My friend wanted to take my picture for her art series. I said yes, but only if I could be a feminist witch. Portrait by the unutterably talented Nadya Lev. Makeup: Risa Robins-Moloney. Wardrobe: Mother of London
There’s a picture that quite a lot of British schoolchildren still get shown in our history lessons. It shows two signatures of Guy Fawkes, one of the Catholic conspirators who in 1605 plotted to blow up parliament, before and after he was tortured into a confession.
Fawkes’ script is looping, cursive, neat. The letters are still sharp after hundreds of years: a name that had not yet become infamous. The second signature, if it can be called that, is different. It was scrawled in a shaking hand by someone who could no longer write his own name, either because he had gone past the point of pain where such things matter, or because he could no longer hold a pen, or both.
When I first saw this in primary school, it was presented without moral judgement. Torture is obviously bad, but it was all a very long time ago, and besides, he tried to blow up the king. Let’s make a dead man out of paper and burn him in his clothes for the kids to watch. Let’s all sing the nursery rhyme about what happens when you plot against power. It’s traditional.
Britain has a lot of history, and the bits we choose to remember, remember, and the bits we choose to forget, forget, and the bits we choose to dress up in pretty lights and march through the town, say a lot about who we are after so many hundreds of years.
We have a lot of history to choose from. It’s no accident that the current Conservative government, alongside decimating the welfare state, cracking down on dissent and instituting reforms which have plunged millions into poverty, is pushing a new History syllabus that will teach British children about the importance of Empire and the glory of war. Michael Gove loves Niall Ferguson and hates Blackadder.
Like most little girls, what I really loved when I was six or seven was watching things burn. Lucky for me, I spent part of my childhood in Lewes, a small, genteel Sussex town which happens to host Europe’s most enormous bonfire celebrations. November the 5th is like Christmas in Lewes, except with more arson, sectarianism and explosions. Tens of thousands of people descend on the town, and the crush is so huge and dangerous that that the council has had to ask non-locals not to attend. There are six competing bonfire societies, each with their own giant, dangerous fire parade, their own costumes, and their own songs, and there are so many fireworks and bangers and rolling tar barrels that your ears ring for days and the night sky glows sodium orange.
Oh, and we burn an effigy of the pope, because it’s traditional. And march through the town with massive flaming crosses, because it’s traditional. And there are a lot of people in blackface, because it’s traditional. And often we burn political leaders, because that’s traditional too. Especially leaders we don’t like. A few years ago, Lewes burned an effigy of German Chancellor Angela Merkel making a Nazi salute. The town has also burned Blair, Brown, Cameron and Thatcher, with various degrees of outcry.
Today, people in Scotland are upset because the town of Lewes is burning Alex Salmond, the former SNP leader who was the face of the most recent, narrowly defeated Scottish Independence. People are really angry about this today. It’s trending on Twitter. This makes me weirdly homesick for the parochial racist revisionist history of my own country, as opposed to the parochial racist revisionist history of the United States, which is similar, with more pumpkin pie.
I grew up in Lewes. I know this town. The Bonfire Parade has always been exactly this problematic. The surprising thing is that people are only just noticing.
To be clear, I bloody love Bonfire Night. Always did. Always will. I love bonfires so huge and hot and primeval they make the skin on face go tight when you get too close. I love mulled wine and apple-bobbing and the sharp thrill of being half- drunk and cosy in the cold with your friends. I love watching a town full of well-behaved, latte-drinking Liberal Democrat voters get blasted and howl like pagans at the sky. I love the crick in my neck and the dots on my vision from too long watching fireworks. I love the tiny scar on my shin from when a bit of a french firecracker got up my trouser leg ten years ago when I stood too close to the burning barrels. I love the smell of phosphorus and flaming tar.
I love it so much that it took me years to notice and admit to myself how fucked up it was that Lewes Bonfire Night also involves blackface, because it’s traditional, co-ordinated chanting about killing catholics, because it’s traditional, burning crosses, because they’re traditional and, on one occasion, a massive flaming effigy of the first Black president of the United States, because, because….
Just because things are horribly problematic doesn’t mean they’re not fun, or meaningful, or loaded with personal significance unrelated to all the awful stuff*. And just because things are fun and meaningful and significant doesn’t mean the awful stuff isn’t there.
