Category Archives: The quiet revolution

Reimagining the revolution

Imagine what the industrial revolution would have been like around the world if the aims had been different. Imagine if the developing technology had been all about freeing people from drudgery and improving their quality of life. Not children working twelve hour shifts in factories, not working humans routinely maimed and killed by machines, and not squalid slums for workers to live in. Imagine if the industrial revolution had been all about making life better for everyone.

Of course with the kind of technology we had, this would have been difficult. The city smogs were caused by air pollution from coal burning industries. The whole thing depended on human lives sacrificed for coal, sacrificed for building projects, cut short by horrific illness caused by exposure to pollutants. Around the world, industrial revolution has meant a dramatic plummet in quality of life for the working poor.

What if that wasn’t inevitable? What if that wasn’t progress? What if the ‘gains’ made for the already rich and comfortable weren’t actually worth the price so many paid for it? 

If progress meant better quality of life, we wouldn’t have people living in poverty. No one would have to choose between heating and eating. We have the resources to take care of everyone, but not the political will. What if we saw no virtue or value in tedious jobs and cheerfully handed those over to the machines to give everyone more time to live rich, full and rewarding lives? What if we didn’t create an impoverished underclass who could then be pressured into working miserably in order to barely survive? 

We could have done that with the first industrial revolution. New technology could have been harnessed to serve the common good, not the profits of the few. This is always an option, and never the one that gets priority. Meanwhile we celebrate and idolise the wealth that costs most of us, and the planet an unbearable amount.

What if we stopped imagining that work is the key to human existence, and started considering some alternative ways of thinking about ourselves?

Peeling off a label

I don’t really identify with gender. However, the practical reality is that I have a female-appearing body and because of that I am subject to the sexism and hazards women face. I have identified with feminism, but I’m increasingly unsure about what the word now means, or whether I want to be part of it.

I definitely do not want to be part of the white feminism that talks over the global majority or treats them as victims to be saved. I don’t want to be part of the way white feminism can be complicit in racism, and in perpetuating racial stereotypes. 

I do not want to be part of the cis-feminism that is so quick to shout ‘erasure’ if there’s a person with a cervix in the room or a parent who gave birth. I’m sick of the actual erasure of non-binary folk and trans folk and how that impacts on their safety. Our safety. I’m sick of the idea that acknowledging trans and non-binary folk somehow undermines or harms the idea of womanhood or female identity. 

I do not want to be part of the biological essentialism that causes so much pain to women who don’t have all of the ‘woman parts’ – the women who were born with different bodies, the women who have lost body parts or functions to illness, accident and operations and who should not have their identity threatened by this. Not everyone who thinks of themselves as female bleeds, for many different reasons. I don’t want to be part of a feminism that throws women under a bus for not conforming enough to gender stereotypes.

I do want women to be safer. I want an end to gender based violence and to all other forms of gender inequality. I want equality of respect and dignity, I want equal chances of healthcare needs being met, I want an end to the pay gap. I want everyone to be safer, and to do that we have to deconstruct patriarchal and colonial structures and mindsets. I want to work with anyone who is pushing for that. I want an end to racism, and classism and ableism. They’re all interconnected.

Female Safety

CW rape and violence

The judge in the sentencing hearing for Wayne Couzens described his victim Sarah Everard as “wholly blameless”. There’s a subtext here, that a victim of rape and murder could, in some instances, be considered not wholly blameless, and this is both appaling and unsurpriing. Here in the UK we have a long tradition of blaming the victims of violence – especially women.

My whole life, I’ve been hearing what women should do to stay safe – don’t drink, don’t go out on your own, don’t go out after dark, use your keys to defend yourself, don’t dress provocatively, stay in areas with plenty of other people around. Sabina Nessa should (by that useless theory) have been safe on those terms, but she was murdered recently. 

Now the Metropolitan police are telling women what to do to stay safe if approached by a police officer. Because we can no longer safely assume that a police officer won’t assault, rape or murder a woman, in the aftermath of what Wayne Couzens did to Sarah Everard. He was shielded and enabled by his status as a police officer. The Met, let me repeat, are now telling women what to do for their own safety if approached by a police officer.

