Mar 22, 2013

Eight simple rules for not being a dick on Twitter, or: what to do when feminists are WRONG

1. Assume that people are competent, intelligent and are trying to do the right thing. And I don’t mean “pay lip service to that assumption”, I mean really live that belief.

2. When you see something that still seems offensive to you, do this: smile, then read it out loud. Seriously, try it. Because it may be that you got it wrong, that the tone didn’t come across, that you’re not familiar with this person’s dry sense of humour: a bunch of stuff. If it is capable of being construed ironically or sarcastically or as a joke, that’s probably how it was meant.

3. Additionally, assume that you’ve misunderstood. Always. If you see something you don’t agree with, that seems profoundly wrong and completely illogical, there is about an 80% real-life chance that it’s you who’s not getting it. Your first approach in any communication situation should be to ask a question…

4. …but this question should never – ever – contain any of the following: “um”, “has it occurred to you that”, “don’t you realise how”, “actually”, “excuse me”, or any other passive aggressive patronising self-righteous bullshit. If it doesn’t start with one of the 5 W’s, you’re being an asshole.

5. On twitter, or on a blog you’re not familiar with, click on the person’s name and have a little rootle 
round their other writings before responding. Are the obviously on your side? A good person? Generally with the angels? Then consider leaving them alone. If they used (what you think is) the wrong word or said something you seriously think is un-feminist, there are plenty of people out there less evolved than you, and I promise you they’ve already let that person know their displeasure, oh yes.

6. Don’t join mobs. For fuck’s sweetest honey oozing sake, don’t fucking do it. You see someone telling someone off on Twitter? Great. That means that person has been told off. Your contribution is no longer necessary. The good deed has been done. Pat yourself on the back for having had the correct instinct & go make a cup of tea.

7. Don’t incite mobs. The next person I catch suggestively @ tweeting an offensive article/tweet into someone else’s stream, implicitly or explicitly inviting them to go & get medieval on the offending ass, is going to get a smack, they really are. What are you, twelve? Jesus.

8. Above all, nomero uno, the Rule Supreme of Feminism, this is it, genuine 100% 24 carat wisdom: ask yourself if you could be wrong. No matter how expert, how well versed, how experienced you are, how much more lived experience you think you have than this other person who is pissing you off, force yourself to stop, breathe in, and think for just a second: could they be right and I, wrong? Or maybe they could just have a point, if I follow Rule 1?

Feminism isn't an exact science, which means nobody – not Judith Butler, not Luce Irigaray, not Caytlin Moran, not Laurie Penny, nobody – has got it 100% figured out. Everything is up for debate and negotiation, and if you truly believe it’s not, then you need to join a religion and not a social justice movement, mmkay?

In fact if feminism were an exact science, you’d be in even more of a pickle, because then you’d be compelled by professional standards to evaluate new arguments brought to you, rather than just thinking of the most sarcastic way of knocking them down.

I actually try to apply that “scientific” approach myself – taking each new argument as if it might actually be right & going from there. Here’s a case study: last week, people in my timeline were freaking out that Richard Dawkins said that a baby is like a pig and only foetal pain stands between a woman and the right to abortion.

Now, abortion, as some people will know, is my baby (see what I did there?) – I can quote law details from like 10 different countries, statistics from all over the world, abortion rates, studies, services, educational projects, Nadine Dorries scandals… In fact it just so happened that I accidentally ended up lecturing the very same Richard Dawkins about it the following weekend. But.

I went to his timeline. I read the whole of his argument. I thought seriously about whether the discovery of foetal pain would change my mind about the subject of abortion on demand at any stage in pregnancy (probably not, but it was an interesting thought experiment). I saw how many people were already piling on on him… And I decided not to get excited about it.

Did that make a difference in the world? Nuh-uh. But would being the 100th person tweeting The Dawk to tell him what a bellend he is have made a difference in the world? Nope.

What’s true of someone like Richard Dawkins is much more true of some random feminist on Twitter who is probably really doing her very best to be in the movement in the most productive way she can. In the movement you don’t own, and your oh-so-enlightened, holier-than-thou friends don’t own, and I don’t own and she doesn’t own and that’s what’s so damn great about it.

Tl;dr version: if you don’t want to have a lot of in-fighting in feminism, don’t start any fucking fights.

