Category Archives: The quiet revolution

Human rights are not negotiable

First they came for the Communists

And I did not speak out

Because I was not a Communist

Then they came for the Socialists

And I did not speak out

Because I was not a Socialist

Then they came for the trade unionists

And I did not speak out

Because I was not a trade unionist

Then they came for the Jews

And I did not speak out

Because I was not a Jew

Then they came for me

And there was no one left

To speak out for me.

Pastor Martin Neimoller

The problem is that all too often people don’t act until they can see the chain of implications that leads to them. They won’t act until the threat to them is immediate and obvious. Some of us – because we’ve learned from history, and we’re anxious and we know we are marginal in some way – see how one thing is likely to lead to another. Some of us looked at the attacks on trans rights and knew that this would be the opening move leading to wider and deeper attacks on the LGBTQ community as a whole. Some of us looked at the way in which attacks on trans folk were being framed in terms of biological essentialism, and could see the dangerous implications for all women.

But it shouldn’t be about that. Supporting each other’s human rights should not be dependent on being able to see how our own human rights might be specifically threatened in the future. Human rights have to be universal – question that and the whole thing becomes unstable. If anyone is placed outside the embrace of human rights, then anyone can be dehumanised. Human rights only work as a concept if everyone has them, and they are not considered negotiable. The rights of people to live peacefully on their own terms should not be overruled by the entitlement of people who have a problem with that. Either we all have human rights, or none of us do.

Hate is always hungry

Hate can be a powerful bonding and motivating force for groups of people. Defining someone as ‘other’ helps to firm up the edges so we know who we are. Coming together to fight the hated other gives us focus, common purpose and identity. We bolster each other’s feelings of self righteousness and remind each other how justified we are in stamping out the hate object.

If we win, we either have to give up on the heady intoxication of hate or we have to identify a new hate object. A new enemy of the people. And then we all have to band together to destroy them. 

In the beginning, the targets are always the most marginal and vulnerable people. It’s easy to garner support for the abuse of people who are already mistrusted for some reason or another. As a violent and oppressive regime rolls on, it has to identify new targets for hate and inevitably when you’ve taken out the marginal folk, a new margin emerges. People who start the violent uprising can find that they’ve become the people at the edges who are the new targets.

I don’t know how many thoroughly committed Nazis were killed by the Nazis, but that number is not zero. I don’t know how many dedicated cultural revolutionaries were killed by Chinese communism, but that number isn’t zero either.

It is amazing to me that anyone could hear the call to hate and violence and assume that’s always going to go well for them. Hate is always hungry and sooner or later it eats its own.

Reasons not to help

If you’re in a situation where you can’t help with something because you’re too busy helping with something else – fair enough. If you don’t have the resources to respond to a crisis, because of the other crisis you’re responding to this is certainly an issue. The person fighting for ecocide laws doesn’t necessarily have anything to spare for tackling homelessness right now. The people volunteering for The Samaritans probably don’t have the resources to be raising awareness of domestic abuse. 

It’s also true that if you are in crisis, you can hardly be expected to be trying to pull someone else out of a different burning building.

And these are never the people online saying ‘we should be helping this other group of people instead.’ People doing the work are never, in my experience, the people who want someone else not to get help. They might make a case for why their cause is more urgent right now – and that can be an important thing to do, too. But even so, I don’t see genuine activists minimising other people’s issues.

I’ve come to the conclusion that ‘we should help these other people first’ is a massive red flag. It can mean you’re dealing with someone who is absorbing hate-media in uncritical ways. It definitely means you’re dealing with someone who believes in a hierarchy of worth and that some people are more deserving of help when in crisis, than others are. How this plays out in practice tends to involve no one being deserving enough and no help being offered. No matter what the excuse is, the idea that some people don’t deserve help, or should be made to wait while other, more deserving people are helped, fundamentally rejects the humanity of people who are in need. 

The people who say we should help our own homeless people first, are also (I strongly suspect) the people who won’t want resources ‘wasted’ on the kind of homeless people who ‘do it to themselves’ or have ‘chosen’ this life. The ones with addictions, especially. The people who say we should help our own poor people first will often turn out not to think all of those people deserve help. Not the single mothers who have fecklessly ‘got themselves pregnant’ not the lazy ones, not the ones who have phones. 

People whose first reaction is to think of reasons why a person should not be helped tend to just keep doing that. It’s not about directing help where it might most be needed, but instead is about abdicating responsibility while trying to look like being moral and having values.

