“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.

For the love of books…

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Ok, first up: I’m biased. I have a literature degree. I teach literature. Of course I love books. I’m not fussy- I love hardbacks, paperbacks, and eBooks. I love the classics, the highbrows and the cheesy ones. In honour of World Book Day, here are some of the reasons why books are brilliant.

Books = knowledge. When the printing press made books more freely available, more people were able to read, and so knowledge was shared and increased exponentially. Huge socio-political changes came along, transforming the world. I’m not exaggerating.

Books provide a framework for understanding the complexities of the world. If the science is a bit much, well, we have stories. Stories that we use to figure out the apparently incomprehensible, to make sense of pain, to process grief, to understand the depth and range of human emotion, and to contemplate our mortality. We tell ourselves stories to feel better about the dark and scary parts of life. Know where the stories come from? Books.

Books make us better people. Stories encourage empathy, often literally forcing us to walk in someone else’s shoes.

Books are manifestations of our culture and history. They connect us to the world before, and show us the wisdom of the ages. They connect us to a shared history. They are the products of their environment.

Books are magical. Ink on a page can transport us to a different world entirely, making us believe in and care about places and people that only exist in someone’s imagination. We can escape the dreary and the bleak, and go hang out in Narnia if we want. We can go on adventures, fall in love, and seek the Holy Grail in our pyjamas.

Books are the manifestos of the ultimate warriors: writers. Dystopian writers entertain, sure, but they also construct an alternative reality not too far from our own, which makes us re-evaluate what we see when we read the paper, or watch the news. The pen is mightier than the sword, and what is a book if it is not the product of many pens?

Best of all? Books aren’t elite. Reading is a great social equaliser.

Books can break your heart and make you cry. They can lift your spirits and inspire. They can be new and exciting, or as comfy and familiar as a cuppa and a blanky on a chilly day. They can keep you company on a train, and keep you awake at night. They might scare the bejesus out of you. They might, on occasion, make you want to throw them across the room. They might make you roll your eyes and seriously question how they got on the bestseller list. They might stay with you forever. They might give real life people a lot to live up to…

But they will always be brilliant.

So here’s to you, World Book Day, and your raison d’etre: the book 📚 ❤🥂