I don’t have words for how angry I am. These are the people whose job it is to uphold the law and keep people safe. If the institutional response to police brutality is to make the victims responsible for their own safety from police abuse, the police cannot be said to exist to uphold the law or keep people safe. As Talis Kimberly pointed out on Twitter, if this is the case, no-one should be charged with resisting arrest – especially not anyone whose apparent race or gender identity might put them at risk of being killed by the police. 

In theory we are supposed to be policed by consent. No one consents to police brutality, to rape or to murder. Either we need an urgent and radical overhaul of how policing works and how problematic policepersons are dealt with, or we are, of necessity, going to all have to treat the police as dangerous and suspicious – and clearly that’s not going to go well for anyone.

Radical change is long overdue. Police brutality towards black people is a known and longstanding issue. Police attitudes to protestors are highly problematic and tend to defend the convenience and property of the powerful at the expense of the freedom and wellbeing of ordinary people. Violence against women seldom leads to justice, with rape prosecution an area of absolute shame in this regard. Innocent, blameless women die all the time in the UK – a further 80 since Sarah Everard was murdered. It’s relentless. If you haven’t willingly participated in a violent situation, you are blameless and innocent.

The police are supposed to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. We have to demand change.

Who will do the work?

Who will do the work if we just give people enough money to live on? It’s a question I see all too often around any kind of suggestion that welfare support should not leave people in abject misery.

No one imagines that people who would otherwise have been priests, musicians, doctors, politicians, teachers, actors, CEOs and so forth would just stay at home doing nothing if decent benefits were available. We recognise that some jobs have intrinsic value. Also no one imagines people would be motivated not to go after high paying jobs if offered adequate out-of-work support.

Who will do the awful work if they aren’t frightened into it by the greater horrors of abject poverty? Who will tolerate the ten and twelve hour shifts at minimum wage if the alternative isn’t worse? How do we make people accept tedious, dead end work where they will be treated with contempt? How do we make it attractive to be in physical pain because of the demands of the job? That’s what’s really going on when we suggest that adequate benefits might discourage people from seeking jobs. 

The alternative of course would be to make sure all jobs provide a living wage. We could reconsider shift lengths, and night work and other health-destroying job issues. We could try and reduce commutes and let more people work from home. If work was interesting, nicer, better paid, more rewarding, then being on benefits would be less attractive. But, how are we to extract value for the shareholders if we don’t exploit the workers? How can we maintain the hugely inflated salaries of the management if we don’t keep the cleaners in poverty? 

If we make being out of work as unpleasant and hazardous as possible, there’s every incentive for people to take any job they can get, no matter how awful. If, on the other hand, we assume that people have a right to decent standards of living, and that working yourself to death for a pittance isn’t acceptable, we create a situation in which companies have to make jobs more attractive – better pay, better hours, decent breaks, actual perks. 

A weak welfare state enables exploitation and puts the profits of the few ahead of the needs of the many. Decent welfare support pushes up standards, which in turn will reduce the number of people made ill by work, which is cheaper for the state. What if we stop using our tax money to facilitate exploitation, and use it more compassionately and efficiently to keep people healthier and improve quality of life for everyone? 

The feeding of trolls

‘Don’t feed the trolls’ can sound a lot like wisdom, and sometimes it’s the best choice. However, it can also be an excuse for not challenging problems or speaking out against prejudice.

It’s a good idea not to enter into a debate with a troll – the act of debating can feel validating to them and can seem to legitimise their stance. It’s also a good idea not to feel any obligation to defend yourself, or justify yourself to them – don’t treat a troll like their opinion matters to you.

However, don’t ignore bigotry and hate. If you see it, report it, call it out, challenge it – a few words can make a lot of odds. It’s not the troll you’ll make much odds to, it’s the person they were attacking. It’s important to step up and defend and support people who are being trolled, be that online or in  a physical context. If you don’t feel able to challenge outright – you may not feel safe or be well enough resourced for that – put in a quiet complaint to someone who could do something about it. There are many ways to speak out.