So, does any of this mean I'm the Zen grand Master and never get into online spats? Like hell it does. Sometimes I get my feelings hurt & things run away from me. Sometimes I fail at applying the rules. Sometimes I'm having a bad day. But I've had more productive discussions with people on Facebook and Twitter than I've had rows, and I'd like to see that ratio continue to improve. Also, I'm fed the FUCK up with the self righteous yelling & screaming, and I felt like I had to do something constructive about it or I'd explode.

Mar 11, 2013

Sexual harassment & assault in public places - does it matter?

So there was this very interesting series of tweets from Dusty this morning, which I briefly storified:

I think the most important question though, and the one she asked by way of conclusion, is this:

The automatic response to this question (and I think the one Dusty was going for, by way of sarcasm - though I may be wrong) is "of course it bloody matters! It's terrible! And unfair! It limits women's freedom! It's a violation of our collective human rights!".

And clearly all of that is completely true. But I think it also matters very much for a different reason, and one that is less often discussed than the impact of harassment on individual women (or even women as a class):

It matters because women's fear proves it's working.

I'll explain.

The question that often arises when street harassment and casual sexual assault are discussed is: why do  men do it? What drives individual men to curse women on the street, shout at them, follow them, grab them? And the assumption is that it will be something individual - some kind of choice that individual men make or a set of fears/insecurities they have that express and alleviate themselves via this medium of humiliating women.

Do a degree, that is probably right. Not all men harass, and not all men sexually assault women in bars & clubs. So there's got to be some kind of distinction between the ons who do and the majority who don't, probably at the level of personal histories & psychological profiles. But while that might help us explain away individual instances of harassment, it doesn't explain the phenomenon. Why is it the public sphere made so persistently unsafe for women?

[Note to sceptics: if you don't think it is, please, go here and read this, and then come back & read the rest of this post. Go on, I'll wait. It's fine, I was getting a cup of tea anyway. Off you go.]

Like I say, the common hypothesis seems to go something like "there are a lot of fucked up men in the world". Which there are - there are a lot of fucked up people of all genders in the world, 'cause it's a fucked up world & patriarchy & capitalism mess with all of our heads. I'd like to propose an explanation for why these particular fucked up men feel that they need to express their damage in this particular and very commonly predictable way; why they grab women's crotches in clubs or shout obscenities at them from moving cars, almost as if they want to punish us for being out and about in the first place:

They do. They do want to punish us and put us off being out in public. Because they don't think women have a right to be there. They don't believe that women have an equal right to occupy, much less enjoy, the public spaces they see as belonging to them and their peers. To men - especially white, dominantly coded men - the whole world is a "safe space". And the way they keep it safe for themselves is by making it unsafe for everyone else. That's pretty much a textbook definition of discrimination anyway: making sure not only that you withhold certain rights from some groups, but that they are constantly reminded of their inferior status. Otherwise where'd the status brownie points come from?

It's not strictly speaking about doing harm or damage - more about constant, pulverising reminders that damage is a distinct possibility. The world would not become a safer place for women if all men stopped harassing & touching them in public: rape rates would not go down, domestic abuse would not vanish; the only noticeable difference for women would be that we would occasionally forget to be afraid, and forget that we do not have an equal right to the streets, bars, schools & workplaces that we share with men. 

We might just - horror of horrors - start acting as if we do have a right to leave the house & walk down the street like we're some kind of 'equal citizen human being' or something.

In other places (and in other times), the prohibition on women sharing men's world is expressed much more straightforwardly: they're simply prohibited from leaving the house. Or if they're allowed to leave without being accompanied by a relative/driver/guardian, they have to cover up - so men don't actually have to look at them, & can continue to pretend they're not there. Or they have to ride in the back of the bus. Or pray in a back room. You get the idea: one doesn't have to go far to find examples of women being quite simply told, without inhibitions: you don't belong. You're not allowed. Not just in this university or this profession, but here. In this world. On these streets. With the rest of humanity.

Luckily we're way more enlightened and advanced here in the post industrial, democratic, liberal global North. Men here don't just tell women to fuck off out of it & make themselves scarce or else; they 'only' act on the "or else" part of things.

This doesn't have to be the avowed & consciously acknowledged aim of every wolf whistler or tit-grabber. It's still what the result is. It makes sense to judge widespread social phenomena by their outcomes rather than the atomised intentions of individual actors, and in this case the outcome is that women self-police by staying out of certain places at certain times, to their own detriment and for the glory of patriarchy. 

