Bullshit is not a precious and rare commodity

One big upside of being part of a demonised minority: it saves you a fortune.

I cancelled my decades-long subscription to Private Eye yesterday: the current issue has three news stories about trans things in which it unquestioningly parroted anti-trans bullshit, picked on a trans charity and an LGBT charity and vilified a young trans woman who’s endured unspeakable abuse from anti-trans bigots both online and in real life.

I’ve also cancelled my subscription to the Guardian, a paper I’ve bought since my teens, after days of intense coverage about the GRA reform consultation in which it didn’t feature a single voice in favour of trans people, let alone the voices of any actual trans people. Its editorial about the GRA reforms this week reads like a crib sheet of Christian Right anti-LGBT “talking points”. It and the Observer have repeatedly run open letters from anti-trans activists but ignore open letters that support trans people and that call out the open hostility of too much media coverage.

I no longer buy the Sunday Times any more (another paper I bought for a couple of decades) because it’s even worse than the Daily Mail in its coverage of trans issues: when your reports are being hailed with joy by right-wing US evangelicals on social media (and in many cases, apparently dictated by them) you’ve taken a terrible wrong turn somewhere. Neither the Spectator nor the New Statesman feature in my “buy to read on the bus” list any more for similar reasons. I no longer pay to access Glasgow’s Herald since its editorial swing to tired, right-wing “let’s trigger the snowflakes” clickbait.

Supportive advert in Metro UK

Trans allies generally don’t make it into the newspapers unless they pay for advertising, as they did with this Metro UK advert. Unlike the anti-trans activists, their open letters don’t get published.

This isn’t silencing debate, or refusing to hear different opinions.

It’s refusing to pay for bullshit.

Bullshit is not a precious and rare commodity. There’s tons of it online, completely free. I don’t need to pay to have someone put it through my letterbox too.

Refusing to pay is not the same as refusing to listen to differing opinions. It’s just refusing to support low quality content.

For many years I’ve paid to read The Guardian and The Observer, even though various news apps I use enable me to read their articles (legally) for free and often without ads. I paid because I believe that good journalism is something worth paying for. But recently, there has been an influx of journalism that is not good, and which is not worth paying for.

I’m not refusing to read Guardian articles. I’m just not willing to pay to read them any more.

I’m under no illusion that me cancelling anything makes the slightest difference to the organisations running biased and sometimes blatantly malicious content. Although you’ve got to wonder at the wisdom of alienating any customers when like The Guardian, you’re begging every website visitor to throw you some coins to try and stay in business. But generally speaking these businesses don’t need my money.

Others do, though. And what I can do – what I do do, and what I’d hope other LGBT people and their allies also do – is use the money I’d normally spend to do something positive: to help crowdfund or otherwise donate to content that isn’t hateful, to buy books by people who know what they’re talking about but who don’t get columns in newspapers, to donate to valuable charities that Private Eye calls activists while it approvingly quotes groups affiliated with the anti-abortion, anti-LGBT Christian Right.

You don’t even need to spend money. You can refuse to click on obvious hate-clickbait. You can point your browser (with ad-block disabled) to sites that don’t publish hateful content. You can signal boost positive voices on your social media.

None of these things will harm your bank balance, and none of them will harm your mental health either.

“My editors shouldn’t have to receive emails calling for my death”

Dawn Foster has written a brave, gut-wrenching, important piece about online misogyny and abuse.

The majority of men are not like this, but unbidden, I find myself more on guard than I ever was before. Too many men have proudly sent lengthy pen portraits of my imagined rape, murder or maiming, glutted with detail, and have expended plenty of energy on these dreams. These men aren’t easy to spot on public transport, and now I’m warier than I have been at any other point in my life.

I have only experienced a tiny fraction of what women like Foster have experienced. But even then I find myself thinking about online abusers when I’m on public transport, or in a crowd. Can I tell which of these people are hateful bastards just by looking at them? Is it him? Or him? Or her?

