Ableism and apologies

Last night my use of ableist language in a previous post, ‘Take Back The Net’, was called out by feminist allies both on Twitter and on The F Word. I think that those who called me out were absolutely right to do so – when the mistake was pointed out, I was mortified. Philippa Willitts, author of  the post at the F Word, explained that when I wrote this:

“It’d be nice to think that the rot of rank misogyny was confined to fringe sites populated by lunatics. Unfortunately, not only are men like White clearly at least minimally sane enough to hold down desk-jobs, their school of misogyny has become an everyday feature of political conversation online, particularly in the UK.

…It felt “like a punch in the stomach.” 

I’m sorry, Philippa. Here’s what I meant to say: the use of terms like ‘crazy’ and ‘mental’ to describe online trolls is hugely problematic. There’s absolutely no correlation between violent misogyny and having mental health difficulties. Most of the people I’m closest to have at some point struggled with their mental health, and none of them have posted rape fantasies about women online. Writing off disgusting, violent prejudice as ‘crazy’ is intellectually vacuous and perpetuates the worst sort of stereotyping. Unfortunately, that’s not what I actually wrote.

What I wrote was a crude way of describing the situation, for multiple reasons, not least because one should not need to be quote sane unquote to be able to hold down a job – that’s precisely the kind of attitude that perpetuates the stereotypes that make employers push aside the CVs of anyone with a history of, say, depression.  I fucked up here, and I fucked up doubly hard because I’ve written for mental health publications in the past. I’ve been both a carer and a person with mental health difficulties, I’ve for godssake spoken at conferences about how and why ableist language, misuse of words like ‘schizoid’ and ‘nutter’ in the media, is unhelpful. In other words, I *should know better*.
I was originally intending to simply change the wording of the piece with a note, and I imagine that’s what I’ll do if and when I’m called out with justification in future. The reason for explaining the process at more length here is that – well. Some people seem to have a big problem right now with a culture of online debate that allows those without large public media platforms to challenge those who do if and when they fuck up and play into lazy stereotypes. I don’t mean to hijack a discussion of ableism with my own hand-wringing, but this is relevant to wider issues of ‘privilege-checking’ right now, so read on if you’re interested.
This is not, as some people have already suggested following my brief apology on Twitter, about language-policing, or about letting the internet dictate what you write and think. People toss criticism at me all the time (really: ALL THE TIME) that I don’t respond to, because not all of it is meaningful and some of it is disingenuous, uninformed, or comes from a place of hate. However, in light of the “Take Back The Net” post, which was all about online ethics and silencing, I’m actually a big fan of the net culture that lets people call others out on their occasional fuckups and gives them space to change.

Legitimate, useful critique is not the same as hate-trolling or censorship. I know other people have different opinions on this, but personally I think that if we are to deal with either of the extremely real, pressing problems of online censorship or of harassment and hate speech, then we also need to get used to taking ownership of our mistakes.

THINGS FOR EYES 20/01/2013: Love, the left, hurt and hope

It’s been a humdinger of a fortnight for soul-searching on the left. I’ve spent a lot of time consoling friends on the phone and making tea and writing, and I feel that one good thing that’s come out of all this hurt and wrangling is that in certain communities, bonds have been reaffirmed, we’ve remembered what we’re fighting for.

Between the SWP’s rape-court scandal and Julie Burchill’s transmisogyny, I’ve been working hard in my essaying and reading this week in particular to negotiate some useful ways forward – and I’m very far from the only one. Not going to repost the original pieces because they don’t deserve back traffic, but here you go:
Firstly, I wrote some words on rape, sexual violence and how the left is being forced to deal with feminism, at New Statesman. The post that inspired this – former SWP member Tom Walker’s eloquent and principled resignation statement – is worth reading in full if you’re one of those people who doesn’t particularly want to choose between class struggle and women’s rights. Yeah, yeah, I know, lots of linkbacks to small British far-left parties. Deal with it.
Then….oh dear, then there was the Burchill/Suzanne Moore debacle, where the Guardian and the rest of the British press, and everyone else on Twitter, finally realised that transphobia is no longer an acceptable way to carve out payable rhetoric. My piece here lays down the background. Another old essay of mine, Moving Towards Solidarity (written for the F Word when I was but a wee thing of 22) explains a lot more about the history of feminist transphobia and why it’s mistaken.
All of this ties in to the hierarchy of old media, and what it does, and what it’s for, and how it’s changing. That was the subject of my column this week at New Statesman, but a more in-depth and explicitly communist discussion can be found at Novara, where I also talk a lot about how my politics have changed over the past two years.
Last week I talked about Novara, the Resonance FM discussion show on anarchism, anti-capitalism and the future of the left; this week I was on the show, being grilled about journalism by Aaron Peters and James Butler, two thinkers by whom I would be substantially more intimidated had I not shepherded both of their drunk asses home on a number of occasions over the last several years. A fun, spiky discussion on columnism and the nature and changing role of the media. Have a listen.
The original text that inspired this discussion, ‘Columnism’ by Ulrike Meinhof – an important analysis of the role of the columnist as decoy and potential political stooge – is one that’s been very important for me in my work over the past year. 

