This is our truth, tell us yours
As previously, this is a work in progress.
I regard reflection on the things I’ve said and done as both a duty and an essential act of self preservation. Make of that what you will, but when I was a practicing Anglican I was taught and understood the general confession, often at the start of services, as an instruction in how to think about life, not just ritual.
In the light of events on Twitter in recent days I’ve reflected on whether the words I said, or any words I have said, might have caused unnecessary offence, either to the people they were directed to, or to anyone reading them.
What’s unnecessary offence? Well sometimes it’s necessary to offend people. If you tell a narcissist that, in your opinion, they’re not as wonderful as they think they are, you will offend them. If you are not to be silenced by their narcissism, then it is necessary to offend them. The work of any sane society involves setting rules round the subject of language and debate, to agree what is and isn’t acceptable.
So it’s acceptable and right that there should be a debate around the question of language, debate and misogyny, and there is a duty that I assume and accept to reflect on language, and my use of it.
This isn’t a debate, or a duty, that is unique to anyone involved in debates around gender. In the month that Nelson Mandela left us it’s appropriate to reflect upon my three decades of involvement in anti racist and anti apartheid groups. The first thing I learned was that the debate around the use of racist language, as opposed to actively being a racist, was a key dividing line. I grew up in a small, almost all white community, where casually racist language was a common place even amongst people who would never countenance discrimination as a practice. There was a tough, vigorous debate within the anti apartheid movement about racist language, about racism and about how you engaged with, or disengaged from, those who used racist language, even while espousing good anti apartheid principles.
The thing I remember most about those debates was the way in which, whilst they were often thought provoking, and challenging, they were also theatres for the internal competition between political factions and sects seeking to recruit the unatttached or disenchanted amongst the periphery of the anti apartheid movement. As a result some of those debates were, to say the least, theatrical, staged and scripted. It was hard, if not impossible, to discern if those disputes were genuine differences of opinion or synthetic excuses for faction A to distinguish itself from faction B.
The key tactic for the extra parliamentary left was to create unique theatres, campaigns that that were theirs and theirs alone. One such campaign was the picket of the South African embassy during the apartheid years, a classic improvised theatre designed to enable one group, the RCG, a febrile and humourless collection of doctrinaire Trots who had no purchase in or relationship to the wider working class movement. It’s arguable, and I remember arguing this at the time, that the Trot left had learned the negative lessons of the Anti Nazi League, when Tony Cliff argued that the weakness of the ANL was that it was so broad the SWP lost control of its own front organization – Cliff told members of the SWP ‘We thought the ANL was our organization, and it turned out to be Tom Robinson’s organization.’ So the RCG chose a form of campaign that only the most eager and committed of activists could take part in, and it wasn’t unique. The sex abuse cult formerly known as the WRP was fond of demanding recruits take part on long distance marches for jobs, in a weird cargo cult re-enactment of the Jarrow Crusade.The SWP would insist that its members sign up for a programme of paper selling and ritual attendance at meetings that would close their lives to all other interests.
The point of this is to illustrate a key principle of understanding political activism. If someone who has no base in existing political movements insists you care passionately about an issue you’ve not heard of before, committing to it in a demanding and exclusive way, when the issue involved isn’t part of the political mainstream and would barely warrant an Early Day Motion, it’s not just right but a duty to question why that issue is being promoted. If the issue is symbolic rather than rooted in reality, be even more wary.
If that sounds like a sideways jibe at banknotes feminism, I apologise, I meant to be more direct. As a socialist, a trade unionist and bi man I don’t really give a fuck about who’s on the back of bank notes. Not when there are more important campaigns about food poverty or hunger or genuine discrimination, here, in the UK. I am not being misogynistic in saying that. Amongst the women I admire in social media campaigning, besides the divine Jem, are a triumvirate of women whose ability to cut to the chase I admire – Stavvers, Laura Lee, and Jack Monroe. None of those three necessarily agree with me, and as Jem knows, her role in my life is as my peer reviewing constantly what I think and helping me get to where I want to be intellectually is not dependent on her gender, self identification or body status. I admire them because they articulate a clear commitment to issues that I care about. If it is misogynistic to suggest that the issues that some women perceive as important to them are not important to me, then all I can do is ask others to keep questioning why some people think it so important to create new political theatres outside the mainstream, and to other those who don’t accept the importance or urgency of the creation of those theatres.
In the process of that othering the very meaning of misogyny has been lost. If I disparage the mouthpieces of banknote feminism I am not disparaging all women, just those women. Dare I mention Margaret Thatcher? Or Teresa May? To disparage them is merely to disparage those who don’t give a shit for the things I care about. That is not misogyny.