Recently I saw online a situation where white people were telling a person of colour not to feed the troll by drawing attention to it. Now, there certainly are issues around not re-tweeting and otherwise giving a platform to trolls. Some of them just feed on attention and clearly don’t care what kind of attention it is. A screen shot is better because it doesn’t give them so much oxygen. However, there are times and places to talk about this. That time is not when a black person is calling out a white person for racism. If you think it’s more useful to tell someone not to feed the troll in a situation like that, you’re part of the problem. Sometimes, the ‘don’t feed the trolls’ line is simply a way to try and shut people down.

If the bigots go unchallenged, that leads to all kinds of problems. The victims of the trolls are left more hurt and more exposed if no one supports them or speaks up for them. The bully who goes unchallenged will have no qualms about doing it again. They may feel they speak for the silent many, that their stance is valid and validated and welcome. They may feel brave and heroic in their trolling

I’ve been on the receiving end of well meaning people explaining to me why it is best to ignore trolls and bullies. I disagree. I think we need to draw clear lines. A simple ’this is not acceptable and I will have nothing more to do with you’ statement at least conveys to the troll that they do not speak for you. They are not your hero. It can be really important to convey that.

It also really matters to the victims. If you stand by and do nothing, what you say clearly to the victim is that you don’t give a shit about them. Maybe you still think fence sitting is the moral high ground. It isn’t. Doing nothing always supports and enables abuse and bullying. Doing nothing means you don’t attract the ire of the troll, so maybe what you’ve done is put your comfort ahead of someone else’s wellbeing. As far as the victim knows, you may well agree with the troll. You may support them. You may be happy to look the other way and enable their bigotry. You can make a bad situation worse in this way.

Don’t feed the trolls if you can help it. But also don’t stand by and let the trolls destroy someone.

Not a self made man

I wonder about all the advice to be independent. A certain amount of self-reliance is good, but too often what happens is that those with privilege fail to see the ways in which they rely on others. The workers growing, delivering and selling their food. The people who built and maintain the roads. The education system that helped them get where they are… no one is really alone. No one is successful on their own, and hiding the support can really distort the story. Billionaires are not self made, they’ve crapped into the same sewage systems as everyone else their whole lives.

Behind allegedly lone, successful people, there are usually a host of invisible people doing the work. That might be their mum, or their wife – self made men often have invisible women enabling and supporting them. There may well be funding. The rags to riches story is popular, and people like to present themselves as having made a lot of money by dint of their own efforts. Dig a little deeper and there often turns out to be inherited wealth, opportunities and open doors that most of us would not have been able to access.

We achieve more when we cooperate. The myth of the lone successful, self made person encourages the rest of us away from the approaches that would do most good. Competition gets less done, and by trying to be individually successful, a person might cut themselves off from the very resources that would benefit them most. 

When we buy into the myths of the independently successful person, we can end up not noticing all the resources and invisible helpers they depended on. We can end up perpetuating class and gender based oppression where the unpaid work of women, and the underpaid work of working class people disappears from the story of the self made man. We need new stories that better recognise who is doing the work, and that no one is successful on their own.

It’s important with any success to recognise who was part of it. Who made it possible? Who picked up the slack somewhere else and created the space that gave you opportunities? Who did the work that your work builds on? We all get opportunities to acknowledge this kind of thing in our own lives, to give recognition, and to resist the temptation to make our successes seem like entirely solitary activities.

Dealing with hate

How do we deal with hate speech when encountering it in person? It may feel riskier to challenge someone when they’re in the room – it may actually be a lot more dangerous. You may be dealing with people where you can’t afford outright conflict – work colleagues, family members. Outright conflict can also be emotionally expensive and you may not have the resources to risk getting into a fight. You may find fights and shouting triggering and not be able to take the risk. I’ve not tested all of these approaches myself, but I’ve seen them used and seen people talking about them.

‘Innocent and confused’ can be a good strategy. Ask people what they meant. Ask how that would work. If you’re told it was a joke, say you don’t get it and ask them to please explain it for you. Asking questions can be a way of exposing something without making outright accusations. ‘But why is that funny?’ can require a person to face the underlying prejudice in their joke. ‘How does that work?’ can make a person look at the mechanics. It’s not foolproof, but it makes it harder for them to turn their anger towards you.