Bloody awesome Science Fiction books are like bloody buses. I finished ‘Among Others,’ by Jo Walton, which has zoomed up there into my top ten books of the past 12 months. If you were ever a child who loved SF and Fantasy, or a young girl who escaped into books, this one’s for you.
I also read ‘Intrusion’, by Ken Macleod, who would be the king of near-future dystopia if he weren’t the type of communard who would disdain such a title. I loved, loved, loved this book – it has reproductive rights, state surveillance, middle-class comedy and robot monkeys and class war. I was lucky enough to get to interview MacLeod in 2010 for the Morning Star – all his works come highly recommended.


Massively into this moving essay at Gawker by Mychal Denzel Smith ’On The Ghosts of Gun Violence’- Will be looking out for more of his work – one to watch.
Zoe Williams’ takedown of the language of ‘strivers vs. skivers‘ at The Guardian has been reposted everywhere, and deservedly so. Has anyone else noticed that Zoe Williams has been absolutely killing it recently?
And here’s Malcolm Harris in an eloquent attack of coupledom and its discontents at The New Inquiry. “Saying true love isn’t real is like saying money isn’t real, or race isn’t real, or the desire for deodorant isn’t real. You might be right in a base, materialist sort of way, but nations build policy not only on the existence but the desirability of love.”  

I saw Les Miserables twice. I cried both times and I’m not even sorry. Oh the tragic handsome student revolutionaries. In the real world, my own kharass hasn’t yet had the chance to go out in a blaze of glory on a barricade in period dress: we face the far more fearful challenge of staying united and building a future that doesn’t suck without losing our minds and letting our spirits get squashed in the process.
In related news, I’m going to be doing a helluva lot of travelling in the next month – starting with Ireland, next week, where I’m working on a story about abortion rights. Anyone who can recommend some good places to drink and dance in Dublin will have my gratitude. 

On Feminism, Transphobia and Free Speech

This weekend, columnist Julie Burchill used her platform in the Observer to launch what may be the most disgusting piece of hate-speech printed in a liberal newspaper in recent years. I’m not the only reader who was shocked to the core at smug attack transsexual women as ‘screaming mimis in bad wigs,’ ‘a bunch of dicks in chicks’ clothing,’ and other playground insults too vile to repeat. Burchill claimed to be protecting a friend, which is a noble thing to do, but I suspect that the friend in question, the writer Suzanne Moore, would rather she hadn’t been associated with this the popping of this particular pustule of prejudice.

Burchill’s article is an embarrassment to the British press, an embarrassment to feminist writing and a shameful abuse of a public platform to abuse a vulnerable minority. The Observer has now issued an apology, and rightly so, although I believe the decision to depublish the piece is not wrong so much as bizarre, since Google Cache never forgets. It’s even more dispiriting to see other mainstream media outlets, including the Telegraph, rally around Burchill’s ignorant screed as a ‘free speech’ issue, as if the right to free speech and the right to publication in a major national newspaper were the same thing at all in the age of Tumblr. That’s why, after a lot of thought, I’ve taken the decision to publish this article independently, on this blog. I don’t want it to become part of the symbolic face-off going on between British press outlets this week. I want us to get back to the issues.

I’m partly writing this piece out of selfishness. I want to make it clear to the readers around the world who were rightly disgusted by the Observer column that Burchill and Moore do not speak for all British feminists, and that not every British columnist is prepared to rally the coaches around bigotry. A young, powerful feminist movement with transsexual and queer people at the heart of the debate is gathering in strength in this country and across the world, and we know that gender essentialism and bigotry hurt all of us, cis and trans, men and women.  

Transphobic men and women who promote prejudice in the name of feminism, including writers like Sheila Jeffreys, Germaine Greer, Julie Bindel and now Julie Burchill, are on the wrong side of history. For far too long, a small, vocal cadre of the women’s movement has claimed that transsexuals, and in particular transsexual women, are not just irrelevant to feminism but actively damaging to the cause of women’s liberation. Their arguments are illogical, divisive and hateful, and sometimes just plain bonkers. I’ve been to meetings where transphobic feminists have argued that if they don’t keep a lookout, horrible sexist men will try to sneak into their meetings, marches and seminars in disguise in order to disrupt proceedings. 

