Beware the WLGHs

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Watching The Handmaid’s Tale is truly messing with my brain.

Over the last few days, I realised I was doing something. I didn’t realise I was doing it at first, but once I did, I got addicted. Behold my new game: the silent categorisation of the people around you into two groups, ‘would let Gilead happen’ and ‘safe’.

Maybe the ‘let’ part of ‘would let Gilead happen’ is a bit mean, but I include people who I think might try to explain (or mansplain, as a lot of people in the WLGH category are male) why it wouldn’t be that bad really. This distinction makes little difference in my categorisation process. And it is of no comfort.

For WLGHs are all around us.

One was a taxi driver who ranted about women drivers. He’d probably be quite pleased if women were banned from driving. So would the aggressive male drivers who seem to think that driving like a douchebag is a sign of male superiority. One of those tailgated me for a while today. He wanted me to overtake a bit faster, and then got annoyed as I tried to pull in because he had just decided to undertake me. He roared off, about 20mph over the speed limit, trying to prove a point. The point he proved is that he belongs in my WLGH group.

Another taxi driver bemoaned the lack of jobs for working class men. Surely the employment crisis would be solved in a heartbeat, if women were no longer allowed to work.

I overheard snippets of conversations between shoppers in the supermarket; one husband barking orders at his wife about what to make him for dinner, while pushing his trolley in an aggressive manner. Another customer was talking about how a woman she knew needed to just focus on running her home rather than trying to ‘have it all’. WLGHs, both.

The people you hear talking about how feminism has gone too far because women want to be better than men now- WLGH. The people who get upset when women’s issues are discussed because ‘what about the men?’- WLGH. The politicians who use the word ‘traditional’ when they mean ‘get thee in thy place, upstart’- WLGH.

The companies that ask for a woman’s marital status even though it’s totally unnecessary and irrelevant- WLGH. The workmen who assume that my not being able to fix something is somehow a result of my XX chromosomes, rather than just a gap in knowledge and skills- WLGH.

The small child on my street, who can’t be more than 5, and was playing in my parking spot outside my house. When I stopped the car to wait for him to move, rather than flatten him, he assumed I wanted to be guided in. It’s pretty infuriating, being patronised by a literal child. He nearly got yelled at. Fortunately, I was able to suppress the urge to swear, but it was a close call. There’s still hope for this kid, what with him being about 5 and all. But that assumption? Clear sign of a WLGH.

Anyone who says, ‘calm down, dear’- WLGH.

These are just the everyday WLGHs. Read the news, and you see far more of them wielding political power, making decisions about the direction of the nation. These WLGHs are far more dangerous. That form that rape survivors need to fill in if they have borne a child? This proves a woman’s word is not reliable enough, clearly. This isn’t a legal accusation; it’s a form for child support. The people who came up with this- WLGH.

Is it telling that I named the other group ‘safe’? There is a definite threat posed by WLGHs. En masse, they have voting power. Recent political shifts have made previously unspeakable ideas crawl out from their hiding places under the rocks. There is a backlash in progress, and that could lead us down a dark path. We might dodge it; we might not be so lucky. So for now, those who I deem ‘safe’ are my allies in the coming war.

I hope and pray that the Safes outnumber the WLGHs in the end. Otherwise, we are perilously close to Gilead. And the people who are most likely to sneer at that idea, rolling their eyes and saying ‘of course that will never happen’ are usually the most WLGH of all.

Please don’t let it happen.

What is the value of a life?

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I’ve seen two types of reaction to Trump’s proposed replacement for ‘Obamacare’ this week. The first is a mixture of horror, anger, fear and disgust, and covered all the Americans in my completely unscientific sample, as well as many of the Brits. What made the British reaction slightly different was the confusion and the disbelief. I don’t claim to speak for an entire nation, but certainly prevalent within my echo chamber was the perpetual bafflement at how healthcare works in the US. We just don’t get it. And we’re not alone.

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What is it about universal health care that makes it so unthinkable for so many Americans? Why was there such a vicious hatred of ‘Obamacare’? And how on earth can Republicans justify replacing it with something far worse, that many admitted they hadn’t even read? One way to get to those answers is via the question in my title: what is the value of a life?

To try and get my head round it, I’ve been pondering a few analogies. The cultural difference between the UK and the US is so huge when it comes to health care, that some of these analogies are a little bit ‘out there’. They might be a bit upsetting or offensive. Bear with me.

There are only a few times when British people need to think about the cost of health, if they don’t have (optional) private health insurance. Most of the time we pay nothing at all, other than our national insurance contributions of course. Dental treatment is heavily subsidised, as are prescriptions. We might weigh up the value of a life when we take out travel insurance, or life insurance. But probably the closest we get to seeing the American way is when we look at pet insurance.

