But What Does God Think?

I spent much of yesterday reading Millicent Fawcett’s ‘Short History of Women’s Suffrage.’ It’s a fascinating read with some interesting (and depressing) parallels with our own time. It is astonishing to discover just how many times the issue of women’s suffrage was up before Parliament and how many times, in spite of having widespread support, it failed to pass into law. Gladstone stands out as a particular weasel; having indicated he would support the issue when in government, he then proceeded to campaign against it as Prime Minister. Remind you of anyone? Fawcett was in the thick of this debate and knew major players such as John Stuart Mill and Harriet Martineau as well as the female opponents of women’s suffrage, whose position she neatly eviscerates. It’s exactly like Phyllis Schlafly who opposed the Equal Rights Amendment in the US: it’s a case of ‘do as I say, not as I do.’

But for all its obvious frustration and anger, the book is not a rant. It’s a very measured account whilst also being well-argued and forceful. The most striking thing about her opponents is that they nearly all relied on some inside knowledge of what God thought about it all. Women were divinely ordained to stay at home and raise children; we were not formed for cogent thought, etc etc etc and this was the way God wanted it. As Mary Wollstonecraft observed a century and a half earlier, ‘I have not found among the disbelievers in organised religion a single opponent of the principle of equal rights for men and women.’

There were a lot of surprising things in this book; such as that the Isle of Man was the first place in the UK to give women the vote and that in many places until the mid-19th century women were allowed to vote by default – simply because there was no law that said they couldn’t. The book is sad because it was written in 1912 when Fawcett thought we were on the eve of obtaining the vote, not realising it would take four years of senseless slaughter to change people’s minds; she did, however, live to see it enacted into law and the first women MP’s take their place in Parliament.

Warning – next section contains spoilers.

In other news, we finished watching Jimmy McGovern’s excellent series Time, starring Sean Bean as a deeply remorseful alcoholic serving four years for killing a cyclist while driving drunk. Four years is not long but the courts took into account that he handed himself into police, accepted responsibility for what he’d done and pleaded guilty in court. The drama begins with him being transported in a prison van alongside two maniacs who are banging the walls and screaming at each other, and in the beginning I thought it was going to be a violent drama which ended with him being killed or else somehow sucked into the system. Not a bit of it. It’s a steep learning curve but he learns how to stand up to bullies and spends a lot of time talking to young offenders about what he’s done. He teaches a fellow-inmate to read and after two years has so impressed the staff that he’s allowed out for a day to speak at a conference – unsupervised. But now it’s payback time: the guy who helped him defeat the bully wants the favour returned, and it’s a big one. After the conference he’s to stop off, pick up some drugs and deliver them to the prison. This is the turning-point of the drama – after delivering his speech to the conference on the need to live a good life, he can’t do it. He gets back in the taxi, goes back to the prison and tells the guy it’s no go. Ten minutes later they come for him, bearing snooker balls wrapped inside socks, but they guy he taught to read and write saves him, though not before he gets one eye socket bashed in.

The prison is often brutal, an environment where the best recourse to getting beaten up is to shut up because if you get a name as a grass life will only get worse. But there are beacons of light in the darkness, and in the end he finds redemption because he is willing to face up to what he has done. The drama ends with him meeting the mother of the man he killed, both of them trying to find a way forward.

There’s a sub-plot too, featuring prison officer Eric McNally, a ‘firm-but-fair’ bloke who actually does get sucked into the system because his son, in another prison, is being threatened. In order to save him he resorts to smuggling drugs into the prison and in the end he’s caught. He and Mark swap over; as Mark is waiting to get out, Eric is waiting to be transported to another prison to serve his time there.

It’s cathartic – and there aren’t many dramas you can say that about nowadays.

Kirk out

Stay Home, Knit, Cook, Protect Free Speech…

As a friend of mine commented yesterday during a zoom chat, it’s like the ‘fifties in here. As we spoke I was knitting my latest project, a purple jumper, and after the call I was about to leap into the kitchen and begin preparing a pan of curry for the freezer and a pizza for dinner. Not that I’m generally a domestic goddess, you understand (though I do too much cleaning for my liking, something about which I frequently moan) but at the moment what else is there to do? Once you’ve had a zoom chat and been for a walk there’s nowhere else to go but the kitchen or the internet, and the internet is, let’s face it, a hazardous place. It’s where most fires start.