As Foster writes:

The internet is still seen as the Wild West – a consequence-free zone where normal social mores can be cast off as cumbersome shackles.

We’ve been played. The tech firms told us that we needed free speech, but what they really meant was they needed freedom from taking responsibility for the shit being pumped through their servers. YouTube has become a radicalisation machine. Facebook is implicated in genocide – genocide! – in Myanmar. Twitter has become a megaphone for bigots of all stripes.

Online spaces are no different from real world spaces. We decide what’s acceptable, and what isn’t. For too long we’ve been accepting the unacceptable. And the longer we shrug it off, the worse it will become.

Pronouns and elegance

My previous post about How To Write Good included some really inelegant pronoun use: I wrote about “she/he” in connection with an unnamed, entirely imaginary writer. That looked and read awfully, so I changed it to “s/he”. Which made it worse.

It turns out that it’s better to avoid gendering things that don’t need to be gendered. Instead of he or she, the singular pronoun “they” is much more elegant.

This is hardly a zany new thing. “They” has been an acceptable singular pronoun for the last 500 years or so, as the Grammarly blog points out:

Merriam-Webster includes usage examples of the singular they dating back to Shakespeare, with notable additions from the likes of Jane Austen and even the traditionalist W. H. Auden.

The blog also features this wonderful bit of trivia.

Unfortunately for prescriptivists, English is constantly changing—and always has been. Some words that grammar pedants scoff at as obnoxious neologisms were in fact coined as long ago as the nineteenth century. Take “dude” for example. Reviled by grammar trolls the world over, this term has provoked the ire of multiple generations of fuddy-duddies. But did you know that it has its roots in late nineteenth-century British dandyism?

One of the reasons we get so excised about gender-neutral pronouns is because of our old pal the patriarchy. Grammarly again:

Traditionally, he was the default pronoun for a person whose gender you didn’t know

He is the default because male is the default: you only need to specify otherwise if the person you’re talking to is not male. That’s just rude.

William Lily there, mansplaining in 1567.

…Using the singular they makes English a more efficient language, and it helps us to avoid awkward sentence constructions. More importantly, it allows you to avoid making assumptions about the gender of a person you don’t know.

It also makes my blog posts slightly better. Everybody wins!

Simplicity is good

The image is from an excellent blog post by Shane O’Leary, which you can read here.

[Update: My friend Chris Phin, who is an editor and therefore always right, has pointed out that I am of course describing practical writing here, not writing as an art form in its own right. I’d better clarify that before I get picketed by poets.]

Most writing exists for a reason, and that reason is usually to share information. The information might be a warning, or it might be advice, or it might be how to do something. The writer’s job is to share that information in the right way. The right way is usually to simplify it, simplify it, and then simplify some more.

Sometimes we get it wrong by accident. If you’re immersed in a particular world you may have a knowledge and a vocabulary that people outside that world don’t. It’s easy to fall into the trap of using jargon or relying on concepts that you understand but that your readers might not. It’s an honest mistake and we all do it.

Sometimes, though, it’s deliberate. It’s the writer deciding that the message they really need to communicate is “I am clever!” or “I have read a book!”

And that’s where terrible writing comes from.

I recently read a live review that said:

They have appeal and they appeal to us. Through the sociologically objective to the psychological subjectivism of introspection: Moving from the political protest to mind games of the self.

That’s not writing. That’s not even typing.

Writing is usually there to do a job, to answer a question: how do I make this work? What did the government decide today? What do you think about this topic? Should you see this band if they’re playing near you?

Answering those questions doesn’t mean you must write in a boring way. But it does mean that you must answer the question you were asked, not the question you wish you had been asked. For example, a live review is supposed to answer the question “what was the gig like?” and perhaps tell you if you should get tickets for the next date.

Good writing needn’t be dull writing. Here’s the late Douglas Adams describing spaceships.

The ships hung in the sky in much the same way bricks don’t.