If our pets become ill, we can choose which veterinarian surgery to take them to. We are given the costs in advance. If we are lucky, we can afford treatement, or we can claim it back via our insurance company. Premiums go up as the pets get older, and pre-existing conditions might not be covered. Long-term illnesses or conditions can become increasingly expensive. There may come a horrible time when treatment is no longer affordable- or when it is no longer cost-effective. There are some tough choices ahead when that happens. Is that where the similarities end? Perhaps. For now. But when health care is corporate, there will always be some treatments that are not seen as cost-effective. What do human patients do then? Do they suffer without the treatment they need? Are they gently ‘put down’ to avoid suffering? Are they abandoned to shelters, to become someone else’s problem?

If a pet dies, the value of their life is determined by how much you paid for them. Some pets are cheaper than others, of course. A pedigree animal would cost more than a mutt. Is a pedigree animal’s life worth more? If people die when covered by insurance policies, compensation might be paid. Does that amount represent what that person was worth? Or just how much they could pay for a premium? Does compensation measure the impact that person might have had on those around them? How much they are missed by their loved ones? What sort of role they played in their society?

Maybe our value is just the sum of our component parts. What is our scrap value, I wonder? If we took into account the going rates for organs and hair, factored in some creative butchering and tanning, we could probably arrive at a figure. Is that what we are? Is that how we value a life?

I suppose we could consider our value in terms of our contributions to society- either in terms of the service we provide in our job, or the tax that we pay from our income. The purpose of health care then becomes an investment in a healthy tax-paying workforce. Keep ’em healthy, keep ’em working. But what about those who don’t work yet, or who are currently unemployed, or who have retired? Are they no longer worthy of investment? Do they not contribute to society?

These are all pretty grotesque, right? Because the only acceptable answer to the question isn’t a number. Value isn’t accurately determined by the inherent qualities of an object; value is bestowed by others. The best indicator of our value is in how well we are loved. You cannot put a price on that, and you shouldn’t. What our wonderful, beautiful NHS was designed for is to only value human beings in this way. Health care is a cost, not an investment. It is not a capitalist opportunity. What is the value of a life, for a doctor or a nurse? It doesn’t matter. They will help you no matter who you are, no matter how wealthy you might be, no matter how you may have suffered in the past.

There are reforms that are needed in the NHS, but applying corporate notions of value to human life is disgusting. Human beings are not pets, they cannot be sold for scrap, and we should never determine the quality of someone’s care by their bank balance. What sort of person would do that? Oh, right.

Universal health care is expensive for governments, requires funding via taxation, and it is not perfect. But not having it at all speaks volumes about a nation. Just as the speed of the pack is determined by the speed of the slowest member, the values of a nation are shown in how they treat their most vulnerable. What ‘Trumpcare’ proposes to do is punish the most vulnerable in order to give a tax break for the super wealthy. How are Republicans valuing human life?

Something that really stings is the hypocrisy of this behaviour from those who claim to be Christians, selectively quoting from the Bible to justify their homophobia, or to claim power based on alleged moral superiority. But in the stories of Jesus healing people, he didn’t charge for the privilege. Nor did he decline to heal those with pre-existing conditions.

In the Beatitudes, Jesus said that the meek were blessed, and would inherit the earth. I am not a religious person, but I appreciate good ideas in stories, and this seems like a decent philosophy. But let’s expand it and turn it around. How leaders treat the meek shows whether they deserve to have power in this world.

Our NHS is under attack by those who want to privatise its services, and who look admiringly at the American model, thinking of the savings that could be made. This should be a wake up call for all Brits. If we want to save our beautiful NHS, we need to be prepared to defend its principles. Because we need only look across the Atlantic to see what the alternative could be.

This week in the world of news…

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It was tough to choose a topic today, so I’ve gone for something a bit different. Here are my picks for this week’s top stories.

It has been 10 years since Maddy McCann disappeared. It is perhaps uncomfortable that this case captured the public imagination more than others, but the story itself is still desperately sad. The McCanns still have hope.

It has been 100 days since Trump became President, but it feels like 10 years. To commemorate the occasion, here’s a compilation of 100 lies that he has told in his first 100 days.

Trump and his administration boycotted the White House Correspondents’ dinner as promised/threatened, but they seem to have had fun in his absence. Hasan Minhaj’s speech was brilliant; you can read a review and see highlights as well as the whole thing here. Confession: I’ve got a bit of a crush on Minhaj now…

It took the EU leaders about 4 minutes to agree on their negotiating position for Brexit, so those among you who were hoping for nuanced and generous positions from the EU might want to adjust your expectations accordingly. Here’s how I think it went: “So… shall we make an example of them? Yeah? Good. Motion passed.”