Twitter has now suspended Donald Trump’s account on the basis that he is likely to use it to incite rebellion. This seems to me a reasonable act – some would say it’s four years too late – but others complain about giant companies censoring free speech. This is something we have yet to get to grips with in our society; the borders of free speech. I’ve blogged about this before but it’s particularly relevant at the moment, so let’s have another go and let’s begin with Voltaire. Voltaire famously said that – actually no, he didn’t, a woman called Evelyn Beatrice Hall said as a summary of Voltaire’s approach, ‘I disagree with what you say but will defend to the death your right to say it.’ It’s easy to see how this became misattributed to Voltaire but could also be yet another example of women being written out of history as Mo Mowlem has been. But I digress.

We need to be able to disagree. If I am offended by what you say, that does not give me the right to censor or ‘no platform’ you on that basis alone. Rowan Atkinson has, not for the first time, spoken out against so-called ‘cancel culture’ where people are ‘no-platformed’ for expressing views others find offensive. The most obvious example of late is the furore over JK Rowling’s remarks on transgender women. I’ll come back to this in a bit.

There is a serious point here and that is to draw the distinction between hate speech and opinions we strongly disagree with or find offensive. There is some overlap between these categories of course, but we have laws against inciting hatred and prejudice; we also have laws against inciting riots. I’m not sure how the law stands in the US but on that basis I agree with Twitter’s suspension of Trump’s account. It’s clear that we should not give a platform to fascists or those who are likely to foment hatred for any group in society, but it’s not always clear where to draw the line.

J K Rowling last year made some comments on the transgender debate. I’m not going to repeat them – you can find them quoted here and decide for yourself – but in my view they do not constitute hate speech. She is questioning a particular narrative and bemoaning the effects of that narrative on ‘cis’ women and the fact that we now have to redefine ourselves. Some people found this offensive. They are entitled to do so, but I don’t consider her remarks to be hate speech. She did not say that trans women should be harmed in any way or prejudiced against; she was not calling for their elimination or marginalisation. She was commenting on the effect of a particular narrative on ‘cis’ women – here is a piece explaining her reasons.

Here’s the thing. I don’t consider her comments a particularly helpful contribution to the debate. I would not have expressed myself in that way. But even so I defend her right to say it. The problem is that debate is now so polarised that if you’re not wholeheartedly on one side; if you express doubts about a particular narrative, you are held by default to be on the opposing side. This is not helpful. It does not help us to arrive at an understanding of the issues and results in even more prejudice since those who ask questions are automatically deemed transphobic and cast into the outer darkness.

Those on the libertarian right are fond of invoking free speech to defend racists and xenophobes. There is a distinction between free speech and hate speech; between words which merely offend and those which harm, and it’s important that we find it. I have turned off the TV a thousand times because of transgender stories which I find upsetting, but never would I seek to have those stories censored; it’s just that right now I feel part of a cohort of straight partners whose voices are not being heard.

While we’re on the subject of Harry Potter there’s an interesting discussion here. My answer to the question posed on radio 4 by a trans person, ‘Can I still read Harry Potter?’ is that if reading the novels upsets you by association then feel free not to read them. But do not seek to censor other people’s reading.

I look forward to your comments on this difficult topic and if anyone’s struggling with being the straight partner of a gay or trans person, here’s a support group which may help.

Kirk out

Gender-Critical? Moi?

This morning I came across a quote from Carl Jung about artists:

‘The artist is not a person endowed with free will who seeks his own ends, but one who allows art to realise its purpose through him.’

I entirely endorse this quote, except for its language which, like most things written before the 1970s, leaves out half the human race. It is a struggle when you have to continually add ‘or she’ to every sentence – though fortunately nowadays few people will try to get away with the spurious ‘oh, but he includes she’ which it patently doesn’t, or at least only when the speaker wants it to. It’s a Humpty-Dumpty word…

A propos of all this, I’ve been watching the excellent series Mrs America, now streaming on BBC iplayer, which deals with all the women involved in the passing of the Equal Rights Amendment in the US. In theory the focus is on Phyllis Schlafly, a woman who, as OH pointed out, uses far more letter ls than anyone has a right to, and on whom the character of Serena is based in The Handmaid’s Tale. Schlafly was a conservative Republican who tried to paint the ERA as a retrograde step which would compel women to be drafted (with Vietnam still going on at this point) and be injurious to housewives and mothers. She is a contradictory figure very like Thatcher, a woman who owed her position to feminism but fought against it (Thatcher did nothing for other women) and is seen here as both victim and perpetrator. I can’t help wondering if Guislaine Maxwell is something similar; horrendous as her crimes were she may also have been a victim. Not that that excuses anything she may have done.