That’s very simple writing, but it’s doing a ton of work. It’s a joke, of course. But it’s also a very effective description. These aren’t the sleek, silvery spaceships of most speculative fiction. These are bricks. Awful ships. Tedious ships. Ugly, utilitarian, unloveable ships. These are the sort of ships you get when you’re English, in England, in the 1980s. The kind of spaceships your local council would commission. Spaceships that probably close for no reason every third Wednesday. Spaceships full of traffic cones and No Ball Games signs.

All that in just 13 words.

And of course, there’s the famous probably-not-by-Hemingway six word story:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

These are from fiction, of course. There isn’t as much room for humour or imagination in more everyday kinds of writing. But you can still say an awful lot without very many words. For example:

Signs are a great example, because their job is to impart information in the simplest possible way. This sign doesn’t have time for big words and lyrical flourishes. What is dangerous, and why should you keep out? We don’t have time for that! There is danger! You must keep out!

Alliterate by all means. Sprinkle metaphors like malt vinegar on the crinkle-cut chips that comprise your copy. Demonstrate your vocabulary with sesquipedalian style. But never forget that your words are there to do a job, and if they don’t do that job then you’re wasting everybody’s time.

As the Swedish popsters Roxette once put it: don’t bore us, get to the chorus!

What you didn’t read in the papers this morning

The UK Government Equalities Office has issued a statement regarding the unhinged coverage of the Gender Recognition Act consultation in this weekend’s newspapers. [Emphasis mine]

Neither GEO nor Ministers were approached for comment on today’s coverage on the Gender Recognition Act. Any speculation that decisions have already been made on the Gender Recognition Act is wrong. These are complex and sensitive issues. We know that many trans people find the current requirements overly intrusive and bureaucratic. We are consulting now because we want to hear people’s views.

We have always made clear that any reform of the Gender Recognition Act will not change the exceptions under the Equality Act that allow provision for single and separate sex spaces. The consultation ends next week and we will look carefully at all the responses.

Bonfire of insanities

We’re a selfish species, by and large. If something doesn’t directly affect us we tend to take the approach that “I’m all right, Jack.”

Sometimes that means we resist changes that would make the world a slightly better place for other people. Sometimes we choose to believe the lone voice against the settled science because it tells us what we want to hear. And sometimes we sacrifice long-term safety for short-term comfort.

Here’s an example in microcosm. The UK government is scrapping the subsidies for hybrid cars and reducing subsidy for electric ones.

It’s penny pinching of the worst kind: while we’re chucking away billions on Brexit, we’re taking money from something that’s a little but important part of the battle against climate change.

The latest depressing evidence of climate change’s terrible effects comes from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its latest report, which isn’t called “Jesus fucking Christ! We’re fucking doomed!” but should be.

Climate change is already killing thousands of people, with previously freak weather events becoming depressingly familiar. We’ve got about 12 years left to do something before everything starts getting really out of control. If that happens, millions of people will die and millions more will have to leave their homes in order to survive. Huge parts of the world will become uninhabitable. Some will disappear underwater. Others will suffer murderous heat.

This isn’t lefty, liberal, Guardian-reading, sandal-wearing scaremongering. Scientists are, to use a scientific expression, losing their shit. We’re past the point where we can stop climate change. Our best hope is to slow it and prevent it becoming a global catastrophe.

The thing is, it’s not really affecting people who aren’t black or brown yet. So we’ll do nothing.

Australia’s going to miss its emission targets. Ireland too. Most of Europe’s going to miss the Paris Agreement targets; Trump wants the US out of that altogether. We can’t even commit to subsiding electric cars, let alone the massive changes to our infrastructure and way of life – from farming to housing – that are needed to prevent climate change at its most catastrophic.

There are some reasons to be optimistic. China has U-turned from believing climate change to be a Western hoax to understanding it as an existential threat (China is one of the regions likely to suffer the most devastating heatwaves by around 2100 if global temperatures rise much more).