500 head teachers signed a letter to Theresa May begging her to reconsider the way that schools are funded, warning that a 4 1/2 day week might be the only way to deliver education within the constraints of their budgets.

Is it a guilty pleasure to watch a racist D-bag get punched in the face? The makers of Doctor Who weighed in last night. We really shouldn’t condone violence…. but no, screw it, that guy had it coming.

Hulu’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale started on Wednesday in the US, and starts today in Canada, which means that a significant number of people will be having Gilead-themed nightmares again. Responses are split between two camps: ‘this is going to happen’, and ‘of course this is not going to happen’. I’m with the former. The flashbacks to the early rise of Gilead are far, far too close for comfort. There is a reason why many people fear Mike Pence; Trump might make WW3 happen, but Pence could make Gilead happen… There are loads of great reviews of the series that you can read- but I’m going to shamelessly plug my own. For those of you who have read the book but not seen the show, here’s the first, and if you have seen it or you don’t mind a ton of spoilers, here’s my recap of the first three episodes.

The French election race will be between the independent centrist Macron and the National Front’s Marine le Pen. Macron should win, but when did anything predictable happen in politics recently? If Le Pen wins, there will be a ‘Frexit’ referendum. Anyone else got deja vu?

Speaking of terrible fascists, UKIP released their new manifesto- being as they technically have no reason to exist any more, I was intrigued. Their position on FGM caught my eye. I should, I suppose, offer them some credit for addressing the issue, but unfortunately their way to address it is so monstrously insensitive that I can’t and I won’t. Who thought mandatory, annual checks on little girls’ private parts AT SCHOOL was a good idea? Do UKIP really want to replace the nit nurse with the clit nurse? (Thanks to Emily for this particular pun.)

That’s the round up for this week, folks, but I’ll leave you with this: I was watching a Game of Thrones repeat last night, and this little beauty of a line has stayed with me. Of course it did- it’s from the guy who drinks wine and knows things:

“It is easy to confuse what is with what ought to be, especially when what is has worked in your favour.”

“Truth never damages a cause that is just.”

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As parties and candidates start their campaigns for June’s general election, there are many things that I could beg for, but top of my list is that they tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

The Brexit bus is an example of what happens when these principles are not upheld. This broke all of those truth rules. It was an inaccurate figure, to start with. It was also presented without context. And it was tied to a statement that turned out to be a lie. Whether this was idealism or wilful manipulation is the subject of much debate, and this specific case is not really something that concerns me right now; that ship has sailed. But the principles behind it are still pertinent.

My case study for today is state education. On one side, education unions are telling us that schools are in crisis, due to underfunding and teacher shortages. The government’s rebuttal to the unions’ arguments is straightforward and based on facts: that more graduates are entering the profession, and that more money is being spent on education than ever before. Using these facts makes the unions appear to be lying. Facts are by definition true, after all. But it is not the complete truth.

What the government’s rebuttal fails to include is reference to teachers leaving the profession, and rising costs. If more teachers leave than enter the profession, the total goes down. It’s not rocket science. And more money might be spent on education, but that doesn’t factor in rising costs of national insurance and pension contributions, the apprentice levy, changes to teachers’ pay scales, increasing costs for technology, and most crucially, the way that the government’s pet education project, free schools, hoovers up more cash in start up costs. The people in control of schools’ budgets are telling the government, desperately, that they do not have enough money to keep going as they are. Staff are being made redundant, courses are being cut, class sizes are increasing. This is the news from the front line. And yet, the government sticks to its line: more money is being spent on education than ever before.

A fact without context has limited value. So why keep deploying it as their standard rebuttal? Is it denial? Ignorance? Or just spin? To me, it seems like just another way to dismiss unions’ and headteachers’ concerns, to paint them as liars, undermine the teaching profession, and manipulate the information to present a favourable narrative. This has to stop.

When a complex issue is reduced to a trite sound bite, it does a disservice to voters. It is an egregious dumbing down, and a patronising assumption that voters can’t handle the truth. It reeks of a weak position that cannot be defended with the complete truth.

I feel the same way about political manifestos filled with empty buzzwords, which rely on emotive appeal rather than providing anything concrete. All parties should tell the complete truth in their promotional materials. If they don’t – well, they either seem ignorant and naive, or as if they are assuming that people wouldn’t vote for them if they knew the truth. So which is it? If you think no-one would vote for you if you told them what you were planning to do, either change your policies to make them more appealing, or give voters the chance to make decisions honestly. But covering them up with spin is a trick, an attempt to dupe voters into taking your side. It is a perversion of democracy. We should be above this.

