Mar 28, 2011

Violence, schmiolence

Being Israeli, I'm pretty good at spotting narratives of delegitimisation. Telling someone "you have no right to an opinion" (direct quote from an Oxford based human rights lawyer, that) is a good way to avoid engaging with their argument, and is usually the first recourse of people with strongly entrenched positions who do not want to admit any challenge to their views.

Delegitimisation is the bread and butter of the rhetoric around the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, of course: all this "terrorist organisation!" "illegal state!" nonsense being flung about, as if any of that actually means anything to the resolution of the problems at hand. But both sides, unfortunately, are rich in agents to whom the only acceptable solution to the conflict is more conflict, so this type of discourse persists.

Delegitimisation of course is also the daily experience of feminists, online and elsewhere; as Rebecca Watson of Skepchick recently and poignantly said, the new definition of offensive is a woman with an opinion (actually that's an old definition of offensive, but yeah).

Anyway, my point is, I'm relatively good at spotting when an argument is being made that is not an argument at all, but a way of shutting someone up. And the pearl-clutching around the so-called "violence" in London on Saturday is just such a narrative of delegitimisation. A couple of asides on that:

Aside #1: What fucking violence? Like, seriously, I was there. It was the world's most boring walk from Embankment to Hyde Park. There wasn't even any chanting. A few vuvuzelas, some lip service of booing and hissing at the Ritz (note to future generations of protesters: genuinely rich people stay in Knightsbridge), lots of mass produced flags and placards. Buggies. A certain unmistakable Boden quotient. That's about it. We sat on the grass in Hyde Park for about an hour, watching more and more thousands of people stream into the park off the march, and not one thing occurred to make me raise an eyebrow. Elsewhere, we're talking about some paintballs, a bonfire in a well-ventilated and non-flammable area, and a sit-in, from what I can make out. Broken windows != violence, Einstein. That's damage to property, which is not at all the same as damage to people. I've faced Hassidic five year olds lobbing potatoes who had more violent impulses that the marchers on Saturday did. 
Aside #2: So fucking what? Since when is violence not an acceptable form of political expression, eh? When people in other countries (dum dee dum, Tahrir Square, lah dee dah, Green Revolution) clash violently with their governments, we invariably blame the governments, assuming that the state, as the holder of the monopoly on violence, is reacting disproportionately to legitimate protests. But when it happens here, suddenly it's the protesters who are out of order. Why? If this had happened in Lybia there would be (non violent, hah) demonstrators outside the embassy as we speak.

In short, this whole business about so called "violence" is nonsense. The truth of the matter is that there is no way to monetise the spectacle of half a million people walking very slowly. It's damned dull, and while I saw a few journos/photogs snapping picks of us in the early stages, I note also that it's quite hard to locate photographs of "violence" that don't have another photographer or ten in them. The media is reduced to use itself to beef up the numbers of disturbance causers, and frankly between them creating the temptation of playing up and the police provoking reaction by being heavy handed (which they emphatically were not, on the main march route), it's a testament to the famous bloodlessness of the English that nothing really serious had kicked off.

Oh yes, but nothing like that should have happened at all, I hear you say. If it had all gone off peacefully without any side demos, we wouldn't be hearing about violence in the news all the time! We'd be concentrating on the main issues! This is very unfortunate! The violent protesters have hijacked the conversation!


As narratives of delegitimisation go, what's remarkable about this march is just how many different ones have been deployed against it. The anti-cuts movement in all its forms is continuously and concertedly attacked with so many disingenuous non-arguments that the mind reels - no wonder we can't have a proper conversation about the cuts. No wonder even the Labour party big cheeses stand agape at the onslaught of gold-plated bullshit being flung at them. Short of standing at the dispatch box and repeating "Mr Speaker, my main difficulty here is deciding whether my right honourable friend the Chancellor is lying or speaking in tongues" over and over, I don't see how Ed Balls, let alone a bunch of kids on Oxford Street, can outflank the government's torrent of disinformation. Consider:

"They're all a bunch middle class hypocrites", or the Grumpy Old Man Stance: This was the first in a series of ad hominem attacks on the people behind the movement, back in 2010 when the student demonstrations were at their height. It's an easy frame: university students can be painted as a bunch of spoilt, over privileged brats who have no "skin in the game", because they have rich parents who'll look after them. They have no daytime responsibilities like "real jobs", and are just indulging a preference for trouble making. The reason this is delegitimising is not the obvious facts that A Level students protested too, or even that not all university students come from privileged backgrounds; the reason is that it takes it as read that nobody will look at the argument and go "so what? Aren't middle class people allowed to care about the future of this country too? Aren't these students, however affluent their childhoods, right to worry that the growth-deadening cuts agenda will leave them struggling in future, or that they will bring up their own children in a darker, more unequal, more bitter Britain?".