Disappointment can be effective. “I thought you were better than that” is a hard thing to argue with. It is likely to provoke an emotional response, but it does make a person aware that going on the offensive at this point won’t make them look good. The desire to look good is far stronger in some people than the desire to get things right, this can be used to apply pressure, sometimes. A person who cares about how they are seen often won’t express opinions they think will cause those around them to think less of them.

Make respect conditional and use it as a lure. ‘I’m surprised someone who seems as clever/informed/well read/etc as you would find that argument persuasive. What evidence are you drawing on?’

Make it specific. It’s easier to hate when the object of hate is vague and distant. Turn it into a conversation about a particular person if that’s an option.

Turn it around. ‘That’s really surprising. I admit I thought you were trans.’ ‘Sorry, I thought you were gay.’ ‘Oh, I assumed you’d be on the other side of this argument’. It makes people stop and think, at least. A few seconds of wondering what it would be like to be on the other end of things can get a lot done.

Hate speech is based on assumptions that don’t stand up to much scrutiny. Prejudice depends on people repeating the same lines to each other so that it seems normal and supported. Any kind of disruption to this can undermine it. Sometimes simply asking ‘but why?’ a lot can push people to expose the problems in their own thinking. An unconsidered opinion won’t hold up in the face of someone asking why. ‘Why does this make you so uncomfortable?’ is also a powerful question to ask, and if it’s done gently, it doesn’t sound like an attack and may even provoke a genuine response and actual thought. It’s worth a go sometimes.

It shouldn’t be down to people who are most affected to challenge people who are most prejudiced.  Get in where you can. You don’t have to aggressively call someone out to present them with a challenge.

Contemplating Censorship

As far as I am concerned, a person’s right to free speech ends at the point where they start harming others. All freedoms need to be boundaried by an obligation not to cause harm. If defending the right to free speech doesn’t recognise this, it becomes a tool for promoting and enabling abuse.

Sometimes our ethical choices aren’t simple. But, in a choice between defending someone’s right to free speech, and defending someone from threats, harassment, intimidation, distress and so forth, it should be pretty obvious which way to go. People should have to deal with the consequences of their actions, and calling that out is one thing, and the threat of violence is quite another.

If everyone has the right to freedom of speech, this also means that we all have the right to tell people their words aren’t acceptable. Any one of us is allowed to tell someone else they should be silent. We all have the right to say that someone else’s opinion is invalid, ill founded, intolerable. We aren’t cancelling someone if we disagree with them, and we do not owe them our time and consideration. Demanding to be debated is a technique that appalling people use to try to legitimise themselves and make others listen to them. No one is obliged to go along with that.

Here are some considerations when deciding who to amplify and who to silence…

Doing nothing always supports bullying, oppression, abuse of power and the status quo. It is not a neutral choice, and we know it isn’t Druidic. Druids spoke to kings and sometimes got onto battlefields between armies.

If someone is causing no harm, or acting to challenge harm done, or reduce harm, and they are inconvenient to their government, we should not allow that government to silence them. In the UK, the desire of the government to protect statues from people challenging over racism is a case in point. We should always consider challenging it when a government tries to stop someone from speaking freely.

If a person is inciting violence or promoting hatred, they are not entitled to speak freely. If a person is lying, or promoting a belief that is harmful then we should protest against them. No one is entitled to a platform.

If in doubt, look for the power balance. The person with a TV presence, newspaper column, microphone on a big stage… this person has freedom of speech and you as an individual do not have the power to cancel or censor them. If they use their platform to complain that they are being censored, they are not being censored, just argued with. They are not inherently entitled to that platform.

On the flip side, many people go unheard. Many people are spoken about and spoken over. Amplify people who are working for justice and inclusion and who have no platform. Listen to people who are marginalised and ignored. Actual censorship tends to be subtle, and works by treating people as though they do not matter, do not exist or cannot speak for themselves. When did you last see a Rromani person on TV speaking about the issues they face? When did you last read a newspaper column written by a refugee?

