Don’t take nice to a gun fight

I enjoyed this piece by Lindsay King-Miller in Rolereboot.org.

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.

The capital-T truth is about life before death

In 2005, David Foster Wallace gave a commencement speech to students at Kenyon College. It’s one of my very favourite things, and I keep meaning to post a link to it here.

David Foster Wallace: This is Water (PDF)

For the young people who apparently want everything as video, the YouTube version is here.

Sometimes you come across a piece that manages to express something in a way that pierces your soul. It could be a song, or a painting, a throwaway line or a speech given by a writer to a bunch of teenagers. This, for me, is one of those. I’ve read it more times than I’ve listened to Joe Le Taxi, and I’ve listened to Joe Le Taxi a lot.

I don’t want to spoil it — it’s beautifully crafted, terribly sad and incredibly empowering. But I’ll admit that Wallace’s death hit me very hard: I think he succumbed to the very demons his piece helped free me from.

I hope you find it as powerful as I did, and still do.

This is water.

This is water.

Don’t expect wisdom from a baby

 

I’ve belatedly realised that the time when the media really wants to talk to trans people – the “baby trans” phase when they’ve just come out – is both the easiest and the worst possible time to talk to them.

That’s certainly true in my own case. I was interviewed by a few different people when I first came out, and I was so pleased of the attention that I didn’t bother to check whether I was spouting a load of nonsense. With hindsight, I was.

Everything I knew about trans people was based largely on the opinions of non-trans people and a handful of unrepresentative but visible people I’d encountered on the internet. I’d spent many years being told that a handful of extremists and idiots were representative of all trans people, and when I came out I was keen to distance myself from them.

Please like me! I’m not like those other ones! I’m Audrey Hepburn, not Waynetta Slob!

In the many months since I did those interviews I’ve come to realise that when I talked about anybody who wasn’t me, I was talking out of my arse.

As I’ve read more and listened more I’ve discovered how distorted a picture I’d been seeing and how few voices I’d been hearing. My opinions weren’t based on hearing the experiences of trans people; they were based on the opinions of the people who wrote about trans people in newspapers and magazines or talked about them on radio and TV.

As I’ve since discovered, many of those people are biased or even bigoted against trans people; others just don’t do their homework and regurgitate long-discredited arguments. And some just have bad opinions for money.

I thought I knew it all, but now I realise I didn’t know a damn thing.

Swimming in poisoned water

This week is both anti-bullying week and transgender awareness week, so some newspapers have chosen to celebrate both by, er, bullying transgender people (see my previous post). I’m not going to get into the arguments or unpick the bullshit — Alex Sharpe does a superb job of that here.

I’m just going to share a trans person’s tweet I saw yesterday.

So I’m sat on the train and there are four people reading The Sun and two with the Daily Fail in my eyeline… I’ve moved seats! No wonder trans people feel bombarded. #caniliveonthemoon?

Imagine starting your day by seeing six people in the same carriage as you holding newspapers that are doing their damnedest to stir up prejudice against you.

LGB people, muslims and non-EU citizens will recognise the feeling.

And the supposedly grown-up papers aren’t any better: The Times appears to be obsessed with trans people of late, often taking the side of religious evangelicals, while the Telegraph gives space to people like Norman Tebbit, who claimed that gay marriage would lead to him marrying his son.

It’s disproportionate, it’s relentless and it’s causing a great deal of distress for no good reason. And it’s getting worse.

To be trans in the current media climate is to constantly swim in poisoned water. No wonder so many of us end up feeling sick.

It’s about time we all stood up to defend, er, bullying

There’s something very strange happening in the UK media. It’s defending the bullying of children.

Last month, Peter Hitchens claimed in the Mail that banning smacking would “come back and slap us in the face.” The state has too much power, he said, noting that “Fathers, once kings (or despots) in their own homes, have been declared officially unnecessary.” As he explained, mistaking correlation for causation:

In the days of smacking, police walked around alone in tunics with no visible weapons. Now they make their rare public appearances in pairs or squads, clad in stab vests, clubs, pepper sprays and handcuffs.

Because of course absolutely nothing else in the world has changed politically, socially, culturally or economically.

They also roped in Jan Moir to opine, after detailing the barbaric discipline that used to be commonplace in schools and telling the hilarious story of her mum using a kettle “to ding my brother on the bonce”:

we all lived through an age of crime and home-grown or class-based punishment. And it didn’t do us any harm.

