Ask me anything

I’ve been chatting with Common Space editor and Sunday Herald columnist Angela Haggerty about a recent barney in Scottish political twitter: some of it has descended into a trans/anti-trans argument where everybody’s shouting at everybody else and nobody’s listening to anybody. As she wrote on Twitter, wishing people would “please stop ripping each other apart”:

Asking questions, even stupid ones, doesn’t make a person transphobic.

She’s absolutely right, of course. But unfortunately “just asking questions”, or JAQing off as it’s also known, is a known tactic of arseholes such as Glenn Beck and the alt-right. As a result, some trans people / trans allies see a trans-related argument, assume that that’s what they’re seeing and go in with all guns blazing.

As RationalWiki explains:

Just asking questions (also known as JAQ-ing off) is a way of attempting to make wild accusations acceptable (and hopefully not legally actionable) by framing them as questions rather than statements. It shifts the burden of proof to one’s opponent — rather than laboriously having to prove that all politicians are reptoid scum, one can pull out one single odd piece of evidence and force the opponent to explain why the evidence is wrong.

The tactic is closely related to loaded questions or leading questions (which are usually employed when using it), Gish Gallops (when asking a huge number of rapid-fire questions without regard for the answers) and Argumentum ad nauseam (when asking the same question over and over in an attempt to overwhelm refutations).

These tactics are all used repeatedly by anti-feminist trolls, far-right trolls and anti-LGBT trolls too.

The sheer volume of it means that more often than not, when people are just asking questions of feminists, of activists or of ordinary LGBT people they aren’t doing it out of curiosity. The questions are statements disguised as questions, moves in a game that’s been planned and played a thousand times, key words and phrases repeated again and again.

It usually goes a bit like this:

Troll: Why are you silencing women?
Trans person: Er, we’re not. Actually it’s trans people who are be–
Troll: Why do you support women being murdered?
Trans person: Eh? I don–
Troll: Why do you hate women so much?

It’s frustrating and infuriating, not least because if you get wound up by the aggressive idiocy of it all and respond angrily you’re the one who comes across as an unreasonable hothead.

And equally frustrating and infuriating, it can mean you interpret a genuine question as something with malign intent, coming across once again as an unreasonable hothead and this time losing a potential ally.

Maybe the answer is to realise that when the trolls move in, the opportunity to make any kind of sense has already moved on. As Haggerty suggested to me:

Ignore the trolls and bigots, make the positive points, don’t get pulled into arguments, build relationships with people who show a willingness to listen. That’s leading by example and can have a strong impact.

It’s good advice. I have no time for trolls, I mute the JAQ lot on Twitter and I’ve come to realise that arguing however nicely with bigots is the proverbial pig wrestling: you just get dirty and the pig likes it.

But over the last couple of weeks I’ve also had several conversations with people who don’t know much about trans stuff, who knew about trans men but not trans women, who had questions about name changes etc… all of them just asking questions, but genuine questions. Those conversations were interesting, educational (for me!) and often really, really funny.

If you’re a genuine person with genuine questions you can ask me anything about anything. Especially if you buy me a drink first.

A disturbance in the force

I took the kids to see the latest Pixar movie, Coco, yesterday. It’s a great film with a typically Pixar emotional punch (yes, I cried) and some truly exceptional CG, and it’s notable for being set in Mexico and based on Mexican folklore.

It’s interesting to discover what went on away from the computers. The film was initially greeted with great concern by Latino commentators, not least because Pixar’s owner Disney initially attempted to trademark “Día de los Muertos” – Day of the Dead. The thought of the House of Mouse appropriating Mexican culture wasn’t exactly a happy one.

Pixar responded to the concerns in a very Pixar way: it hired its most vocal critics, not for PR gloss but to ensure that it didn’t screw up. A group including artist Lalo Alcaraz, playwright Octavio Solis and former Mexican Heritage Corp. CEO Marcela Davison Aviles acted as cultural consultants for the film.

The result? It quickly became the second-highest-grossing animated film in the history of the Mexican film market (the first was Toy Story 3). And it’s a really good film.