Self Esteem and Privilege

Self esteem has far more to do with privilege than it does with either your innate worth, or your sense of self worth, or anything you might do to try and feel good about yourself. The more privilege a person has, the easier it is for them to feel good about themselves. Not only are they practically lifted by their advantages, but they will be praised and socially rewarded for having those advantages in the first place. At the extreme end of this we have the example of the UK government – murderously incompetent and full of self praise. No matter how they fail, they demonstrate arrogance and supreme self confidence.

At the other end of the scale, those who are struggling are socially punished for struggling. To be poor, or ill, is to be blamed for being poor and ill. If you belong to a minority, mainstream culture will punish you for existing – as trans, queer, Black, neurodivergent, disabled… To have been unlucky, got into debt, struggled with addiction or become homeless, been a victim of abuse or other crimes is to meet with blame, shame and stigma. How can a person have good self esteem when their society punishes them for their lack of privilege?

If you have a lot of privilege, no one demands much of you. If you have little privilege, then society measures your worth in productivity and encourages you to feel bad about inactivity. If you don’t currently have a job, or are too ill to work, or too ill to work full time, or you need to rest, you won’t be encouraged to feel comfortable about that. Government ministers will call you lazy and workshy, and begrudge you enough support to afford food. If your work isn’t well paid, you will be treated as though you don’t deserve to be able to afford food and shelter.

All the self esteem advice is about not pinning your sense of worth to external things. I’ve never seen anyone talking about how much of a privilege issue this is. Without privilege, you aren’t allowed to do that thing. Feeling like you have intrinsic worth is difficult when your society treats you like that isn’t true. For anyone who faces disadvantages, self esteem isn’t something you can just magically grow and without external validation feeling good about anything can be really difficult.

Men Are Not Invading Women’s Spaces

One of the things the terfs/gender criticals are banging on about at the moment is the idea that trans women are men who want to invade women’s spaces. I’ve been trying to think of an example of cis men invading female spaces, and it isn’t easy, Boys running into the girl’s toilets on dares at school being the only example I’ve encountered.

In my experience, men who support women treat women in toilets and changing rooms respectfully. Men who are into the patriarchy and who are doing the toxic masculinity tend to have a horror of anything feminine. They don’t want to be seen as girly, or effeminate, so anything labelled ‘women’ is likely to make them flee.

The men who do not like women tend to deride women’s spaces. They won’t invade it, but they may try and get it defunded, or treat it as a joke. Look at what happens around sport. The worst of them have no interest in invading the space, but they may not want the space to exist. Protecting the rights of women to participate can mean defending spaces/activities, not from invasion but from destruction.

Patriarchal approaches have always denigrated women’s spaces. Any work that seems feminine is treated as lesser. And so the kitchen, the nursery and the sick room are places the more toxic men don’t want to go. By staying out of these spaces and designating them as ‘for women’ they also dodge a great deal of domestic and caring work, which tends to be tedious, and arduous stuff with a side-order of massive responsibility for keeping people alive.

The only men I’ve seen wanting to enter these ‘female’ spaces weren’t there as ‘invaders’ but to tackle the evils of gender stereotypes and to do something good. Men who go into nursing, and who undertake to teach children. Men who get into kitchens to do the everyday work of making a household viable. Men who don’t see a relationship between cleaning, and genitals.

We have longstanding problems with the devaluing of anything considered feminine. We have a history of treating some spaces as feminine in a way that harms women, and puts the burden of unpaid domestic labour onto the shoulders of women. Once again I think what we have here is ‘gender critical’ people focusing on a non-existent problem that allows them to attack trans women. It takes attention away from real issues, from actual sexism and from the kind of harm that sexism routinely causes.

As a female appearing person (I’m nonbinary, but you can’t tell by looking) I don’t want to be pushed into the limiting take on ‘female’ spaces. I’ve had those experiences. I don’t want to be sent off to look after the children, or make the tea, I want just as much right to be in the spaces where other things are happening as anyone male-presenting has. And while we’re at it, I want there to be male teachers of small children, and male nurses, and cleaners and all the rest of it. I want to dismantle the idea that certain kinds of spaces, and certain sorts of jobs should be for one gender only. The idea that we need to keep men out of ‘female spaces’ is more likely to disempower women than keep anyone safe. 

We all need safe spaces to pee, and to change for sports activities. I want cubicles. I find that lockable doors answer all my safety needs. I also want dads to be able to take their kids into changing rooms and toilets.