It's the "identity politics" switcheroo beloved of right wing demagogues: a) if you are part of the group affected, you're unreliable because you're too emotionally involved, have a conflict of interest, are just being selfish; b) if you're not, you don't know what you're talking about, and how dare you to insult those people by pretending to speak on their behalf? In this case it skillfully cuts both ways - if you're a student from a middle class background, it's b), if you're not middle class but still a student, a) takes care of you.

"They're all a bunch of freeloaders", as above, the Tabloid Formulation: Applied to anyone on benefits, who has ever been on benefits, who may in future potentially need benefits, or who works in any organisation associated with benefits in any way, up to and including the entire apparatus of the welfare state. I think the only people exempted from the virulent, almost Tea Partyesque loathing certain groups feel towards anyone they think may be getting something "for nothing" (meaning, in return for nothing more than being a taxpayer and a fellow human being) are actual serving soldiers and well behaved white Christian toddlers. It's a good one, because you can use it against basically anybody with any involvement in the welfare state and who is opposed to the cuts. Mother in receipt of child benefit? No right to an opinion! Disabled? We don't want to hear from you! Unemployed? Get a job before you open your mouth, you lazy bastards. None of the above? Who are you to talk, then?

"They're all a bunch of overpaid public sector workers with gold plated pensions", also as above, Telegraph Variation: This one really does get my goat in a massive way. I loathe and despise that the conversation about the cuts has become a conversation about lost incomes. Not that putting half a million people on the dole is not big news; it is, and those people are mostly women who already draw very meagre salaries (cause they're so greedy, duh) and don't have big safety nets to fall back on, which is exactly why the conversation should be about the cuts to services instead. I hate the way papers like the Mail and the Telegraph, and much of TV & radio news too, talk about public sector workers like all they're there to do is draw a salary. Who teaches your children, fixes those potholes you hate so much, triages you at the hospital, adjudicates your divorce, issues your tax refund? Public sector workers, that's who! How have we allowed the media to dehumanise people to the point that we just see them as walking paychecks, as an unnecessary expense, instead of seeing their contribution to the big society we're supposed to be so keen on?

"There is no alternative", or Misdirection: Er, the whole march was titled "March for the Alternative". If you say there's no alternative and half a million people come to London to tell you different, and you still claim that no one has bothered to come up with an alternative, you begin to look a little bit demented. But even before the march, it's a straight up lie that nobody had come up with an alternative: there were lots of ideas, some of them Keynsian, some of them more moderately neoliberal, but they were there. The government's refusal to acknowledge them was simply a symptom of their refusal to consider them. There is no plan B, and however many envelopes labelled "Plan B" you send to Number 11, Number 11 ain't listenin'. They've even gone as far as to make sure there's as little as possible to listen to, by forbidding the OBR to consider alternatives (against the advice of the IMF - see Recommendations in section 1). So, yeah. Not so much a delegitimisation tactic as straight up denialism of the "zombie argument" variety beloved of creationists and James Delingpole.
"It's all Labour's fault", or Deflection: This is both a) untrue and b) nonsense. It's not Labour's fault that the banks needed bailing out. We're not going to go into whose fault it exactly and in detail is (looooong answer), but it is certainly not the fault of one political party, in one country, during one decade, that the global financial system imploded. And if it were, so what? Who's in power now? You, yes? And you're how old? Older than five, yes? So WTF difference does it make who made the mess? Cleaning it up without making a bigger one in the process is your job, and if you're not qualified to do that then you shouldn't have run for office, you twat.

In Hebrew we have a joke: "If people come and say your sister's a slut, go prove you haven't got a sister". That is the essence of deligitimising arguments: they make you argue to prove that you have a right to an opinion, not that your opinion is correct. And that's exactly the trick being played here: the right wing media colludes with government framing to deflect attention from their actions and decisions, by inventing a shortcoming in someone else and putting them in the impossible position of trying to defend it.

This is not a comprehensive list of all the ways in which the moderate left, the socially democratic arm of the public, is being deprived of the right to a legitimate political voice. It's a classic strategy of right wing regimes; Thatcher did it to the so-called "hard left" and the unions in the 80s, Sharon & Netanyahu did it to the left in Israel (which consequently collapsed), backlash demagogues have been gradually chipping away at women's right to control their own bodies, using similar tactics (in this case tacitly implying that GPs have a pro-abortion bias that needs tempering with mandatory involvement of religious "crisis centres").