While I was waiting for it to come on, there was a trailer for the forthcoming A Wrinkle in Time, a live action fantasy with some serious star power among the inevitable CGI. And it took me a moment to realise what was unusual about the trailer.

It had people of colour in it.

Not as a statement — for example, something like Black Panther, which is also being trailed in the cinema at the moment, is a film specifically about a black superhero — or as sidekicks. But as the main characters.

As Latonya Pennington writes:

Not only do we get a Black female protagonist played by Storm Reid, but we also get Oprah Winfrey and Mindy Kaling in prominent roles.

…When the trailer for “A Wrinkle in Time” was first released, my eyes grew wide, my heart swelled with excitement, and I smiled so big. I’ve loved fantasy fiction since I was a kid and seeing that trailer reminded me of the joy I felt as I devoured book after book. Although I’ve never read the book the film is based on, I’ve always longed to see more fantasy films with Black female leads.

With the release of “A Wrinkle In Time”, young Black girls will get to see someone that looks like them be a hero.

That’s great, obviously. But you have to wonder why in 2018 it should be in any way remarkable to see women of colour in lead roles, why kids still don’t see people like them on screen as the norm rather than the exception. It shouldn’t be notable to have actors such as Kelly Marie Tran in a Star Wars film or Tessa Thompson in Thor: Ragnarok.

And then you read the first (and so far only) comment on Pennington’s piece.

Are non white women really that pathetic that they need to see someone who looks like them succeeding in a fictional setting in order for them to feel better about themselves? You do realise that all your examples are fiction right? It’s not real. Quite frankly, your either a bigot for wanting to see less whites in film, or a self-hating loser whose self esteem needs to be stroked by fictional characters in order to feel better about themselves.

Guess what colour and gender the poster is.

Such posts are a gift to bloggers, of course, because a single “your a bigot” illustrates the problem better than 1,000 words of carefully crafted argument.

Some people — and by people I mean straight white men people — are so used to seeing themselves on screen that when a film dares to feature people who aren’t straight white men people, or when someone who isn’t a straight white man dares to write about how great it is to see a film that isn’t written from the perspective of a straight white man, they lose their tiny little minds.

It’s the kind of privileged thinking that leads to some clown making a version of Star Wars: The Last Jedi without “Girlz Powah and other silly stuff”. Among other things the edit removes “female officers commanding people around/having ideas”, scenes where a woman “is making some important statement” and “Leia’s nitpicking”.

I do like Last Jedi director Rian Johnson’s Twitter response:

(Inevitably and rather brilliantly, another user has trolled the trolls by making an edit without the men, an edit that substantially cuts down on “characters whining about not getting their way”.)

If you can suspend your disbelief to watch films set in far-flung galaxies, films featuring people with impossible powers or films full of CGI characters but have a problem with people of colour or women in decent roles then maybe, just maybe, you’re on the dark side.

“Our shared progress toward a more equal society has depended on people standing together”

The Green MSP Patrick Harvie has always struck me as a good man. He was namechecked in an anti-trans piece in Scots newspaper The National yesterday, a piece that dragged up the usual “trans people are silencing women” bullshit and accused Harvie of not listening to women.

Harvie responded on the Scottish Greens website. It’s worth reading in full, but here’s an extract:

Many national media outlets carry relentlessly hostile coverage, turning the argument for human rights and basic respect into a “culture war” to divide people from one another. That tactic has been used to oppose all forms of equality, time and again down the generations. Progress has been made by people standing together, supporting each other and refusing to accept that your equality or human rights are incompatible with mine.

…Or we can do exactly what the opponents of equality always want us to do by trading my rights off against yours, yours against hers, his against theirs. If we do that, we will all lose.

Meanwhile in America, President Trump proved Harvie’s point when his administration announced protection for religious people who don’t want to give healthcare to trans people.

That’s any kind of care: plasters for cuts, painkillers for headaches, saving your life after a car crash.

And it’s not just trans people. That was just the headline. The bill is also about protecting people who don’t want to give healthcare to gay people, to lesbians, to people who’ve had abortions, or to anybody else they disapprove of for any other reason. In Kentucky it’s been suggested that similar “religious freedom” legislation will also enable discrimination against interracial couples.

