decision-making, then I will fight them tooth and nail.

But it is not really the religion / rationalism thing that brings me to FTB. I’m here because I try to apply the same principles of free thinking – ie questioning everything, accepting nothing on faith, demanding evidence etc – to gender politics. Political dogma can be just as irrational and damaging as religious dogma, IMO.

(From Stubby) 1) Which Shameless character do you most resemble

Start of the weekend – James McAvoy’s character (Steve?) in the first series. Although he’s younger and obviously I’m much better looking. We have a similar Scottish/Manc hybrid accent.  By the end of the weekend it’s more like Frank.

(From Stubby) 2) Better insult: tosser or wanker?

Wanker is more for day-to-day usage, like the mild white cheddar, whereas tosser is more like a mature stilton, to be brought out and savoured as you roll it around your mouth for special occasions.

————

I hope you feel you know me a little better now. Thanks for all the comments and questions, keep them coming, but it’s past bedtime on this side of the Atlantic. Oh look, there are still a few beers in the crate. Help yourself and let yourselves out. I’ll be back to check on the debris in the morning.

 

EDIT – THE MORNING AFTER THE NIGHT BEFORE

Thanks everyone for your continuing comments and welcomes. I feel as if this blog is now well and truly warmed.

I’ve struck a compromise on the threaded / nested comments thing, trying to take on board people’s problems (especially reading on phones) when the responses get narrower and narrower, but also other people’s preference to be able to react to a comment immediately underneath. So I’ve set it so that it will only nest one comment deep. After that you’ll have to begin again with a new comment, identifying who it is you are talking to manually. I’m sure you’ll work it out.

If this is a compromise that pleases nobody but me, let me know and I’ll switch it off altogether.

Just as a little note to let you know my plans, over the next few weeks I’ll re-post a few highlights from my archive from my previous home as new blogs (with original publication dates etc made clear), as I hope these will be pieces you’d be interested in discussing all over again (or for the first time, for many of you). Then once I’ve done that, I’ll transfer my full archive for you to peruse at your leisure.

Thanks again. New post on its way.