Let’s make this an honest election. Give the electorate some credit and present material that allows us all to make informed choices. The old party lines have blurred; there is less of a tendency to vote for one’s ‘tribe’ any more. Traditional demographics can’t just be relied on any more. But we do not need to be duped. Besides, after the last few years, I’d wager that we are all a fairly cynical bunch, so it might not work any more…

So, current and prospective MPs: earn your votes with the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, or it will be a hollow victory for whoever happens to win, and the divisions of this nation will continue to fester. If you don’t trust me on this, perhaps you’ll trust Gandhi: “Truth never damages a cause that is just”.

War, huh? What is it good for?

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To say it’s all kicking off seems a bit of an understatement. At the time of writing, America looks like it could be on the verge of war with North Korea, and by extension China. It’s not clear whether a Russia is a secret bestie or an arch-nemesis. The US military dropped the ‘mother of all bombs’ on an ISIS camp in Afghanistan a week after launching an air strike on Homs airfield in Syria, and has moved a fleet into the Korean Peninsula. America’s MOAB has caused Putin to brag about the ‘father of all bombs’ in his arsenal. And Kim Jong-Un is showing off his arsenal in the DPRK’s Day of the Sun parade, and is testing another nuclear weapon today.

Guys: pack it in. There are millions of lives at stake, and you are competing to see who has the biggest phallic missiles. You aren’t fooling anyone. You are trying to look like big tough leaders, but you are just making yourself look like fools.

The blasé nature of Trump’s military responses – blow some s**t up then play some golf – is irresponsible. And it shines a light on aspects of modern warfare that I find hard to stomach.

Despite my fondness for quoting Shelley, I’m not a pacifist. I think that, regrettably, war can be necessary, and I have the greatest respect for the men and women of our armed forces. But let’s go back a few centuries and map out how warfare has changed.

A medieval king often led a military charge. If he (and it was pretty much always a he) called for war, he was usually there, front and centre. He was not prepared to ask others to do something he would not do himself. This would make him look weak, and would undermine his authority. As a result, medieval kings needed to be tough, alpha males. There were plenty of issues with this, obviously. Muscles and brains don’t always go hand in hand.

Renaissance kings and queens were often present in battle, but tended to hang back a bit more. Brain power was more useful and valuable; diplomacy, languages, strategies- these were the tools of the era. But they still turned up- even Elizabeth I turned up in armour to inspire the troops and to make a show of solidarity.

What do our leaders do now? They phone it in, and then play golf.

Modern warfare seems to rely on this concept of damage from a distance. And I can see the logic behind this: why risk the lives of your own people, when you can destroy from afar? If you can have results without the risk, surely that’s sensible? Yeah, OK.

But is it ethical?

War is terrible. And it should be. It should never be taken lightly. And if there are technological means to make it easier, to make it less risky, then it can be taken more lightly. Leaders should wrestle with their conscience before waging war. They should weigh up the benefits with the risks. If you take the risks to the armed forces out of the equation, then what is to stop you?

If you make warfare seem like a computer game, you divorce the actions from their reality. If you are operating a drone from a bunker, and watching it on a screen, you are removed from the consequences of pressing that big red button. If you are prepared to use the weapons, you should have the courage and the decency to witness the devastation. If you can’t stomach that- and I am talking about leaders here, not military personnel who are just following orders- then you should not be making that decision.

Modern warfare does not only threaten professional armies. Another development of the 20th Century is this movement away from battlefields and assaults on military strongholds to inflicting as much damage on civilian populations as possible. It is about making life unbearable to encourage your opponent to surrender. It is about threatening mass annihilation and hoping that you are not called out on it.

That is why I find this week’s military posturing ridiculous. What is needed now is either diplomacy or the biggest high stakes poker game ever. Looking at the players at the table, I’m worried. Putin is a psychopath. Trump is a desperate buffoon. Kim Jong-Un is a dangerously unhinged narcissist. Assad is a monster. It looks like President Xi is going to have to be the grown up here, and his country’s human rights records aren’t exactly clean.

It’s probably not time to panic yet. Those italics aren’t particularly reassuring, I know.  We shall know more in the next few days… Until then, enjoy your Easter weekend, and eat far more chocolate than you should. That’s an order. Peace and love x

He’s making a list; he’s checking it twice…

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One of the great philosophical voices of this generation once said: “There’s only two types of people in the world.” Yep, that was Britney Spears. She went on to split humanity into two factions: “the ones that entertain, and the ones that observe.” I am in full agreement with the principle she proposes here, but I’d split the human race in a different way.

One of my favourite crime writers, Sophie Hannah, wrote about a caste system developed by children in her book Kind of Cruel, where the three castes are Kind, Cruel and Kind of Cruel. The children in this book (read it, it’s great) categorise their classmates according to their behaviour, and choose their friends accordingly. This is a process that takes place in secret, and is a response to the children learning about real social castes. They perceive their own caste system as fairer than any other that has existed, because one’s behaviour is under one’s own control, and is the product of individual choices.