NPR gives examples of recent religious exemption claims:

a nurse who didn’t want to provide post-operative care to a woman who had an abortion, a pediatrician who declined to see a child because his parents were lesbians and a fertility doctor who didn’t want to provide services to a lesbian couple.

At the press conference to announce the changes, acting Department of Health and Human Services secretary Eric Hargan compared what I’d call religious extremists’ hateful bigotry to the Jews slaughtered in the Holocaust and Martin Luther King’s quest for civil rights.

Guitars that have been loved and lost

This is a blast: from the previously mentioned Professor Batty, a blog about guitars he’s owned over the years. Discover what happened when Gibson lost its collective mind, what a “demented” guitar that shouldn’t exist is actually like to play and why he’s still got bits of the worst guitar ever made.

Guitars are odd things. I can’t claim to have played, let alone owned, the variety of guitars that the good Professor has, but over the years I’ve still loved and occasionally lost the following:

  • Fender Stratocaster (two: one cheapie as a teenager, one good one now)
  • Fender Stratocaster 12-string (heavier than a mountain)
  • Various Squier Telecasters (fun and painfully trebly sometimes)
  • Fender Telecaster (a proper one; my weapon of choice during my gigging days)
  • Epiphone Riviera (milestone birthday present: beautiful guitar)
  • Fender Jazz Bass (sold the real one years ago, have a Squier copy now)
  • Squier Precision Bass (genuinely one of the most fun things I’ve ever played, whether I’m playing bad punk or bad funk)
  • Aria Pro II Bass (a pointy purple one. It was a long time ago)
  • Enormous Epiphone Elvis acoustic (big one with what looks like a giant moustache)
  • Fender Marauder (a distinctly odd Modern Player cross between a Jaguar and a Strat. Sounds fantastic, plays great but feels like it’s made of balsa wood)
  • Yamaha Electro-Acoustic (another gigging guitar, now in the smaller hands of Girls Rock Glasgow).
  • Epiphone Les Paul Studio (currently covered in dragon stickers and played by my daughter)
  • One of those Ovation copies, a roundback acoustic made of fibreglass that sounds like you’re playing a wheelie bin

I’m sure I’ve missed a few too.

It all seems a bit wasteful when I’m a terrible guitar player, my lack of ability made considerably worse by RSI and subsequent carpal tunnel surgery. But musical instruments have a weird appeal whether you can play them or not, because many of them are just incredible objects. For example, here’s what my Epiphone Riviera looks like:

Isn’t beautiful? I look at it more than I actually play it.

Despite still owning more guitars than is necessary or sensible, I still find myself lusting after guitars in unrequited fashion. I particularly desire Gibson’s Explorer, a coffee table with strings often used by U2’s The Edge:

And I’m constantly arguing with myself about the equally mad but slightly rounder Thunderbird bass, on the grounds that I already have two perfectly good bass guitars already. But look at it! It’s a spaceship with strings!

I think it’s one of the most beautiful musical instruments ever made. It’s the work of a chap called Ray Dietrich, who designed car bodies for the likes of Lincoln, Ford and Duesenberg in the 1920s and Chrysler in the 30s, where his designs included the very pretty Airstream. As a huge fan of the subsequent craze for tailfinned cars, the Firebird guitar and Thunderbird bass really appeal to me: they were specifically designed to echo the tailfins of 50s cars.

But everybody has their favourite, and when it comes to guitars mine is the Fender Stratocaster. My one’s a Mexican reproduction of the 1960s original, but it’s a genuinely beautiful guitar to look at and to play.

And even in my raddled hands, the noise it makes is glorious.

“When I arrive in Hell, the Devil will sound like a headline”

I’m indebted to my old friend, the inimitable Professor Batty, for telling me about this excellent essay on the internet and reality and our feelings and quite a lot of other things too.

Do it now. Fight the new pace of thinking designed to keep us in Facebook fights and make Facebook more money. Resist getting so wound up by every story that you accelerate off a cliff into apathy. Lengthen the circuit between a candid thought and your anticipation of how it will be received, a circuit constantly shrinking in fear. Try your ideas out with people you are not desperate to impress, so there’s less ego clouding your discussion.