The Cult of Jobs

In theory, jobs are the answer to poverty, and to the rising cost of living. ‘Get more work’ our government tells us here in the UK. We are encouraged to move into better paying jobs, work more jobs and work more hours. It’s preposterous when you stop and look at it. Time is finite. We do all have to sleep. No one should be asked to work all the hours there are so as to be able to afford food.

It is true that automation and the cunning use of computers will result in fewer jobs. Checkout work is a case in point here. I see people online talking about how we should not use self service checkouts because it will cost jobs. However, I’ve done checkout work and can vouch for it being low paid, tedious, that you get a lot of abuse from customers, and that hauling things over a bar code reader is not intrinsically rewarding. How much better the world would be if those of us who can did that work ourselves and we didn’t require so many people to do it for us.

We could use technology to get rid of boring, repetitive, soulless jobs. We could even stop with the nonsense that jobs and more work are the answer to poverty. It’s interesting to note that in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (1914) exactly the same argument was being made by the bosses and politicians in the story and that the author was clearly not persuaded. More than a hundred years later, jobs have not saved people from hunger in the UK.

Jobs themselves are not a solution to poverty. More hours working equate to a lower quality of life. Paying people a living wage for the work they do would be a better place to start. We could afford to question our whole culture around work and working, because increasingly it makes no sense and leaves too many people disadvantaged. We can’t keep trying to grow our economies into more just arrangements – it’s not what capitalism does. We can’t afford the damage relentless growth causes and our planet just can’t take any more of it. Increasingly the Cult of Jobs looks like a death cult that urgently needs replacing.

Contact and Consent

It used to be the case that many people who were tactile felt able to just express their joyous affectionate natures with impunity. Regardless of how that impacted on other people. Even before covid taught us to be a bit more thoughtful about how we handle each other, I started to see change coming in. It’s important to ask people if they are ok with being hugged rather than just pouncing.

Some of us are in pain. Hugging isn’t fun if it hurts. A wordy check in can make it possible to negotiate and to hug or make other friendly contact in ways that don’t cause pain. Pouncing can be painful, no one needs that.

Some of us have PTSD and are triggered by unexpected physical contact, by being touched by strangers and all kinds of other things around touch. Checking in so that the other person can give informed consent to being touched makes all the difference.

Some of us find touch difficult as a consequence of neurodiversity.

Some of us just don’t like being touched. We are entitled not to be touched and we do not owe you an explanation.

With all of these things, you can’t see by looking, so it’s really important to ask. If someone hugs someone else, that’s not them consenting to hug you and you have no idea what might have been discussed pre-contact or what that relationship is. Never infer consent.

There are people who use bodily contact as a way of asserting themselves and having power over others. The more normal it is to seek consent and respect people saying no, the harder it becomes for predators to do their thing. Don’t let your warm and affectionate nature be used as cover for someone who gropes, grooms or worse.

If you think there’s a reason your unsolicited tactile behaviour is ok, please, please spend some time thinking about it. If you aren’t hearing people say ‘no’ to you that doesn’t mean they are ok with what you are doing. They may not feel safe saying no. They may not expect you to care – after all if you haven’t asked, they don’t have much reason to think that their saying no would make any odds. Being drunk is not an excuse for putting hands on people without their consent. Their clothing is not consent. How they interact with other people is not consent. You thinking it is no big deal is not consent. If someone expresses discomfort, take them seriously and don’t try to tell them why what you did was ok.

I’ve been around this issue a lot over the years, with varying responses. I’ve encountered people who would not take no for an answer and who felt entitled to do whatever they wanted to me – most often on the grounds that they considered it no big deal and they weren’t going to modify their behaviour for me. No one should be kissing, touching or otherwise handling someone else’s body if they don’t have consent.

Blaming the Poor

There’s nothing new about blaming the poor for poverty. To my knowledge, the same ideas have been doing the rounds in the UK for as long as anyone has been keeping notes on such things. It is (we are told) the fault of the poor for being lazy, careless, making bad decisions, drinking, smoking, having too many babies.

Somehow it is never the fault of the rich, who claim to be rich thanks to their own merits. The relationship between riches for some and destitution for others is something we have never talked about enough. Wealth is made by extracting profit. The choice to pay workers less, and charge them more is very much part of how capitalism works. Having the power to decide how much a person is worth, and how much they should be charged for essentials – food and shelter – is a decision that remains in the hands of the powerful. 