My two categories, Nice and Not So Nice are, admittedly, simpler. But I would argue that they sum up precisely what you need to know about people.

I know that the word nice has got a bit of a reputation as a lukewarm word of praise. I’m sure many of us have used it in the following way: “well, they are very nice….” We know that tailing off at the end reveals an unspoken ‘but’ that really undermines the sentiment. Nice can mean “blandly inoffensive”, “very dull indeed”, or even “there’s something weird or odd that I haven’t quite figured out yet, but I’m pretty sure I’m not imagining it”. Nice can be an affirmation, or show approval: “You won? Nice!” Nice can also mean hideous, awful, rude: “She hung up on me!” “Nice.” It’s a great word for being sarcastic: “Nice trousers.” For the sake of my caste system, I don’t mean nice in any of these ways.

My definition of nice involves compassion, kindness and empathy. It also means being fun, entertaining, supportive, warm, and jolly. A nice person is someone you want to spend time with. Nice people are not necessarily saints- some of the nicest people I know have a pretty sharp edge, but that makes them perhaps even more fun to be around. I know some lovely people who might be thinking that they aren’t nice by my definition. I can assure you now: you are. I know some people who scored pretty highly on the psychopath tests that were going round not that long ago; hey, you are still nice. You might be grumpy and even borderline murderous from time to time, but you can’t hide your inner niceness from me. So there.

Not So Nice people are unpleasant, cruel and mean-spirited. They might be bullies, snobs, or trolls. They might just show a complete lack of sensitivity or awareness of other people’s feelings. They might be cruel to animals, or rude to waitresses. They are probably aggressive drivers, and patronising tourists. They think that rules don’t apply to them. They jump queues, and reek of entitlement. No matter who you are or where you come from, if you behave like this, you will end up on the Not So Nice list.

Whether I like you or not depends entirely on whether you are Nice or Not So Nice. It’s not that I don’t care about other ‘distinguishing’ facets of your identity: your race, your religion, your sexuality, your gender, your political affiliation, your social status… Those things might be important to you, and I’m not going to dismiss them. It’s just that they won’t have a bearing on whether I like you or not. Are you nice? That’s the important question.

But here’s the thing- like the Kind of Cruel model, in mine you can move from one to the other. You can change your ways, if you want. You aren’t condemned for eternity. If you are judged only on behaviour and deeds, well, those can change. You can be promoted or demoted accordingly. I won’t hold past behaviour against you forever. Do you know why? Because that isn’t nice. (I might be a bit wary for a while, but that’s just sensible.)

Once you boil them down to their philosophical fundamentals, aren’t all religions about trying to be Nice rather than Not So Nice? Or have I just invented a religion? That’s a pretty big achievement for a Sunday afternoon…

If I have just invented a religion, go forth and spread the word. Join in with random acts of kindness. Pay a compliment to someone. Pass it on, and pay it forward. Let’s celebrate our niceness and proclaim it to the world. Let’s make positive social media feedback more powerful than trolling. Let’s do that so much that it gets a nickname- I’m going to propose the word ‘elfing’ as the opposite of trolling, so feel free to help that catch on. ‘Be an elf, not a troll’- yeah, that works. And the T shirts will be cute. As Britney says, “Don’t stand there watching me- follow me, show me what you can do”.

Here endeth today’s lesson, from the Book of Hannah. Peace and love x

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“Free your mind- and the rest will follow”

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Well, we’ve survived another April Fools Day in the world of news, and this one was harder than ever for the mainstream media, when even a fairly normal story can be accused of being Fake News. A couple of points were repeated across social media yesterday:

How can you come up with a prank when the truth is stranger than fiction?

Is April 1st the only day of the year when people question what they read?

April Fools Day news stories are good for teaching us all a lesson about how we perceive news. If we ‘get’ that it’s a joke straightaway, we are pleased. If we aren’t sure, we double check, we question, and we investigate. These are all good habits when trying to avoid media bias, or falling for Fake News. Lastly, we might be fooled; in this case, we are forced to re-evaluate our reading process, to understand where we went wrong, and to confront our perceptions of truth. In essence: we have to change our minds.

There was an interesting piece in the Observer today, which was about how difficult it can be to change other people’s minds; you can read it here if you are so inclined. This extract got me thinking:

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Lecturing turns people off, I get that. In our echo-chambers, we are nearly always preaching to the choir anyway. But listing facts and busting myths? If those stop working, and just serve to convince people of the opposite, what hope is there?