My view on all of this is twofold: one, it's going to work. There is a structural weakness to the liberal agenda, which is a commitment to reality based argument. Liberals just don't lie and distort with the same facility and confidence as right wingers do, and if they do, and are caught, are judged much more harshly for it. Get ready to consider Saturday's nurses, teachers, and private sector workers concenrned about the quality and cohesion of the society they live in (e.g. me), to be painted into history with the same caricaturing broad brush that the striking miners have been.

Two, this being the case, what difference would it have made if the demonstrations were completely without any hint of property desctruction, any show of anger, any creative attempt to highlight the hypocricy of the rich? The forces ranged against the socially democratic impulse will have resorted to any or all of the above strategies to undermine the legitimacy of the movement and bury the news of a tax cut for the rich.


Mar 18, 2011

The big "consent continuum" lie

Trigger Warning

Not to be outshone by august publications like the New York Times, our very own Daily Mail has decided to have a go at blaming children for being raped.

In this case, the children were 12 years old and one of them was raped by 5 men, the other by one. Let's just quickly get definitional snarking out of the way: children of 12 are not deemed capable of informed consent. Any sexual contact with them is rape.

While the Mail goes into loving detail of what they obviously see as the objectionable and blame-worthy actions of the victims, which I will not dignify with repeating here, it is nevertheless the case that they were both raped, one of them repeatedly. It's remarkable if not surprising that a major newspaper would go to such lengths to ascribe agency and apportion blame to children; this and the NYT case mark some kind of new low in rape reportage.

A close reading & heartfelt rant of the first water on the totality of the Mails' coverage can be found here.

My personal attention, however, was caught by two sentences in this article:
The other girl was more reluctant and was raped by just one player.
She was initially reluctant but eventually gave in to his persistence.
On the face of it, the two statements imply quite different things: the first, that you can be more, or less, reluctant to be raped - that there are indeed degrees of rapitude, in which one's desire to not be forcibly penetrated ebbs and flows according to some unspecified set of external factors. The second refers more obliquely to what many if not all of us have grown up to believe to be a normal part of female sexual development: initial reluctance eventually overcome by male persistence (commonly known as wrestling in the back row).

But what I would say is that actually both of these statements say the same thing, they just approach it from different ends:

A woman wanting or not wanting to have sex is a moving target - it's an elastic band that, if pulled in just the right way, will result in her allowing herself to be had sex with (in this case of course we're talking about children so it's irrelevant, but I think this is quite representative of a very mainstream view of women's agency in matters of consent).

The default position is of not wanting to have sex: the gatekeeping responsibility of women and girls in this regard is a widespread social phenomenon and is at the bottom of much slut shaming, as well as more severe instances of punishing rape victims for what is seen as their own dishonour by stoning, banishment etc. Women who do want to have sex, and admit it openly, are either a priori shunned and persecuted in more "traditional" societies, or in our more "liberal" one are singled out for ridicule and criticism, as in the case of Jordan and other openly sexual women.

So the elastic, in this popular construction beloved of the tabloids, needs something to pull against - the woman's default position of not agreeing to sex. The only safe position from which to legitimately engage in sexual activity is one of initial non-consent.

In simpler terms: "At the moment we teach girls that their job is essentially to say "no" until somebody bullies them into changing their minds. We teach them that sex is rape."

That, friends, is rape culture.

It's also important to recognise that however far the elastic is pulled - however much a man pushes against a woman's non-consent in order to achieve what they can both be expected to believe is the legitimate result - the overpowering of her will and selfhood - the woman is never ever off the hook. The safety offered by initial reluctance and eventual submission, รก la Madame de Tourvel, is entirely illusory. Young women can be blamed for being raped because of what they wore; children can be blamed for being raped for lying about their age; and Madame de Tourvel died anyway.

And there you have it. Rape culture. A culture that teaches that every sexual interaction ought to be rape: it should start from a position in which the woman does not want to have sex, but does it anyway. Which is rape.

Feminists are constantly and boringly accused of hating on men, and poor old Andrea Dworkin has been erroneously quoted as calling them all rapists so many times that we may as well just print the t-shirts and be done with it.

But we're not the ones who think all sex is rape. It's people who blame women for not resisting enough, not screaming enough, not suffering enough for having sex forced on them who are the real believers in the idea that all sex should basically be a humiliation to women, a subjugation of their will. It's newspapers like the Daily Mail and New York Times that sneakily perpetuate the idea that consent is some kind of continuum, with "grey areas", "fine lines" and all other manner of twattery, and who, when the elastic snaps, turn around and hate on children for not keeping it wound tight enough, who are the authors of sex as rape.