Imagine! Some people think whacking a child with a kettle is bad!

Today, to mark anti-bullying week, the Church of England has updated its anti-bullying guidelines for nurseries and primary schools. If a three-year-old wants to play with toys or clothes associated with the other gender,the guidance says, they shouldn’t be told not to or mocked for it.

Here’s the key phrase:

‘A child may choose the tutu, princess’s tiara and heels and/or the fireman’s helmet, tool belt and superhero cloak without expectation or comment’

The Daily Mail’s front page headline? No, of course it isn’t “let girls wear hard hats”. It’s “Church: let little boys wear tiaras,” because while nobody’s bothered about girls playing with boy stuff a wee boy in a tiara is clearly Satan’s work.

The article notes with disdain that “Schools are also told they cannot use the Christian faith or Bible teachings to justify behaviour that is considered to amount to bullying – for example, identifying a transgender pupil by a sex other than the one they have chosen.”

“Behaviour that is considered to amount to bullying”. So, bullying.

In an interesting coincidence, over the weekend the Mail on Sunday described how a teacher was suspended over allegations about, ahem, behaviour that is considered to amount to bullying.

“I called a trans boy a girl by mistake… and it may cost me my job as a teacher: Maths tutor suspended after praising pupil using the wrong gender,” the headline says.

He’s an evangelical pastor and the complaint against him alleged ongoing inappropriate behaviour, such as trying to shoehorn his religious beliefs into his maths lessons, and concern that he was picking on a trans child by deliberately and frequently misgendering him as well as detaining him unnecessarily. He denies “inappropriately” talking about religion in maths lessons. The word “inappropriately” is doing a lot of work there.

From the article:

He added, however, that he did not feel that he should be made to use the pronouns ‘he’ or ‘him’ and that to force him to do so was a breach of his human rights.

Like many people who find themselves represented by the Christian Legal Centre, whose dread hand is behind this story, the tutor in this story appears to be an arsehole.

The Mail on Sunday – and today, the Sun – has also dragged up (pun fully intended) a story from back in June:

Drag queens are being brought into taxpayer-funded nursery schools so that children as young as two can learn about transgender issues.

The cross-dressers are reading nursery rhymes and singing specially adapted songs ‘to teach children about LGBT tolerance’.

The performances, which are being trialled in a grand total of one nursery, are so newsworthy that the Sun has made them its front page story.

There’s a really horrible final sentence to the Mail’s version, too. Noting that the nursery in question decided to trial the performances in response to increasing hate crimes, it says:

Reported hate crimes rose 29 per cent in the last year, Home Office figures show, although only one in six was considered serious enough for a suspect to be charged.

If you find yourself defending the beating of children and campaigning against anti-bullying initiatives, this video may resonate.

All the small things: a little writing app that makes a big difference

UL-iMac-overlay-01
In the old days, writing for magazines was easy: you’d write a piece, send it as a Word doc or a text file, and that was it. Now, though, everything’s online and in a CMS. Creating content for that is often a pain in the backside, especially if you use apps designed for print rather than pixels.

Hurrah, then, for Ulysses. It’s a genuinely great app that’s already saving me stacks of time – not just in terms of creating copy I don’t then need to tweak, but in terms of the massive time savings that come from the way it does things. At £31.99 it’ll pay for itself in no time.

Here’s the obligatory video.

If you need to write words of any kind, it’s a great app. There’s a free demo too.

The best of both worlds: Spiceworld and Narnia

Today’s Sun says that for the very first time Alex Salmond has admitted that independence won’t be easy and that we won’t have magic taps running fresh water, whisky and oil.  “Was that really so difficult, First Minister?” the leader asks.

As Wings Over Scotland points out, it wasn’t difficult – and wasn’t difficult  when he said the same thing publicly in June 2013, in January 2014 and in June 2014.

It probably sounds like a minor thing, but it’s characteristic of something that’s really shaken my faith in journalism in general over the last couple of years: we’re being told stuff that simply isn’t true and that doesn’t stand up to the slightest bit of fact-checking. It’s not just the tabloids, either.

If the papers can’t be straight about very simple, well documented and easily verifiable pieces of information, how can you trust them on the more important issues?