What precise form the disruption is supposed to take has not been explained, partly because it has never happened, ever. If Jeremy Clarkson ever decides to try it, I can assure you that he will be spotted and stopped – but right now, the feminist movement needs no help from fictional men in petticoats to damage our hopes of winning the wider war on women’s freedom. Far more insidious is the insistence by some feminists on mocking transsexual women and denying their existence.

The word that annoys these so-called feminists most is ‘cis’, or ‘cissexual’. This is a term coined in recent years to refer to people who are not transsexual. The response is instant and vicious: “we’re not cissexual, we’re normal – we don’t want to be associated with you freaks!” Funnily enough, that’s just the kind of pissing and whining that a lot of straight people came out with when the term ‘heterosexual’ first began to be used as an antonym of ‘homosexual.’  Don’t call us ‘heterosexuals’, they said – we’re normal, and you don’t belong.

To learn that the world is not divided into ‘normal’ people and ‘freaks’ with you on the safe side is uncomfortable. To admit that gender identity, like sexual orientation, exists on a spectrum, and not as a binary, is to challenge every social stereotype about men and women and their roles in society. Good. Those stereotypes need to be challenged. That’s why the trans movement is so important for feminism today.

Thanks to a global surge in acceptance and discussion of a spectrum of gender identity, trans people are becoming more and more visible, more angry, and more open about their experiences. The world is changing, and those of us fortunate enough to be born in a body that suits our felt gender identity are going to have to accept that being cissexual, just like being heterosexual, isn’t ‘normal’, merely common.

Transphobic articles in high-profile publications are not harmless. They cause active, quantifiable damage. They justify the ongoing persecution of transsexual people by the medical and legal establishment; they destroy solidarity within political and social circles; they hurt people who are used to hearing such slurs shouted at them in the street, and do not need to hear them from so-called progressives. Worse, they make it seem to the average reader, who might be a friend or relative of a trans person, that the rights of transsexual people to be treated in a humane way are still a subject for reasonable debate. 

Some conservative feminists claim that arguing about trans issues is counter-productive to the wider struggle against austerity and sexual violence. They are right about that. Feminism is meant to be about defending women against violence, prejudice and structural, economic disadvantage –  all women, not just the ones self-appointed spokespeople decide count, and at this time of crisis, we need to be standing together to defend women who are poor, marginalised and live in fear of violence. We cannot do that if we exclude trans and queer women, who are more than usually vulnerable to gendered violence and discrimination. Entry to feminist spaces should not be conditional on having one’s genitals checked over by Julie Burchill, Julie Bindel or their representatives. If it were, though, it might explain the decline in popularity of the movement in recent years.

It comes down to essentialism, and essentialism, as Suzanne Moore rightly pointed out in a recent Guardian column, is always conservative. Stubborn gender essentialism – the belief that your body and your hormones should define everything about your life – is what women have been fighting since the first suffragettes unrolled their green and purple sashes. For transphobic feminists, though, it all seems to boil down to an obsession with what precisely is inside a person’s underpants, which is at best intellectually vapid and at worst rather creepy, unless you happen to be into that sort of thing. 

In fact, nobody on this planet is born a woman. Julie Burchill was not born a woman, unless her mother is a hitherto unheralded miracle of medical science. Just over half of us grow up to become women, and the process is a muddle of blood and hormones and angst and pressure and pain and contradiction. Transsexual women know just as well, and sometimes better than cissexual women what it is to be punished for your felt and lived gender, what it is to fear violence and rape, to be reduced to your body, to be made to feel ashamed, to have to put up with prejudice and lazy stereotypes.

Personally, if I thought that my vagina, which I’ve had since I was born, was my most important feminist accessory, I would let it speak for itself. Unfortunately it hasn’t read much feminist history, and neither, it seems, have transphobic bigots. If they had, they’d understand that taking a stand against violence and gender essentialism is what feminism is all about, and that’s precisely why solidarity with trans women should be the radical heart of the modern women’s movement.

A tipping point has been reached. All over the world, online and in local communities, transsexual men and women are finding their voices, and finding each other. Their struggle for acceptance in a society that still hates and fears those who are different, those who don’t follow the rules of gender and sexuality, is vital to the modern feminist movement. Young activists understand that that’s what feminism is all about, for all of us, men and women, cissexual, transsexual and genderqueer: the fight for equality and freedom of expression in a society that still believes that the arrangement of your genitals at birth should dictate the course of your life. It’s time for cissexual feminists to put hate aside and stand with transsexual women in solidarity. 