Anyway, back to language and to an app which claims to predict the gender of the author of any piece of writing. It seems to do so fairly accurately, but there is a problem: in cases of transgender people, it describes trans women as male, and trans men as female. You may make of this what you will – OH analyses it here – and each of us will have our own view on it. The problem arises when it comes to expressing those views in public. I may think, for example (though I’m not saying I do) that it is impossible to change gender; that a trans woman remains male and a trans male, female. But to say so publicly is to invite a furious backlash – look what happened to J K Rowling. I don’t think it was helpful of her to express herself in the way she did but neither does she deserve such vilification for doing so. I have seen people on Facebook declaring that they will clear out every bit of Harry Potter from their houses, simply because the author said something that they disagree with.

There’s no debate, that’s the problem: in every public arena we are invited to line up on one side or another. Are you for trans rights or against them? Are you racist or anti-racist? Are you anti-semitic or not? Nuance is entirely lost and any attempt to bring it in is seen mostly as obfuscation – try advancing the argument that anti-zionism is not the same thing anti-semitism and you’ll find yourself on a hiding to nothing.

I don’t want to see blatantly racist people like David Starkey given a platform – what he said in the interview here was not a one-off; he had form and these views should not be legitimised. Hate speech does not come under the banner of free speech; we have laws about these things. But here’s the thing: is it hate speech to say that trans women are not women? Or is it a point of view? More importantly, is it something that ought to be debated rather than just accepted as gospel?

As I’ve said before we have had the debate about gays and lesbians, we’ve had the debate about women’s rights; we’ve had – and are still having, unbelievably – the debate about racism. But no such debate has taken place about transgender rights. The T has been tacked on the end of LGB and we are told to accept it in the same manner, without question. But the narrative of trans rights is one that affects everyone and everyone should be able to debate it – openly, respectfully and without vilification.

Kirk out

Things Fall Apart

My next read, Chinua Achebe‘s Things Fall Apart, fell through the letterbox on Saturday and I spent the morning getting through an alarming number of pages. At this rate I thought, it’ll only last me a day. I’d better ration it – and so I put it away and took out Heresy by S J Parris. This work of historical fiction (the initials perhaps a wish to disguise gender since studies have shown that male or gender-neutral names do better with publishers) was given away by Waterstones with each copy of Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, and I’m not sure it entirely did it a service since it almost looks like how to do historical fiction alongside how not to do it. I find it inexplicable how writers are often praised who have an unbearably clunky style, who tell instead of showing and who have characters conveniently calling each other by their full names so that we know exactly who they are (‘Ah, Sir Phillip Sidney! How goes the poetry?’ ‘Ah, Giordano Bruno, as I live and breathe! So you have come to speak about Copernicus’ theory that the Earth goes round the sun?’) OK so that’s not an exact quote, but it’s not far off. Still, in spite of all that it’s a reasonably good read – and I may come back to the question of how to and how not to do historical fiction. Not that I’ve attempted it myself; far too much research for my liking.

So what else did I do with my weekend? Saturday involved a lot of sitting in the garden, but by Sunday I could no longer ignore the rampant convolvulus and (gnashes teeth) horsetail and so I did enter the shed, gird myself with gloves and wellies, arm myself with the strimmer and sally forth to do battle with the bastards. I have driven them back but have no doubt they will advance again – are even now preparing an advance – and we shall have to do battle many more times ere the summer is done. Which at this rate will be November.