So that's why it does matter, very much, that women (for entirely sensible reasons of self-preservation & well-being) end up policing their own movements: is proves the effectiveness of harassment, and it reinforces the status of women in the world as subordinate, inferior members of society, allowed to move in the shared spaces that make up society only on sufferance and with the constant threat of their 'living a normal life' privileges being revoked. 

What is taken for granted by men is a special privilege for women, open to attack & liable to be challenged by every bored van driver or tipsy Norwegian tourist. And by taking the no-choice choice of avoiding them, the message that is being sent back is: keep going, lads. It's working. 

Mar 1, 2013

Mild sexual harassment and failures of empathy

Tom Chivers had this great piece in the Telegraph this week, where he repeated a suggestion from Caitlin Moran to men who think that workplace sexual harassment - or as it's sudden becoming known "inappropriate touching" - is no big deal:
"it’s a good mental exercise to imagine that you, a man, are on a planet far, far away, populated by aliens roughly a foot taller than you, who have pretty much all the money, and who keep touching you on the arse when you’re just trying to look in a cupboard for printer cartridges."
I think it's an interesting exercise to engage in, but not because once they've done the thought experiment men will suddenly have some kind of epiphany about how awful & demoralising harassment is, but because for the more self aware of them it ought to provide an insight into how hard our culture makes it for us to empathise fully with women.

I had this friend once who was always interrogating me about why I'm a feminist. He was one of those smart guys who think that there's something fundamentally wrong with your argument if they hadn't already intuited it, since, being so smart, if it was so important and correct, they'd have though about it themselves by now. He didn't leave me alone one time until I told him that when you improve the status of women in society, the whole society benefits from it; he actually said "oh, well in that case it's OK", because, having slotted women back into an instrumental subordinate role, he could more easily live with the idea that someone was dedicated to helping them.

Anyway, so this guy liked bringing "examples" for me to disprove of how bad men actually have it in society. One of these stories involved a group of older women in his workplace who had a habit of commenting about his attractiveness in a suggestive way. He wanted me to admit that it's sexual harassment, I think so as to make it easier for him to dismiss sexual harassment entirely, since if he can just put up with it then women ought to, as well.

I asked him who the women in question were; he said they were the admins & secretaries in his department. So I explained the power dynamics inherent in harassment & tried to show that, however personally unpleasant & professionally inappropriate their behaviour was, it didn't really exploit the dual power advantages of gender & seniority that harassers tend to have over their victims.

I also asked him what the remarks consisted of, & it was nothing very explicit, and there was no touching, cornering, physical proximity or any kind of contact otherwise. So I explained that, as a guy who is 6'6" (really) and not being cornered or approached, he's not really in a position to compare himself to a diminutive women being groped in the copying room.

In other words I tried to encourage him to do a sort of guided version off the exercise that Caitlin Moran came up with. But the problem was that he just couldn't do it - he couldn't put himself in the shoes of a woman in his situation, let alone extend his imagination to a more realistic harassment scenario.

And when I say realistic, here's part of what I mean:

  • A friend of mine came back from a conference with a senior client whom she'd been shepherding around town. He pushed his way into her hotel room (their rooms were on the same floor) and started kissing & groping her
  • A senior co-worker in a job I was doing as a temp once grabbed my arm in a "friendly" fashion and pulled me down to sit by him in the kitchen. Once I was at his eye level, he lunged at me & kissed me on the lips
  • A respected academic at a conference once sat down next to a friend of mine at breakfast & started stroking the inside of her bare arm (ETA: He was in his 60s, she was 20 years old)
  • I had a professor at university who, whenever I came to see him in his office, would lock the door behind me and proceed to try and kiss/touch me
This is what people like Lib Dem Lords chief whip Lord Newby mean when they talk about "mild sexual harassment". It's not persistent, it's not violent, you don't end up losing your job, they don't stalk you or expose themselves to you. It's not quite Anita Hill territory - it's just the everyday kind of one-off stuff that's "pretty common", as he says.

It's not that I think Lord Newby or my former friend actually know what the hell they're talking about; clearly neither of them are even remotely aware what this "mild" sexual harassment consists of. It's that I think even if they did, it wouldn't make any difference, because they simply wouldn't be able to put themselves in womens' place & imagine just how gut wrenchingly terrifying & awful these sorts of "pretty common" incidents are. The problem isn't really that men don't know what sexual harassment really is, it's more that the power relations between men and women in the workplace are so spectacularly skewed, that they probably can't even imagine what it's like, with a map, a flash-light & a ball of string to guide them.