THINGS FOR EYES 05/01/2013

2013 being the year in which the world is not ending for at least the foreseeable future, I thought I’d make a real effort to keep this blog lively. For a long time I’ve been meaning to start a list of recommendations, things I’m reading and watching and loving and working on, and this seemed like a great week to start, because it’s been full of energising words. Let’s start with some of the best essays on the internet…

Girl Geeks and Boy Kings, by Melissa Gira Grant at Dissent Magazine. The new issue of Dissent, put together by the powerhouse that is Sarah Leonard, came out this week, and it’s full of anti-capitalist feminism, net theory, gender trouble and basically all the things that give me an unhealthy pallor from too much time adventuring on the internet. It’s all great – Sarah Jaffe’s piece on Trickle-Down Feminism is worthy of mention and not just because she quotes me in it, but this was the essay that really got me squealing and linkspamming. MGG weaves an astute analysis of online identity production as a new ‘second shift’ of feminine and feminised labour into a review of Katherine Losse’s 2012 memoir of her time as an early employee of Facebook. 

On the theme of the feminisation of labour, imprecarity and identity,  this essay by Paul Myerscough at the London Review of Books is all about why Pret A Manger’s union-busting employment policies are fucked up and bullshit. It goes into the eye-watering details of precisely how wide Pret Staff are expected to smile if they want those seven and a half pounds an hour. Great read, with a bonus mention of…..

…Novara, the radio show on Resonance FM, which Myerscough credits as a “ gratifyingly apocalyptic counterweight to a BBC political news operation.” It’s  weekly hour of anarchy and erudite thinking around topics you won’t hear covered on NPR, it’s all archived online, and I happen to be on the show next week (at 2pm GMT on Tuesday). Novara is presented by my friends and fellow travellers, Aaron Peters, James Butler and, occasionally, by Dr Nina Power…
….who wrote this brilliant piece on A World Without Work for Comment Is Free. A timely analysis that really shouldn’t be as controversial as it is, Power’s piece went viral for good reason, and it tied in nicely with my other reading.


I was interviewed by Book Trust all about my favourite books growing up, as a teenager and right now, as well as the future of publishing and its interaction with journalism, which is as good a way to kick off a reading list as any.

This week I’ve also been reading The Problem With Work, by Kathi Weeks, a vital book that knits feminism, Marxism and anti-work theory into one complicated crochet that might be worn to a squat party by a semi-fashionable anarcho-hipster. Seriously, it’s important, which is why I’m reading it slowly and carefully, although the prose does have the annoying academic’s habit of telling you precisely what it’s about to say several times before it says it, which sometimes makes me want to put my forehead through the page.

AND, the collected stories of Colette, per Molly Crabapple’s recommendation, which have given me fantasies about becoming a 19th-century French courtesan, a vocation to which I am not at all suited. 
Yesterday after finishing work I got greedy in a bookshop and bought another pile of Science Fiction I can’t really afford, one of which was the Hugo and Nebula-Winning Among Others, by Jo Walton. I’ve only just started it, and I already know that this is going to be something I’ll savour and come back to. “I can bear anything as long as there are books.” (C1).
Also out this week is Gun Machine, by Warren Ellis. I got to read it a few months ago because Warren Ellis is my evil internet uncle, and it’s a great deal of goddamn fun. Go and buy it. The man has an expensive waistcoat habit to maintain.
If you’re not convinced yet, check out the SUPER INCREDIBLY AWESOME AMAZING GUN MACHINE TRAILER VIDEO OMG YOU GUYS by the very talented Jim Batt (@battsignal), of whose stop-motion work I’ve been a fan for some time, so this video for me is rather like David Bowie making a teaser for for Yorkshire Tea, except significantly less evilly capitalist. The fact that Bowie already does adverts is something I’ve deliberately chosen not to remember.
I’m now into book-writing territory on the Tome That Is Demanded, and I feel a little like Frodo going to Mordor, in that I’m increasingly unsure what the fuck I’m doing but charging in anyway. I’m finding time to cram in regular columning and essaying around the side, and my New Statesman column on rape myths went down particularly well.
 – A Note on the Nice Guys of OKCupid is still being shared around and responded to, and it contains some formulations on love, justice and the nature of the cruel and inscrutable Hive Vagina with which I’m moderately pleased.
Stavvers and I went to see the Death exhibition at the Wellcome collection in London, and felt moderately gothic, and I finally decided to furnish my room like an adult, which involved a harrowing trip to Ikea Wembley. The place is a living nightmare of labyrinthine furniture displays, futuristic bottom-simulation chair-stress devices in glass cases and babies killing time before they too get old enough to shop there. Deliver us from flat-pack furniture.