It is entirely sensible that statements presented as facts are questioned, and that statistics are investigated rather than taken at face value. We can’t just believe people blindly because they have used one of those pesky numbers in their argument. That is the sort of thinking that gave us the Brexit bus. Even if numbers are accurate, seeing them without context makes them unreliable. There is a reason why people speak of “lies, damn lies and statistics”.

But this piece from the Observer suggests that we will cling to misconceptions in the face of actual proof, because being consistent is more important that admitting that we were ‘wrong’. I suspect this is true, but it shouldn’t be. Why don’t we reframe this one? We are talking about opinions, so really it’s not about having been wrong, it’s more about having changed our minds. And that’s fine, right? There’s no judgement with a change of opinion. And deciding to change your mind is different to ‘backing down’ in an argument- by making the decision yourself, you are in control of the process. You aren’t admitting defeat; you are simply moving forward.

The real problem is when we are so sure of our opinions that we perceive them as facts. How can we shake this habit? How can we prevent a confirmation bias from taking over everything we see and hear?

Education is the obvious first step- in terms of encouraging critical thinking skills and learning about how the media works. But the biggest obstacle is in our own heads. We are a nation divided at the moment, and we cannot hope to come together again unless we are all willing to confront our perceptions and open our minds a little bit.

I’m still firmly Team Remain FYI. For what it’s worth, I still believe that Brexit is a poor choice, and that there are very difficult times coming our way. But- and here’s the crux of it- if it all works out fine, I will admit that I was wrong.

Some of the Leavers seem to think life will be like this after Brexit:

Many of my fellow Remainers think life will be like this:

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I suspect neither will be true. If/when that’s the case, will people admit that they were wrong? Will anyone else be willing to say that they have changed their minds?

I’m going to leave you with this little pearl of wisdom, from Enid Blyton’s The Naughtiest Girl in the School:

“I wonder where you got that idea from? I mean, the idea that it’s feeble to change your mind once it’s made up. That’s a wrong idea, you know. Make up your mind about things, by all means – but if something happens to show that you are wrong, then it is feeble not to change your mind, Elizabeth. Only the strongest people have the pluck to change their minds, and say so, if they see they have been wrong in their ideas.”

“Never complain. Never explain.”

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One of my pieces that Pajiba published this week was originally intended for this blog; you can read it here if you haven’t seen it yet. It was my response to the events at Westminster on Wednesday, and in it I pay tribute to what I see as the quintessentially British ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ mentality. It was, I thought, chock full of my usual Hufflepuff good vibes. I do try.

I got drawn into a bit of a battle in the comments, unfortunately. I had some really lovely responses from readers, with most taking the piece in the spirit in which it was written. But there were a fair few commenters who gave me a bit of grief for it. It was a shock, to be honest; I have been very fortunate in my feedback so far, and perhaps I was in a naive little bubble, but some of the responses threw me a little.

Don’t get me wrong- I love the commenting community at my other writing home. They are funny, warm, entertaining, snarky, insightful and occasionally grumpy (but in that fun kind of way). They are loyal readers, and I love engaging with them in the comments. But there were a few that pushed my buttons this week. And it got me thinking about the nature of online commenting in general.

Dave Gorman uses the phrase “the bottom half of the internet” when he talks about online commenters, and he is usually (I assume) looking at far less salubrious sites when he makes his brilliant found poems.

But there are trends developing amid the free, open and often anonymous commenting that takes place ‘below the line’ and on social media. The internet is great for establishing conversations- but it appears that the social codes of normal interactions don’t apply. The internet is still largely a Wild West environment, a brutal unchartered landscape where one must be tough to survive. It’s such a different world that we have had to invent an abbreviation for ‘in real life’ to distinguish between our online and IRL personas.

Let’s start with the ‘well actually’ trend. I give kudos to the fact-checkers and the book pedants, of course. But is the unnecessary urge to explain just patronising? The ‘well actually’ comments on my piece, unfortunately, were evidence of a few commenters misreading some very gentle humour about the history of the UK and the English language. And that’s the issue with ‘well actually’; it is meant to show superior knowledge, but it can instead make the wannabe pedant look like a bit of a plonker… IRL equivalents of this include ‘mansplaining’ and Kanye West’s ‘Imma let you finish…’ incident, which are widely mocked. So why are they fine online?

Up next: the aggressive topic shift, also known as hijacking. We don’t like it when this happens in an IRL conversation, though it can often be the entirely harmless product of exuberance and enthusiasm. It should really happen less online, where comments are attached to specific articles, and communication exchanges are a bit slower. You can take your time to think up a point, review it before you post, and take back your words via editing, which you can’t do in a spoken conversation. My happy post on being stoic was hijacked in a couple of ways- mostly focusing on how much some of the commenters hated the English. And the British Empire.