Lewes’ most famous son was the radical writer Thomas Paine, who wrote that “A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right.” You’ve got to wonder whether Tom Paine would have approved of that of Alex Salmond. I hear he was quite a fan of tolerance and independence.**
Winter festivals are older than the stories that accrete around them like unwanted gifts from embarrassing relatives. You get together, you greet old friends, you celebrate surviving another year, you remember the people you’re missing, you stuff yourself with delicious food and set things on fire. The stories change, in time. Old, violent stories are replaced by new ones which are still, at root, about power. We can remember, or we can forget, or we can half-remember, and dress our children up like pilgrims and zulus, and redraw history in simple shapes that can’t describe pain and fear and betrayal.
Or we can confront our history like fucking grown-ups. In America, Seattle recently renamed Columbus Day ‘Indigenous People’s Day’. Just because the past is dark and full of terrors that force their fingers into the present doesn’t mean Americans shouldn’t have a day off work. God knows they get few enough of those.
Tradition is a great excuse for a party and a shitty excuse for ritualised racism. Tradition is a great reason to get drunk with your cousins and make bad decisions with roman candles and a shitty reason to defend xenophobic, sectarian, bigoted local customs and update them for the 21st century by reminding kids what still happens when you don’t doff your cap to the monarchy.
And history? History is what we make it.
*For more on this, have a listen to Tim Minchin singing about Christmas. Tissues at the ready. You have been warned.
**I hear he also beat his wife. History is never the simple story you want it to be.
Internet, I love you, but you’re bringing me down.
So, it turns out Andrew ‘Weev’ Auernheimer, whose trial and subsequent release on computer ‘crimes’ I have mentioned before….. is a fascist. Not a figurative fascist. An actual one.
It’s unclear whether he always was, or whether he made the jump to full-on swivel-eyed swastika-tattooed hatemonger in jail. I don’t actually know the guy, I didn’t know till today how sincere Weev’s beliefs were, and I absolutely distance myself from his abhorrent politics. I did so back when I thought he was merely a sexist, racist prick, like a lot of the other sexist, racist pricks I have had the misfortune to meet in my dealings in the sewer-system of internet debate, rather than a card-carrying neo-nazi.
Let me be totally clear, here. I apologise for anything I’ve said which might have suggested that, in opposing Weev’s imprisonment on charges of ‘computer fraud and abuse’, I agreed with anything else he has ever said or done. Weev has always been a prick of the first order. I knew a little about that before I ever tweeted #freeweev. I know he harassed a woman until she was forced to uproot her entire life just for suggesting comment moderation. I know he’s an anti-semite. He regularly tweets anti-semitic abuse at me, although today is the first day he’s actually told me I deserve to be in a gas chamber. Twice.
And I still oppose totalitarian laws. Even when they’re levelled against people whose politics I despise. People who wish me dead, along with people I love.
If I believed in jails, I think Weev would probably belong in one. Just not for the crime he was actually imprisoned for.
The existence of laws like the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act do untold damage not just to activists on the frontline, many of whom do not abuse women and minorities for sport, but to everyone who believes the internet can and should be a tool for liberation rather than just a network of state and corporate control.
From some of the posters, you’d be forgiven for thinking that all of the people who risk their freedom, mental health and personal safety in the cause of keeping the internet free and safety are white dudes. This, as many people, including my friends and comrades Jillian C York and Morgan Marquis-Boire, have pointed out, is not the case.
I don’t think anyone- ANYONE- deserves to be in jail merely for using a computer to access information the state would rather they didn’t see or distribute. Not Aaron Swartz, not Chelsea Manning, not Jeremy Hammond. Not Julian Assange, about whose refusal to answer charges of rape and sexual assault I have also written at length, earning myself some common or garden accusations of being part of the global feminist anti-freedom conspiracy in the process. And not Weev.
I believe in a free internet. I continue to believe in it even though a handful of its figureheads are truly awful people.
There are some people out there within the net neutrality/digital security spectrum who seem to believe that ‘freedom’ really only means ‘freedom for people like me.’ I suspect Weev is one of them. He certainly talks like one.
There are also people out there who will use any opportunity to tear down a woman’s politics, to attack her career, to harass and humiliate her. People who exploit other people’s real, urgent concern about the rise of neofascism on- and offline in order to shit all over whichever young woman they’ve decided to hate this week. It turns out rank sexism is not the exclusive preserve of neonazis, neoliberals, libertarians and basement-dwelling fantasists. Who knew?
