This is our truth, tell us yours
The occasional ‘these are jst my first thoughts’ warning hangs over this blog. Comments are welcome
Overnight I’ve re-tweeted a number of tweets about a man called Caleb Hannan. Caleb wants to be a journalist, and one day he may be, but right now he’s an unethical piece of work who unapologetically writes about an ‘investigation’ he has conducted that may have led to the suicide of his victim. Not subject, but victim.
A number of the people I’ve re-tweeted identify themselves as trans, and the victim of Caleb Hannan was herself trans. I haven’t re-tweeted the things I’ve re-tweeted because I am an ally of trans people, but because I agree with the tweets in question.
I have a real issue with anyone who calls themselves an ally of one group or another. Partly it’s an egotistical thing, and partly an historical thing.The egotistical thing is quite simple. I say what I say because it expresses who I am, not who I support. If I re-tweet someone, it’s not me saying ‘I support them’ – it’s me saying ‘They’re saying what I think, and got there first, or said it better than I could.’ No-one should mistake that for being an ally; there’s actually a classic example in Spiked Online this morning, where Brendan O’Neill proves the stopped clock theorem in fabulous style. (Hat tip to @bmagnanti for that link). I do not agree with Brendan O’Neill on most things, and I’d hate to be thought his ally, but on this one he’s bang on the money, just as a stopped clock will be right if you consult it at the right time.
So that’s the egotistical thing. Now, what about the historical thing? The First World War was a conflict of grand alliances, thrown together not by shared objectives or principles, but expediency. Arguably, the form and shape of those alliances contributed to the slaughter. The point is this. Ally meant nothing more than having a shared interest in the outcome of a struggle. It’s arguable that the meaning of ally became distorted by the use of the word during World War Two, and the additional values it became laden with. The allies were the good guys, ranged against the Axis, and suddenly, to be an ally was to be a good thing, rather than a collaborator in a potentially immoral enterprise. I don’t want to claim to be one of the good guys, and I don’t want anyone to be mistaken. I want to see trans people achieve full equality, and real, equivalent freedoms to the ones I enjoy, but their experiences mean I cannot bring the same force or experience to bear in their struggles. Too many white cis guys who proclaim themselves allies of women, or trans people, act as if they’re the USA coming to save poor oppressed Britain in World War Two in the classic John Wayne version of history. I don’t buy into that good guy bad guy version of history, or of being an ally.
Stop and think about that again. Before World War Two to be an ally was merely a description, and carried no moral weight, nor even, when one thinks about World War One, an endorsement of the motives of those you were allied with. In both World Wars, even as the battles were being fought, the allies were warily eying each other to ensure they could divide the spoils as profitably as possible,whatever they said in public about the moral imperatives and permanent ambitions of the alliance.
So I don’t call myself an ally, and if I re-tweet, I’m not endorsing your motives, just your words. Caleb Hannan is a case in point. If you’re trans, you may see Hannan as epitomizing some of the wicked oppression that afflicts trans people, sometimes through malice, sometimes through ignorance. I agree with all that, but my reason for wanting to see Hannan held to account is also because I think he epitomizes the cult of the journalist, obsessed with the practice of journalism to the point where he completely ignores the risks involved in his practice.
There’s a further interesting point in what Hannan does in his article. There’s actually a really interesting article lurking in the background of it, about the notion that much of the pseudo-science invoked by companies selling sports equipment is snake-oil salesmanship. There’s an interesting strand in there about the role of belief in sport as well, especially sports like golf, epitomized by players believing they were playing better with the new, scientific putter even though the scoreboard didn’t confirm this. All of that gets buried beneath Hannan’s brutal pursuit of the human interest story, elevating that commercially driven journalistic practice (making the dry and speculative interesting to passing readers by focussing on the people involved) above the rights and wishes of the people involved. The point is, to do a human interest slant on a story all you need is a notebook and a lack of scruples. To do the science story you’d need to do some research and understand the theory, which isn’t an obstacle to writing well. Ben Goldacre has proved conclusively you can do science news stories with panache and style, as well as real editorial impact, and the idea that an American couldn’t want to write about science with style like, say Stephen Jay Gould, is just a bit sad.
God alone knows how Caleb Hannan lives with himself, but I know this. While people endorse or teach this style of journalism, more people will die in the name of human interest stories, which all too often work by highlighting the contrasts between the victim’s life experiences and the hegemonic cultural norms, in the process holding the victim up to criticism or ridicule that they may find too much to bear. The only difference between Jeremy Kyle and Caleb Hannan is that Hannan’s not very good at cruelty yet. Good enough to kill someone, maybe, but not good enough at it to get his own TV series or superstar billing, but I don’t doubt that’s what he’d like.
If I re-tweet people angry about what Caleb Hannan has done I’m not appropriating their words; I am endorsing their words, but for my reasons. I can be angry about the way a trans woman has been treated, but also angry about Hannan passing off these shabby goods as journalism, and putting himself and his practice at the centre of a tragedy he may have caused without acknowledging his share of the blame.