That brings me to trend three: a failure to recognise context. The internet is a strange place because it isn’t really a place at all. However, don’t let that trick you into forgetting the fact that “there is a time and a place” for every idea. You wouldn’t go to a funeral and talk loudly and repeatedly about how much you hate the person in the coffin. One of my commenters could perhaps have waited until the bodies were cold before showing me how much he hates the victims’ (and my) nationality.

Fortunately, I have yet to face the final trend, the personal attack, though this is by far the nastiest, and probably the one that is the most widespread. This is also the one that puzzles me the most. I can understand the first three; I can see where ‘rules’ might slip away in the heat of the moment. But firing off personal insults ‘below the line’ clearly crosses the line. Would you ever say that to someone’s face? If you would, should you? As a grown up? A presumably civilised grown up with friends and colleagues? It’s perfectly fine to disagree with someone. It’s also fine to do that emphatically and vehemently. But if that’s the case, make your point – don’t make it personal. Don’t threaten or intimidate. It’s not funny. It’s not banter. And it’s never OK.

So this is my little guide to gauging whether to ‘go in’ or not. Type your comment and then answer these questions before you hit ‘post’:

Is this relevant?

Is it helpful?

Does it enrich the discussion?

Would I say this to someone’s face?

Is now the right time to say this?

Am I sure that what I am responding to says what I think it says?

Am I OK with looking like a plonker if I’ve got the wrong end of the stick?

Would it be OK if everyone I knew saw this?

Can I defend it if I am called out on it by someone who might tell me off? (This one is particularly relevant with social media, where a tweet or a comment can land you in serious trouble with your boss. Or perhaps your parents!)

If you answer ‘no’ to any of these questions, well maybe you should seriously consider deleting what you have just typed…

My title this week is certainly sound advice for those venturing into that wild space below the line. I would be wise to follow it myself…

Perhaps Thumper had the right answer all along. (Pre-emptive ‘well actually’: it was Thumper’s father that allegedly provided this pearl of wisdom. But I can’t post a video of him.)

It’s not perfect, but it’s mine.

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Last week, I wrote about choices that women and men might make in regards to showing their body. I’m sticking with this theme for another week, but approaching it from the other side: the choices people make in terms of not showing their body.

Nike recently publicised a prototype design for a sportswear hijab. I immediately thought that this was a great idea. It provides an opportunity for hijab-wearers to exercise freely outdoors, with all the traditional benefits of purposefully designed sportswear.

Others were not so sure about it. The Independent published a piece this week showing the backlash that Nike is facing- including proposed boycotts of the brand for ‘supporting the oppression of women’. I’d argue that what Nike is doing is exactly the opposite.

There are complicated arguments over the hijab, as there are about showing skin. There are parts of the world where covering oneself is mandatory, and yes, that is perceived by many as oppressive. But to assume that a woman wears a hijab because she is forced to do so is as patronising as assuming that a woman showing flesh is being exploited. To make this assumption is to rob hijab-wearers of their agency, and deny them the opportunity to make choices.

This sort of thinking led to the ill-conceived and terribly-enforced burkini ban in France. Take a look at this image, and think about how it makes you feel.

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Here we have three armed men, forcing a women to take her clothes off. Make this any other woman on the beach, perhaps covering up with a dress or a sarong, and the real horror of this picture reveals itself. Forcing someone to show more skin than they feel comfortable with is gross. It is disgusting. It is a violation of a human being’s dignity and free will. It is an affront to all common decency. Forcing someone to strip in public when they clearly do not want to, when all they want is to be modest and get on with their own life, is an assault on their right to make choices about their body.

That’s before we get to to the hypocrisy that says a burqa is oppressive, but a nun’s habit is perfectly acceptable. Or that covering one’s hair is oppressive when a Muslim woman does it, but not when a Sikh man does. Suddenly the real point presents itself; this isn’t an argument in favour of women’s rights, it is a criticism of Islam.

There are branches of Islam that oppress women, just as there are branches of Christianity that do the same. In countries where a woman is told to wear a hijab, or a niqab, or a burqa, or face terrrible punishment, this is not a choice. But let’s not tar all branches of a religion with the same brush.

One of my Pajiba colleagues told me this week that a Muslim friend of hers felt more pressure to shave her legs while living in Canada than to wear a hijab while living in Pakistan. Doesn’t that show us where we are going wrong?

So let’s clarify this, once and for all. Forcing someone to cover up or strip off is clearly oppressive. If someone chooses to wear something you don’t like, it’s none of your business. I reserve the right to find certain clothing choices ‘bold’ and even entertaining- I saw a young’un in mustard coloured dungarees this week, and I may have suddenly got ‘Come on Eileen’ stuck in my head (for hours, seriously- that song doesn’t go away)- but he looked quite happy and no-one threatened to make him take his outfit off because it stood in opposition to principles of taste and style. It was an odd choice, but it was his choice. (It could have been a dare, I suppose, but that would still make it a choice of sorts.)