Listening to your body

The idea of listening to your body comes up a lot around health work. However, I think it’s really important to ask why we might not be doing that in the first place. This won’t be an exhaustive list, do please add more in the comments if you see an obvious absence. Or an unobvious one.

You can’t listen to your body if your body is exhausted but you have to work. Poverty can make it impossible to take needful time off for rest or for recovery from illness.

Your body may require better food, more food, more protein, more fresh fruit and veg. If you cannot afford a better diet, you can’t afford to listen to your body. The same is true for being too cold, too hot, or in a situation of light or sound pollution you can’t do anything about.

You may have been told that you make a fuss, have a low pain threshold, overreact, exaggerate, lie, or that you just want to get out of doing things. You may have been taught to mistrust or disbelieve what your body seems to be telling you. This isn’t easy to unpick.

You may have listened to your body, consulted with doctors and discovered that there isn’t much that can be done to help you. This happens a lot around chronic illness, and you may be choosing to ignore things as being the best way to deal with them. If you’re not listening to your body as a way to stay sane and functional, that’s an entirely valid choice.

There are times when ignoring your body is vital. Dealing with addiction, or trying to break out of it requires you to ignore what your body is telling you. Changing your eating habits can mean ignoring what your body says. Overcoming anxieties can mean pushing back against the messages your body gives you. Some of the ways in which we are broken mean that we cannot trust our bodies to guide us. It’s hard work having to fight your own body, but sometimes that’s necessary for healing and recovery.

How we relate to our bodies isn’t just a personal matter. It’s held by a social context that can put all kinds of pressures on us. How many people are unable to eat properly because of the social pressure they feel to be thin? Not being able to rest, and not getting enough sleep are issues framed by working lives, social lives and often a technology-driven anxiety that makes us feel we have to be available to people all of the time.

It is good, often, to listen to your body. Sometimes it is essential to ignore your body. It helps to know what you’re doing and why. Some of these issues simply can’t be handled at the individual level and require cultural change, so it’s also really important not to blame or shame anyone who might be trapped by circumstance, and by what capitalism does to people. Not everyone can break out on their own.

Matters of Erasure

I do not believe that giving vulnerable people more rights and better protection in any way erases anyone else.

Erasure is most commonly a consequence of being ignored. People who aren’t represented, and are treated as though they do not exist are erased all the time, and for anyone not affected it can be an entirely invisible process. If certain kinds of people don’t show up in the media we consume, and have put in front of us, we may have no awareness of them.

Our sense of what is normal has everything to do with what we see and hear on a daily basis. If what we encounter is mostly white, straight, cis, able bodied… we may well end up internalising this as normal and being pretty oblivious to the very existence of people who are not those things. At the same time, not having representation, not seeing yourself reflected in your own culture is lonely, alienating and disempowering, amongst other things.

When representation exists but doesn’t come from the people being represented, that can also lead to erasure. Most films are written and directed by men. The women in those films do and say the things men think, or wish women would do. We see women on the screen, and it seems as though women are present, but what we’re really seeing a lot of the time are male fantasies. That’s erasure. Yes, I do think anyone can write about anyone else well and effectively, but if you ‘learn’ from other fantasists, as so many do, then you don’t get realistic representation. I give you female bodies in conventional comics as a case in point.

Similar things happen around stories about disabled people heroically overcoming their struggles, when that’s been created and presented by able bodied people. It’s what happens when cis people write about trans characters all too often as well. Further, when marginalized people do get the chance to speak for themselves, they’re often sorely limited in what they are allowed to do – black authors only being allowed to write about race, queer voices only wanted for stories of coming out and dealing with prejudice and so forth. 

Erasure happens when people are not allowed to speak for themselves. It happens when cliches and stereotypes are repeated by people whose only experience is of seeing those things. Erasure happens when people don’t do their research. It happens when areas of experience are ignored and voices aren’t included.

And as an aside, a person worried about female erasure might choose to put a female character centre stage. A person worried about lesbian erasure might undertake to put some visibly lesbian characters into their massivly sucessful book series. Naming no names, because that’s also an opportunity to illustrate how failing to mention someone functions as erasure.