How the bad guys try to look like big guys on Twitter

This Twitter thread is about Nazis, but it’s describing tactics used by the religious right, anti-LGBT groups and other awful people on the internet.

By appearing numerous, the Twitter Nazis create the general impression that their movement and their ideas are mainstream. A big popular grassroots movement, rather than a fringe of a few thousand internet assholes and their pet bots… this was an old tactic of the Mongols and other horse nomad armies, who would use clouds of dust or extra campfires to create the illusion of superior numbers.

The silence of the trans

It’s not easy being trans. Not only do you have to deal with the various unpleasantnesses that being visibly different entails, but you have to balance the demands of everyday life with constantly, viciously silencing people who want to have a debate about whether you exist, whether you’re sick or thick or whether it’s ok to discriminate against you because you’re weird and icky and stuff.

Take poor Katie Hopkins. Silenced, with nobody but her 832,612 Twitter followers, readers of her forthcoming book and readers of her new right-wing blog to listen to her thoughts on trans people.

Have some sympathy for Janice Turner, whose Times columns about trans people only reach 1,835,000 print readers, 80,000 digital subscribers and the paper’s 1,069,719 Twitter followers on Sundays.

Imagine the pain of running Scots indy blog Wings Over Scotland, where your feelings on Trans issues can only be shared with 300,000 unique monthly visitors, your site’s 53,871 Twitter fans and your personal account’s 6,513 followers.

Feel the pain of Jenni Murray, who can only talk about trans people to 3.69 million BBC radio listeners and 40,200 people on Twitter.

Imagine the heartbreak of Julie Bindel, unable to talk about trans people except for on her book tour, in Guardian articles (153,163 print readers and 22.7 million online), in BBC TV and radio appearances that reach millions and to her 19,000 social media followers.

Try to empathise with poor Piers Morgan, who can only be unpleasant about trans people to his 6,301,837 Twitter followers, the 819,000 people who watch him on Good Morning Britain and the programme’s 413,446 followers, and the couple of million people who watch his Life Stories programmes.

Or try to imagine how it must feel to be Sanchez Manning, writing pieces for the Mail on Sunday that might only be read by 1,248,194 people in print and just 29 million more online.

The next time somebody with a six, seven or even eight-figure readership tells you yet again that sinister trans people are silencing legitimate debate and supports it by showing you a Twitter activist with 327 followers, you might find yourself asking a pretty simple question.

Who’s silencing whom?

(All reader/listener figures from sites’ own advertising packs or reliably sourced news stories)

Don’t take nice to a gun fight

I enjoyed this piece by Lindsay King-Miller in

In You Can’t Kill Racism with Kindness, King-Miller writes: 

“My goal is not to create a country where everyone tolerates each other, agrees to disagree, and goes about their business. I cannot agree to disagree on whether poor people deserve medical care, whether black people deserve safety from police brutality, whether my queer family deserves equal legal protections.

These are matters of right and wrong, not questions of opinion.”

It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot given the recent moral panics over LGBT* people and trans people in particular: I’ve been very loath to call people exhibiting bigoted behaviour or espousing bigoted views as bigots, because that’s not nice. But I’m doing so as not to harm the feelings of people who are actively trying to stir up hatred against particular minorities.

King-Miller again:

“Calling a racist a racist might make him sad, but it doesn’t oppress him in any way.”

When I posted the link on a forum I hang out in, another poster quoted French feminist writer Christiane Rochefort’s comment that oppressors don’t realise you have a grievance until you pull out the knives. I’m in a less militant mood so I’ll talk about Karl Popper instead.

In 1945, Popper described very well what has been happening with far-right arseholes on Twitter and what’s happening in certain sections of the UK media right now. He called it the “paradox of tolerance”.

The paradox of tolerance is what happens when you tolerate the intolerable: neo-nazis, for example, or bigots.

“If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant,” Popper wrote, “if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.”

He wasn’t arguing that we silenced the intolerant, however, provided that “we can  counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion”. However, “we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols.”