Feminists believe - nay, KNOW - that actually there are two distinct conditions with regard to women and sex: they either want to, at any given moment with any given man for any given act, do it - or they don't. If they don't, and someone "overcomes their reluctance", it's rape. Simple. Of course in order to buy into that, you have to believe that women actually like sex, and can enjoy it and want it rather than do it to please or manipulate men - but that's way more than I'd expect from the Mail, and in any case the subject for another post.

Mar 9, 2011

The other 364, Day 1

Millennia of misogyny aren't wiped away in a few decades of progress.
Johann Hari

Yesterday was International Arguing About Why We Need International Women’s Day Day.

On that day, thugs and bullies managed to disperse an IWD rally on Tahrir Square by harassing, catcalling, intimidating, crowding and humiliating the 100 or so women who were there. These are the same women who so eloquently egged on the recent revolution in Egypt – the same women, even, who obligingly reverted to traditional roles and tidied up the square after the occupation was over.

The thugs didn’t care. They just wanted the women to go away. Be invisible, quiet, elsewhere. A necessary but shameful half of the population, unfortunately needed for vital tasks like child bearing and cooking, but otherwise unwelcome in polite society. A kind of plumbing, if you will.

Also yesterday, my friend Sian (I hope you don’t mind being pushed blinking into the friend zone, Sian) posted an eloquent and well researched article on Liberal Conspiracy, about the prevalence of violence, sexual violence, oppression and discrimination against women worldwide. Its thesis was that feminism, a political movement dedicated to elevating women’s status above that of plumbing, is still needed in the world.

Predictably, the comment thread below the article quickly devolved into a series of demands that Sian produce evidence for the statistics in her article and faux-concerned questions about why we’re not discussing violence against men. Now, to my mind, any thinking person is capable of reaching the conclusions that a) if they mistrust the evidence they can check it via Google and b) on International Women’s Day it’s kind of OK to write an article about, you know, women.

So I don’t for a moment believe that these (and there were several, persistent) commenters were interested in making the evidence for women’s oppression more robust, or broadening the conversation to include male victims of the patriarchy. They were banding to collectively create enough noise in the debate that nothing useful or interesting can be said about the topic at hand, which was feminism and women’s rights. They just wanted us to go away.

The current UK government is instituting a series of changes to the way the country is run that will, among other things, make more women unemployed than men, make it harder for them to leave the home to work through the lack of child care services, make it harder for us to be heard in court if we are in a violent or just miserable relationship, make it harder for disabled women (and men) to even leave the house in the first place. Make it harder to get online and express our opinions there if we’re unlucky enough to be poor and accessing the internet in our local library.

The government, too, just wants us to go away.

Last weekend I was at an event organised by the Bristol Feminist Network to discuss the absence of women from our cultural landscape. Not just the women directors and the women writers and the women poets, but also the women sportspeople, the women scientists and the women who happen to not be famous or talented in any special way but to whom newsworthy things happen all the time, things that are not given equal coverage in the news.

You can find some of the statistics and stories from the event on Sian’s blog, but my point was not to rehash that argument so much as to note the fact that the event was sold out ahead of time. There were over one hundred women in that hall that afternoon, and there’d have been more if there’d been more room, and almost every one of them had something to say, an outcry to make, a suggestion to offer on how we tackle this enforced invisibility, this cultural status of plumbing.

Now, I’m not a big believer in linear progress. I say, the Middle Ages called, they want their Roman roads back. Things can and do go backwards all the time. But there is one unprecedented thing about the current technological boom, and that is its global scope. Even if Europe and the West sink into another dark age, where literacy is low and communications restricted, there will still be women in Japan, in Saudi Arabia, in Russia, in Thailand who will witness the atrocities committed against women worldwide, and who will work to give voice to their voiceless sisters.

So no, I don’t think we’re going to go away. It’s frightening to the point of white hot fury to have such an enormous body of people suddenly stand up and call out for recognition in a deafening storm of passionate cries; I get that. Some days it frightens me too. But really – and I’m a congenital, happy and committed pessimist – I don’t think that it’s a tide anyone can reasonably hope to turn back.

We’re here; we’re here to stay; we’re here to stay and to be treated with decency and respect. Just, you know, deal already.

Mar 7, 2011

A short message in honour of the 100th Anniversary of International Women's Day

I realise that there is a degree of pressure, of expectation from every feminist blogger - from every female blogger frankly - that, on this one day of all days, we'll write something poignant, something inspirational, something uplifting, something informative. At least something angry.

I have nothing to say. The fact that we still need an International Women's Day after one hundred years stops my mouth wih rage and dries my fingers to ashes.

There are 364 days in the year in which many of those who don't actively hate women are quietly indifferent to their fate. Including many women. I can't promise to be inspirational or poignant every day of those 364 (though I'm sure as shit gonna be angry). But I'll try. I'll try.