It’s hard to quibble with Stuart Campbell when he says:

this stuff isn’t (just) cheap, snarky point-scoring about the stupefying incompetence of other journalists. It’s about the people of Scotland being fed a completely false narrative about a dishonest, shifty First Minister who promises the Earth and refuses to acknowledge any possible problems.

Obviously I’m coming to this from the perspective of a (converted) Yes voter, but it’s very clear from conversations I’m having online and off that many people will be voting in part based on outright lies and some very carefully worded claims (so for example the Better Together literature points out that Scotland benefits from transplant deals with English hospitals, implying that independence will mean the end of such deals. It won’t).

I’m not naive. I know that political campaigning means lying, distortion, dog whistle issues and other unpalatable things. But journalism is supposed to counterbalance that, to investigate the claims, expose the falsehoods and to hold campaigners (on both sides) to account. Its number one purpose is to ensure that the electorate are well informed – and from where I’m sitting, much of the media appears to be doing quite the opposite.

Journalism is supposed to be part of the solution, but here in Scotland* it’s part of the problem.

* With some honourable exceptions, of course. 

“The comments have failed us”

Margaret Eby argues that online comments on news pieces “are, most of the time, a disservice to both the writer and the reader.”

It’s true that putting your work out for public consumption requires some heartiness of spirit. But it is now not just tolerated but expected that journalists should suffer abuse at the hands of their audience. This is a relatively new occupational hazard. Newspapers always got their fair share of cranky letters, but no reporter was required to read–let alone publish–all of them. There is no other job, save comedian or bar band, where heckling is so routine.

The Magazine Diaries

I’ve contributed to The Magazine Diaries, “a little book publishing project designed to let magazine people tell the world how they feel about making magazines in the middle of the biggest disruption in publishing history and raise some money for a great charity.” The project is asking magazine people to submit 100-word articles about their jobs, and my one is here:

I worry about thinning walls between advertising and editorial, about writers who don’t need paid because someone else is picking up their tab, about slideshows and pop-ups and weird tricks for flat bellies.

But I still feel lucky.

You’ll find a full list of contributors here.

“The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs for no good reason.”

While I’m on an old-article tip, I’ll republish this as part of my ongoing and Quixotic battle to stop Hunter S Thompson from being misquoted. It’s from .net back in 2008.

Flies and death and stuff

“The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs for no good reason. There is also a negative side.” Legendary gonzo journalist Hunter S Thompson said that, and it’s been circulating around the internet for years now.

The thing is, he didn’t say it. If you pick up his book Generation of Swine, you’ll see that what HST really wrote was this: “The TV business is uglier than most things. It is normally perceived as some kind of cruel and shallow money trench through the heart of the journalism industry, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs, for no good reason.” The misquote has become an Internet Fact.

It’s a similar story with Mariah Carey. Despite what you might have read in Grazia last year, she didn’t actually say of starving children that “I’d love to be skinny like that, but not with all the flies and death and stuff”. The quote was invented by a satirical website, but it soon became an Internet Fact that ended up in print.

Internet Facts are a good example of the wisdom of crowds being drowned out by the mooing of herds: what survives isn’t necessarily the truth, but what people would like to believe. It’s funny when it’s making Mariah Carey look daft, but when it’s something more serious the effect is chilling.

In June, The Sun reported that an Anglo-Indian couple had abandoned their newborn baby girls because the dad wanted boys. The following day, it returned to the story – this time to quote the relevant NHS trust’s statement, which denied the allegations and said that the parents were perfectly attentive and very much in love with their daughters. Dozens of blogs quoted the original article; not one of them ran a correction when it turned out that the story was flawed at best and completely false at worst. And on The Sun website, it’s clear that most commenters simply ignored the correction. The result was several pages of knee-jerk nonsense, often bordering on the racist, sometimes crossing the line altogether. The story – the original one, not the corrected, accurate version – has become an Internet Fact, fuel for casual racists and Stormfront posters alike.

There are countless examples, ranging from the relatively harmless – for example, lurid and entirely invented tales of celebrities’ sexual proclivities – to the downright dangerous, such as the false dangers attributed to life-saving vaccines. Thanks to blogs and comments, we all have the right to publish this stuff and to circulate it more widely – but with that right comes the responsibility to ensure that what we say or post is actually true. Everything we post online has the potential to become an Internet Fact. As with most things in life, it pays to listen to Cher: as she sang in If I Could Turn Back Time, “words can be weapons. They wound sometimes.”