When there are more people than there are jobs, it is easier to keep wages down. Desperate people are more likely to accept appalling and dangerous work conditions. 

Lately I’ve seen the rich blaming the poor for food poverty on the basis that poor people don’t know how to cook. Never mind the cost of the resources you need to cook – a cooker, a fridge, utensils, saucepans… it’s no doubt also the fault of the poor for not knowing how to whittle their own spoons and make an oven out of clay. It is also, we’ve been told, the fault of the poor for not just getting better paying jobs in more lucrative careers. Yes, clearly that one’s on poor people too and I’m sure we can all see how we just need to try harder.

Making people responsible for things they have no power to change is a revolting thing to do. But then, admitting that hunger could be eased, that homelessness isn’t inevitable and that there is no moral virtue in working people to death would have all kinds of implications. The people with the power to make change are seldom inclined to give up their power for the sake of being nice to others, more’s the pity. 

Perhaps the biggest fight around all of this is convincing people that they should be better treated and that they do not deserve the ways in which they are made to suffer. The impact of blaming people for their own misery is that it makes it harder to push back and demand better. This is not an accident.

My hot take on that celebrity situation

Sometimes, the vitriol famous people endure online impacts their mental health. Sometimes people die as a direct consequence of this. However, most of the time, my hot take on the latest celebrity thing will have no impact whatsoever on the people involved. They won’t notice me judging them, and if they did, they probably wouldn’t care.

The people who will see my hot take are my friends, most of whom aren’t especially famous. If I body shame someone, it will be my friends with body shame issues who feel that. If I stigmatise someone for their disability or the state of their mental health, it will be my struggling friends who are impacted. If I am sexist about someone because I don’t like them, it is my female friends who will be hurt. If I mock someone for saying they feel suicidal, it is my suicidal friend who becomes less confident about asking for help.

I’ve talked before about why I think celebrity culture needs taking seriously. It is culture. In just the same way that what we do online is real and not magically hived off from the rest of existence. Wound someone emotionally via the internet and they are still wounded. How we talk about famous people can have a huge impact on the people around us.

It is important to call out people for the things they should not have done. I’m all for that. But all too often, the insults that come with it reveal a lot about the person making the comments. The kind of sexism hurled at women isn’t ok, no matter what they did. Call them out over their behaviour, but don’t link it to appearance, or desirability, or how appealing it seems to have something horrific happen to them. 

If your main focus is on taking down people you don’t like, then weaponising anything you can about them will seem like fair game. It’s a toxic way to behave. What we need to focus on is building something better and that means not hurling abuse for the pleasure of it. It means staying out of the personal attacks. It also means checking, and double checking your assumptions. If it feels ok to hurl sexist abuse at a woman because she’s on the other side of a political divide, that’s still hurling sexist abuse and it upholds sexism. 

Focus on what you want to build, not what you want to take down.

How we make change

Go back ten years or so, and positivity ruled. All those chirpy memes, all those people ready to tell you to make the best of things and find the silver lining and quick to give you a verbal slapping if they thought you were wallowing in misery or just doing it for the attention. 

These days I see more online content deconstructing toxic positivity than I see people spouting it. I see more people talking about the realities of living with mental illness, grief, chronic physical conditions, trauma, neurodivergence and combinations of those things. I see fewer people suggesting that it would be all fine if you just tried to be more upbeat and maybe did some mindfulness. This is huge progress. At the moment we haven’t reached the level of a societal shift, but this is how that sort of thing comes to happen.

When I first started questioning the idea of relentless positivity, I didn’t even have words for what I was taking issue with. I don’t know who coined the term ‘toxic positivity’ but all power to them. It’s helpful having neat labels for things. When I was first trying to talk about things I experience as a person with a wonky body, and as a consequence of trauma and mental health impacts, I didn’t have ‘ableism’ as a word. I’ve been glad of that one, too, and of the work done by many people to identify what that means and how we deal with it.

Over the years, I’ve seen a number of issues I wanted to engage with getting picked up by increasing numbers of people. I’ve seen change beginning. When we share ideas and amplify each other, new things become possible. More people come to understand an issue. Societies are just large numbers of people, and societies can and do change in response to grass roots movement. So much can change if enough people want that to happen. And while big, heroic gestures can be attention grabbing and can advance a cause, there’s a lot to be said for people making small, everyday efforts to raise awareness, challenge convention and offer alternatives.