But by and large the people creating climate change are the ones most isolated to its effects. We’ll complain about petrol duty and demand the right to pollute our cities, we’ll moan about recycling and put climate deniers on TV. And when the world burns, we’ll turn the air conditioning up a notch.

Battle Royale Mile

BBC Scotland has announced some of the shows for its new channel, launching next year. And it’s clear that with a roster including River City (But Broadcast Slightly Earlier), it may need some fresh ideas.

Allow me to introduce “Battle Royale Mile”.

The premise is simple. Each week, two Scots music legends fight in a pit in Edinburgh. No weapons, no environmental hazards. Just two pop, rock, indie or dance music titans fighting. The winner is the last one standing; the prize, critical acclaim and booze. Mainly booze.

Imagine it. Imagine Del Amitri vs Deacon Blue, Justin Currie making the fatal strategic error of not hitting a woman and Lorraine McIntosh bludgeoning him senseless. Imagine Simple Minds vs The Rezillos,  the latter’s sheer force of numbers easily overwhelming the stadium rockers. Imagine Honeyblood vs Primal Scream, Bobby Gillespie squeaking with fright before Cat Myers even lays a finger on him.

Imagine Mogwai, Jesus and Mary Chain, Biffy Clyro, King Creosote, Texas and KT Tunstall pummelling Gerry Cinnamon. I may be letting my personal taste show here.

Not every bout would be so entertaining. While I’m sure Garbage vs Chvrches would be a win for Manson’s group, her fearlessness more than compensating for the other band’s youth and agility, it’s one of those bouts where you don’t want anybody to get hurt at all, let alone lose. Similarly Teenage Fanclub vs The Proclaimers. And Travis vs Wet Wet Wet might be a ratings disaster, although I suspect the Wets might prove to be pretty handy.

There would need to be some kind of weighting system, though, because otherwise some fights would be hopelessly one-sided, which is why the only fair opponent for the might of Belle And Sebastian would be a paper bag or perhaps a small mouse.

I’d watch it. You’d watch it. I think we’ve got a hit on our hands.

Come out, come out, wherever you are?

It’s National Coming Out day today, a well-intentioned US campaign to persuade LGBT people to love themselves and live their authentic lives.

Here are some people sharing their coming out stories on BBC’s The Social.

But as the excellent DIVA columnist Cerian Jenkins points out on Twitter:

That’s not to say coming out isn’t a good thing. Of course it is. But it’s also an incredibly big deal that can have incredibly big consequences, not just when you first come out but for the rest of your life. Coming out isn’t an event. It’s a process. I come out again every single time I walk out the front door.

The cartoon on the right, by Iria Villalobos, is popular in trans circles. For many trans people, coming out is the beginning of a process of transition: not necessarily medical, but transition nevertheless. It’s funny, in a bleakly accurate way. I’m currently in the second stage, moving towards the third.

I came out just under two years ago. Since then everything in my life has changed.  My marriage has collapsed. I’ve lost tons of friends. I’ve become estranged from people I was previously close to. I’ve been abused and harassed and humiliated. At some points I’ve come perilously close to checking out. Even now there are days when I just can’t cope.

And that’s as a middle-class white person who works in a tolerant, inclusive industry and who lives in a tolerant bit of the world.

I’ve got it easy. And yet nothing about coming out has been easy.

If it’s safe for you to come out and you feel strong enough to deal with the consequences, great. The more of us that are out and getting on with our lives, the easier things will become for the people who’ll come out after us. But not everybody is in a safe environment, or is mentally ready. And if that’s you, that’s fine.

There’s no right or wrong way to do this, and you’re no less valid if you decide that coming out isn’t right for you.

The most important thing is your safety, both physical and mental.

Look after yourself. The world is a better place with you in it.

A kind of album

Is it still an album if you don’t release it as a physical product?

Anyway. Here’s our most recent music collated in handy playlist form: HAVR – No-One Jumps On Rainy Days.

As I wrote on Soundcloud:

These songs were written about the big stuff: big love and heavy sadness, huge life events and little moments of joy.