Where this is clearly not a choice, the issue becomes more complex. A choice of ‘do this or die’ is not really a choice; it is an illusion of choice designed to make the chooser complicit in their own subjugation. In ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, when Offred tells us that becoming a handmaid wasn’t much of a choice, but she consented and therefore what happens to her isn’t rape, you can see this internalised subjugation and complicity. But this is fiction, and it’s not OK to assume that a person who opts to cover their hair has not realised that they are not in control of their body.

The hijab might be easier for non-Muslims to understand than the burqa or niqab. After all, we all have hair that we prefer to cover up when we are in public. But covering the face feels symbolically stifling, and can be a barrier to communication. They can feel like masks, or disguises, and there is often an instinctive fear or suspicion that arises as a result. This may well be something that we should just get used to; the only other option is to force a woman to remove it. Which is worse: forcing someone to cover up, or forcing someone to strip?

I will always argue that our bodies are our jurisdiction only. They are our territory. We might invite others into that territory, but uninvited access is a violation. We are the governors of our own territory; decisions pertaining to its presentation and use belong to us alone.

My title this week comes from a Tim Minchin song (points if you recognised it already), and I’ll leave you with a few lines from it- have a beautiful weekend, my lovelies.

This is my body, and it’s fine.

It’s where I spend the vast majority of my time.

It’s not perfect, but it’s mine.

It’s not perfect.

“You ain’t ruined,” said she.

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I visited a local high school this week, and taught a taster session on Hardy’s poem, ‘The Ruined Maid’. I was with a group of year 10 students, and they were really sparky and smart. One of the questions we were pondering in the session was whether attitudes to female sexual behaviour had changed since Hardy was writing. Unanimously, these little year 10s said no.

This was both depressing and accurate.

It seems to me that when it comes to sex, nudity and desire, we still have to figure a few things out.

Recently, Emma Watson was criticised for appearing in a photo shoot for Vanity Fair, while scantily clad. She was branded a hypocrite for ‘claiming’ to be a feminist while showing some skin. This is not an example of the male gaze- it was a fashion magazine for women. But even if it were for a men’s magazine, would that automatically discredit her feminist principles? Here is the offending image:

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Questions I think it’s OK to ask here include “would anyone wear that?” and “is that a ruff?” You might also hope that the hairstyle doesn’t catch on. But being offended about ‘nudity’ and feminist principles here? If she had had “I❤patriarchy” painted on her naked body, I might have understood the outrage…

There are different schools of thought when it comes to nudity in print. The first is that it is exploitative and symptomatic of a culture that thrives on female objectification, making money from the female form and encouraging men to see women as objects that they are entitled to leer at and take possession of. But I think that the issue is both more complex and more straightforward than that.

Consider women’s magazines that print pictures of shirtless men for the viewing pleasure of their female readership. Is this just a tit-for-tat situation? (Sorry) Is this hypocritical? Is it hypocrisy to find strip clubs uncomfortable, but the Chippendales entertaining?

There are differences in the male and female gaze, of course, and the context of male vs female stripping does have an impact on how we view it, culturally. Male stripping is seldom viewed with the same level of seriousness as female stripping, though I imagine that if everyone is honest, no-one enjoys it as much as they might claim to…

There are men and women who make money via stripping or porn out of financial desperation, but it is patronising to assume that all who make such choices do so because it is the only choice for them. If we strip them of their agency (sorry again), then we are presuming exploitation where none exists. (There may be a case to extend the argument to include prostitution, but that is not something I am going to do today, as it is a far more complex issue.)

Wouldn’t it be better if we all acknowledged that desire exists? That people fancy other people, and that’s OK? If it harms no-one, if it is a conscious choice for everyone involved, and if it involves consenting adults, what is the issue? We all have bodies, and it might be time to stop denying that to ourselves and each other. There is a lot of work to be done in terms of equality of nudity- reference to the male gaze won’t go away unless male bodies are shot like female bodies more frequently- but I’m all in favour of equal opportunity nudity, so long as it’s appropriate for the context. Tits aren’t news, so they shouldn’t really be in newspapers. Nor should ‘woman in swimwear at the beach’ be a ‘news item’ that describes her ‘stripping off’ like it’s a titillating event. (SORRY! I’ll stop soon.)

Emma Watson was stunned by the criticism she faced, saying “Feminism is about giving women choices. I really don’t know what my tits have to do with it.”

I think Hermione might be on to something there.