Weeds aside, there has been a Nigerian theme to this weekend. It is a frequent rallying cry of OH that men cannot be feminists because they cannot truly understand the female experience; OH therefore had a big problem with Chimamanda Ngozie Achidie’s talk ‘We Should All Be Feminists.’ (I had not so long ago read her novel Half of a Yellow Sun about the brief history of Biafra.) The Nigerian author delivered this TED talk to an audience of mostly black women (and some men) and there was a great deal of delighted laughter when she spoke about attitudes in Nigeria which, from what she said, seem to be parallel to attitudes here in the ‘fifties (I don’t say that to be disparaging, it’s just an observation.) Much of what she said was therefore familiar to a Western audience; but her insistence that men should be feminists also and that they have nothing to lose by so doing, was an important one, and something I feel we have yet to learn. It remains a source of regret to me that feminism in the West came of age concurrently with global capitalism and so has become imbued with the spirit of individualism and competition that Thatcher so vividly personified. We need to rediscover cooperation – and perhaps now is the time to do it.

Speaking of which I rounded off the day with this documentary on Dominic Cummings. I haven’t finished it yet but if I ever wondered whether people were caricaturing him unfairly, I wonder no longer. It’s a horror story. More of this anon when I’ve finished watching it but for now, tatty-bye and have a good week.

Urg. Now I’ve gone and reminded myself of Ken Dodd.

Kirk out

Women and Power

Browsing in Waterstone’s lately (yes I know they’ve dropped the apostrophe but on this blog standards will never slip) I came across a book by Mary Beard. I was actually looking for something political but they don’t have a politics section as such (hm) so I was directed to hover between history and philosophy. I also wanted to know when the new Hilary Mantel would be out (March) and how much it would be (£20-something, not bad for a 900-page hardback but I’m not sure I can afford it) and I ran into Mary Beard’s thoughts on Women and Power.

Like many such books it addresses the problem in all its aspects but neglects to ask why. Why do some men just want to shut women up? Why are they triggered by a woman expressing opinions in public? Why do some men get in a froth about putting Jane Austen on a bank note? Why, after you’ve expressed a complex and well thought-out view, do some men still act as if you haven’t spoken? And why does this sort of thing still happen?

https://i0.wp.com/dvvj4iu11jqpj.cloudfront.net/media/catalog/product/cache/1/image/9df78eab33525d08d6e5fb8d27136e95/0/0/001_206.jpg
originally from Punch magazine; image removed on request

Mary Beard’s thesis is that throughout recorded history patriarchy has silenced women in the public sphere. There are exceptions to this: she may speak in order to defend her family or tribe or to speak for the interests of other women, but she may not voice opinions on any topic as though she were a man. To do so is to invite ridicule, censure or even death.

Sadly, this attitude is still prevalent. I am frequently interrupted by men in meetings where men have been heard in silence, and it spills over into the arena of mansplaining where some men become like one-way radios set to transmit but not receive. In Waterstone’s the man who served me, though perfectly helpful and informative, was deaf to my replies that I had ‘already read’ the Guardian article about Hilary Mantel or that I ‘already knew’ about Mary Beard’s work. He could hear my questions but not my speech.

Along with many women in the public sphere, Mary Beard has had a bellyful of this. Female politicians frequently get death threats and Diane Abbott, being black as well as female, gets a double dose and has to send death threats in weekly batches to the police. This is not funny, yet she does her job week in and week out and will not be silenced. Why should she?

Many men have of course taken on board the demands of feminism, and thankfully in my experience the badly-behaved misogynist is in a small minority. But why do they do this in the first place?

i have a theory – it’s no more than a theory at present – that in the minds of these men is a binary system in which people are given a value of either 1 or 0, with no space in between. Therefore, under this system, if you’re not number one you are nothing. I read once that slave owners in the Southern states feared giving up their slaves would result in their own enslavement. They feared becoming slaves! Why? It seemed a ridiculous fear – after all, if they gave up their slaves nothing would happen except that they’d be obliged to pay people to do their work. I was completely baffled by this until I saw it as a binary system. In the minds of the slave owners there were only two positions, slave or master; and if you ceased to be one you would become the other. And so I think it is with misogynists: they fear their own subordination. They fear becoming nothing instead of something because in their binary system there is no such thing as equality. It does not compute.

As for what we do about this – well, I guess we just keep talking and refuse to shut up and go away.

That’s all. Now shut up and go away.

Just kidding. Happy Thursday.

Kirk out