I believe that it is not too late to fight for the internet as a free and radical space – not just by opposing unjust laws, but by opposing those who use the web to attack minorities, women, LGBT people, anyone who dares not to be white, male and Anglo-Saxon, in this brave new world that sometimes seems to be doing its damnedest to import the politics of the cowardly old world, with a healthy handful of panopticism for extra bite.
I believe that keeping the internet free means keeping it free for everyone – and that’s why I will continue to stand for the rights of women, LGBT people and people of colour online and against censorship and surveillance. If you think that sounds exhausting, I agree.
Right now, internet politics are full of scared, hurt, angry people, and scared, hurt angry people can be extremely unkind to one another. I’ve been burned, and I’ve burned out. I’ve received the kind of harassment you wouldn’t believe if you didn’t read my twitter feed, and I’ve come back time and time again, because I believe this fight is worth it. ALL of this fight.
If I didn’t believe this fight was worth it, I wouldn’t be here. I believe that it is not too late for kindness and decency online, as well as freedom. I believe it because I still see it every day, although some days far, far less than others.
Fuck fascism. Fuck racism, homophobia and misogyny. Fuck the surveillance state. And fuck anyone who thinks you have to choose.
That’s all I’ve got to say.
There’s a culture war happening right now. It’s happening in games, in film, in journalism, in television, in fiction, in fandom. It’s happening online, everywhere. And everywhere, sexists, recreational misogynists and bigots are losing.
They are losing, and they don’t know why.
I’ve been thinking a lot, this week and last week, about what it is that’s changing in culture, about what women are doing, and what is being done to us in revenge. I’ve been thinking about what happened to Jennifer Lawrence; about what happened to Zoe Quinn; about what happened to Anita Sarkeesian; about what’s been happening to every games and culture writer with the gall to be female or to defend feminism; and I’ve been thinking, unavoidably, about what’s happened to me, over the course of three years of harassment and abuse.
This a song we know by now. It starts and ends, almost always, with attacks on our sexuality, on our bodies as meat and function: our sexual and relationship history is broadcast everywhere, which is what happened to games developer Quinn, after an ex-boyfriend posted a disturbed, disturbing novella-length attack on everything she is and everything she stands for. The gamersphere then collectively wet its knickers over not being allowed to mercilessly slut-shame their chosen target without being called out, because freedom of speech.
The routine, the arguments, have become far too familiar. A woman or a handful of women are selected for destruction; our ‘credibility’ and ‘professionalism’ are attacked in the same breath as we are called ugly, slut-shamed for dismissed either as stupid little girls or bitter old women or, in some cases, both. The medium is modern, but the logic is Victorian, and make no mistake, the problem is not what we do and say and build and create.
The problem is that women are doing it. That’s why the naked selfies, the slut-shaming, is not just incidental to the argument – it is the argument. Underneath it all, you’re just a woman, just a body. You can be reduced to flesh. You are less. You are an object. You are other. LOL, boobs.
The problem is that women are creating culture, changing culture, redefining culture, and those cunts, those poisonous cunts, those disgusting, uppity cunts must be stopped.
If I sound angry here, it’s because I am. I’m angy because I’ve had to listen to these things being said to and about me and many other women creators I admire for too many years now to be polite about it. My anger, however, is different from the incoherent rage sloshing around 4chan, Reddit, MRA forums and other nests of recreational misogyny right now, because the people perpetrating these attacks on women, the people who are so unspeakably angry that women dare, they dare with their stupid ladyheads and evil ladyparts, they dare to come into their special boy spaces and actually demand a voice, they don’t understand why not everyone can see how right they are, how noble, how absolutely justified they are in their cause. They believe that they are justified because freedom of speech- except not freedom of speech for women and queers and people of colour, because those people don’t really speak, they just whine, shriek, scream, like animals, because really that’s all they are, animals.
They think it’s a game.
I’m talking about the whole thing – not just hounding individual women, hacking individual celebrities’ nude pics, trying to trash the reputations of women in the public eye according to outdated double-standards with less and less relevance to our real lives. I’m talking about gender itself, sex and sexuality itself, as a game you can play and win by ‘beating’ the other ‘side’ into submission. A game where the other ‘side’ isn’t really human at all. Shoot to kill. Destroy the brain. Move on.
Games and pickup artistry gave a formal structure to that mindset for this generation, but it’s older than that. The gamification of misogyny predates the internet, but right now, in this world full of angry, broken, lost young men convinced that women have robbed them of some fundamental win in life, it’s rampant.