This is inevitably caught up with the issue of free speech, which some people seem determined to misunderstand. Free speech says that nobody can stop you from having particular views. But it doesn’t say that you have a right to have a platform for those views.

You can make a painting that’s really anti-semitic but you don’t have the right to have the Louvre replace The Mona Lisa with it.

You can write a book about how lesbians are just awful but you can’t force Diva magazine to review it.

You can write a song about how you really hate working class black people but you can’t force Stormzy to cover it.

And so on.

This is where the controversial topic of no-platforming comes from. No-platforming started off as an anti-fascist tactic, with universities refusing to give a platform to the likes of the National Front and the BNP. We can’t stop you being big old racists, the students said. But we can stop you from being big old racists here.

In an ironic twist, some vocal former no-platformers such as feminist writer Julie Bindel now face no-platforming themselves, from the same kind of angry students that used to no-platform the NF and the BNP. I say “same kind” but thanks to tuition fees the students are also paying customers now, with expectations of what their money should and shouldn’t be spent on. Some of those students, the trans ones and their allies, don’t think it should be spent on giving people who say awful things a platform to promote their book or raise their media profile at the expense of other, more vulnerable people.

We can’t stop you saying awful things, the students are saying. But we can stop you from saying awful things here.

It’s not silencing people. As if. The people being no-platformed reach a collective audience of many millions through national newspapers, BBC TV and radio and social media. Some, like Katie Hopkins, seem unaware of the irony in campaigning against our supposed tolerance for hate speech and then whingeing when people try to no-platform them. As she said on her LBC radio programme:

“Why do we pride ourselves in being a tolerant country when being tolerant seems to mean that we give these individuals free reign to say what they like?

Hopkins’ bosses at LBC clearly agreed, and when she posted a tweet suggesting a “Final Solution” against muslims she lost that particular platform (although it’s sad that the end of her Daily Mail career wasn’t because she called foreigners cockroaches and other repellent things; it’s that her losing-libel-cases habit was too expensive for the paper to stomach. Like a cockroach, she’ll be back).

There’s a great XKCD comic about this very thing.

XKCD free speech

It’s not silencing. It’s just saying not here.

I’m okay if that hurts some bigots’ feelings.

This one goes out to the haters

I’m wary of saying “bye” to 2017 and celebrating the demise of a terrible year. I did that to 2016, which turned out to be a walk in the park compared to the shitshow that 2017 quickly became.

I’m with Paul Bettany on Twitter:

“In January I dismissed my mate’s theory that David Bowie was the glue holding the universe together but I don’t know man… I don’t know…”

I’ve written about the big picture stuff for Metro. On a personal level I had some experiences I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.

But, and it’s a big but, I’m leaving 2017 as a much happier person than I remember ever being. I’m optimistic about the future. Not so long ago I wasn’t sure I had a future. And a huge part of that change has been because I’ve made a conscious effort to question my own bullshit, to try and see the world as it is or might be rather than through a glass darkly.

As Morrissey put it:

It’s so easy to laugh, It’s so easy to hate
It takes strength to be gentle and kind

But it’s so worth it, no matter how imperfectly you may do it. If you’re determined to see the worst, that’s all you’ll see. If you try to be respectful and kind, you get it back in spades.

One of my favourite films is the 1990 psychological thriller Jacob’s Ladder. In it (27-year-old-spoiler alert!) one of the characters, Danny Aiello’s Louis, paraphrases the German theologian Eckhart Von Hochheim:

Eckhart saw Hell too. He said: The only thing that burns in Hell is the part of you that won’t let go of life, your memories, your attachments. They burn them all away. But they’re not punishing you, he said. They’re freeing your soul. So the way he sees it, if you’re frightened of dying and… and you’re holding on, you’ll see devils tearing your life away. But if you’ve made your peace, then the devils are really angels, freeing you from the earth. It’s just a matter of how you look at it, that’s all. So don’t worry, okay? Okay?

I’m not suggesting that 2017 was analogous to Hell. But I like the metaphor of battling demons when they’re really angels, freeing your soul.

It’s just a matter of how you look at it, that’s all.

So don’t worry, okay?