The trouble is that treating other human beings like faceless opponents doesn’t work in the real world.
Gender isn’t a game you can play and win by brutalising and harassing and shaming and hurting the other ‘side.’ Ultimately, there is no other side. Gender oppression is structural. Everybody loses, in the long term, because everybody has to live in a culture where it’s normal to hound women out of their homes for daring to demand fairer treatment, normal to shame girls and queer people into silence for suggesting that there might be other interesting stories to tell. There is no way to win this game, except by not playing at all.
So they can’t understand why they’re losing.
They can’t understand why their arguments aren’t working. They can’t understand why game designers, industry leaders, writers, public figures are lining up to disown their ideas and pledge to do better by women and girls in the future. They can’t understand why, just for example, when my friend, the games critic and consultant Leigh Alexander, was abused and ‘called out’ as an unprofessional slut, a lying cunt, morally and personally corrupt, just for speaking truthfully and beautifully about all of this, it was Alexander who was invited to write her first piece for Time magazine, Alexander who got to define the agenda for the mainstream, who received praise and recognition, whilst her abusers’ words will be lost in a howling vortex of comment threads and subreddits and, eventually, forgotten.
Their rage is the rage of bewilderment.
They can’t understand why the new reaction to nude selfie leaks isn’t ‘you asked for it, you whore’, but ‘everyone does it, stop slut shaming.’ They can’t understand the logic of a world where ‘Social Justice Warrior’ just doesn’t work as an insult, because a great many people care quite a lot about social justice and are proud to fight for it.
They can’t understand why they look ridiculous.
This is a culture war. The right side is winning, at great cost. At great personal costs to people like Anita Sarkeesian, Leigh Alexander, Zoe Quinn and even Jennifer Lawrence, and countless others who are on the frontlines of creating new worlds for women, for girls, for everyone who believes that stories matter and there are too many still untold. We are winning. We are winning because we are more resourceful, more compassionate, more culturally aware. We’re winning because we know what it’s like to fight through adversity, through shame and pain and constant reminders of our own worthlessness, and come up punching. We know we’re winning because the terrified rage of a million mouthbreathing manchild misogynists is thick as nerve gas in the air right now.
Us Social Justice Warriors – this is me, stealing that word in order to use it against my enemies- are winning the culture war by tearing up the rulebook, and there’s nothing the sad, mad little boys who hate women and queers and people of colour can do about it. Nothing, at least, that doesn’t sabotage their strategy, because they can win their game from day to day, but they’re losing the war. They can punish me for writing this, and I’m sure they will, but that will only prove my point. I’m not afraid anymore.
Every time they make an example of one of us, ten more stand up in outrage to hold her up or take her place.
We are stronger, smarter and more numerous than anyone imagined, and we are not to be fucked with.
Comments are closed. Deal.
My penultimate contribution before the Great Back To School Exodus is an essay on text-making monkeys, loneliness, books and politics, for Overland Magazine’s centenary issue. I was challenged to compose a modern response to George Orwell’s seminal essay on the same topic – and if I’ve done it even a scrap of justice, well, that’s me satisfied.
‘Many writers and artists in the digital age focus on promoting their ‘personal brand’ at the expense of developing their authentic voice. The difference is quite simple.
Your brand is what you show to the world and sell for cash to your employers so you can buy luxuries like rent and tea and pens.
Your voice cannot be sold. It cannot be copied or cheapened with trade. It is yours. It exists in the magic space between your brain and your keyboard, and has nothing to do with noise. It is what is left when the internet goes down and your friends stop calling and you’re alone with a notebook. Your voice is what makes you, rather than any one of a hundred thousand fungible public personalities, a writer.
When it comes to being a writer, there are a couple of questions that really matter. Do you write? Would you prefer to put words on a page than almost anything else? Do you stay up late to write, get up early to write, escape your friends and partners and small children to be alone with words? Can you actually finish a story – have you mastered the habit of whipping your wild thoughts into a workable form, signing them off and letting them go? Do you have enough patience to sit with a manuscript for hours until it’s done, but enough impatience to chase a story through the small hours of the morning until you’ve caught and nailed it down?
Most importantly: do you read?
There is no universal writing life. But there are a few qualities that most of the really fantastic writers I know have in common – and the first of those is reading. Writers read widely and compulsively. They are not necessarily methodical; they will read to learn but they also read just to read, because they would rather do that than almost everything else. Writers take a great novel over a mediocre orgasm any day.’