“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 📚 ❤🥂

For POTUS is an honourable man…

img_0335Friends, allies, citizens, lend me your ears;

I’m here to mourn Obama, not to praise him.

The evil that men do is oft repeated;

The good becomes a distant memory;

So is it with Obama. The noble POTUS

Hath said Barack was rubbish:

If it were so, it was a grievous fault,

And grievously hath Barack answer’d it.

Here, as POTUS has not banned free speech

(For POTUS is an honourable man;

So are they all, all honourable men–)

Come I to speak of Barack’s legacy.

He was our friend, faithful, fair and just:

But POTUS says he was appalling;

And POTUS is an honourable man.

Protecting the poor, the needy and the sick

Who lacked sufficient healthcare coverage:

Did this in Barack seem so awful?

When that the poor have cried, Obama wept:

(Should presidents be colder, more aloof?)

Yet POTUS says he was horrendous;

And POTUS is an honourable man.

He spoke of kindness, dignity and love,

Was diplomatic when he faced his foes,

Had huge approval ratings: was this bad?

Yet POTUS says he was disastrous;

And, sure, he is an honourable man.

I speak not to disprove what POTUS spoke,

But here I am to speak what I do know.

You all did love him once, not without cause:

What cause compels you then, to damn his work?

O judgment! thou art fled to brutish beasts,

And men have lost their reason. Bear with me;

My heart has fled the White House with Obama,

And I must pause till it come back to me.

“Who would not lie, when men are hanged for truth?”

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Is anyone else sick of Trump using the phrase “fake news”?

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It seems that he has declared war on the media, describing various news outlets as “the enemy of the people”; he is either unaware of the sorts of leaders who have used this sort of phrase in the past, or he is involved in a ruthless and Machiavellian scheme to seize power and deny any story that is not his own. I am usually more inclined to see ineptitude than conspiracy, but either way, this is a worrying development.

A free press is a necessary foundation for democracy. The media have an essential role to play in holding politicians to account, and to undermine that is to undermine democracy itself.

“Fake news” is a pretty big accusation to throw around. I gather that he intends it to mean wilfully misleading the public with untruths – i.e. deliberately lying in order to promote their own political agenda. I don’t deny that almost all media companies have an agenda. Media bias exists – and there are almost always ‘angles’ that are taken on stories. Does that make the content “fake”?

Media outlets sometimes mess up or mislead. They might take statements out of context, or use unreliable sources. They might allow their agenda to lead the story, rather than provide an angle on it. They might need to print retractions if they are proved wrong. They can be sued for getting it wrong. As a result, there are usually scrupulous processes that writers go through, in order to protect their reputations and their businesses.

Actual “fake news” does exist of course, in clickbait pieces and in deliberately misleading propaganda. But I don’t think that’s what Trump is talking about. For him, anything that contradicts the narrative he has constructed for himself is branded “fake”. And that is dangerous.

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Let’s examine how media bias works. The events themselves might be neutral, but the bias often shows itself in the language – the emotive adjectives used to describe events, for example. Bias can reveal itself in the references to expert opinions – who is selected to provide their point of view? Is that person a reliable and credible source? If there is a picture of them, has this been chosen to make them look sensible or silly? Opinions can be presented as facts – any teenager who has studied persuasive writing know how to do this. And bias can also reveal itself in what is selected as ‘newsworthy’ and what is not.

Let’s not confuse bias with political independence, though. News outlets might have to report inconvenient truths, or provide stories that are not flattering, and not particularly kind. As much as the President might not like this, it is actually their job.

Journalists are also required to fact-check politicians. And that is something that is apparently much more necessary right now, as, let’s face it, some of the most egregious and ridiculous examples of fake news seem to be coming directly from the White House press team, or from Trump’s Twitter account.

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Here’s an older example, but still a classic: Trump denied climate change- and then denied denying it. With such a deliberately flexible and inconsistent understanding of facts, is he really a competent ‘arbiter of truth’?

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What is the alternative? State-controlled media? Are we all looking forward to lots of stories about the emperor’s new clothes?

I wondered earlier in this piece whether this was just inept or Machiavellian, and for me, the jury is still out. If it is a long-game plot to undermine the media and secure unquestioned power, then it is essential that journalists keep doing their job. If it is incompetence instead, well, Trump is being very optimistic indeed in starting his 2020 campaign. He is bringing his party into disrepute, and if that’s the case, I suspect he won’t be permitted to continue for long.

So Mr Prez, if you are reading this (as if!), instead of complaining about the media, just do your job. If you feel you are being treated unfairly, let your actions speak for themselves. Close scrutiny comes with the job, I’m afraid. You may as well make peace with that now.

When news sources fact-check you and reveal that you are telling untruths, do not claim that you have “alternative facts” because that’s not a thing. Just admit your mistake. Thank the press for keeping you honest. Engage with journalists. You are all trying to make an honest living, right?

A word to the media: look, I know you want to deal with these accusations head-on, but you run the risk of falling into a Bannon-trap. Don’t let these unsubstantiated allegations get in the way of you doing your job. This may well be sleight of hand – drawing your attention to one battle, to distract you from the greater war. Bannon is probably trying to pick a fight with you. Don’t fall for it.

And a word to the public: if you are concerned about whether something is “fake news” or not, there’s a handy guide below.

Peace and love x

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Britney & Eugene: A barely-veiled allegorical love story for our times

Theirs was a marriage that had lasted for more than 40 years. But Britney was getting bored…

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There was little doubt that marriage had been good for Britney. It had brought her support and stability in some dark times, and had definitely protected her household staff’s working conditions and pay. But that’s not to say that the marriage was perfect; oh no. The little quirks and foibles that had seemed so adorably eccentric in the early days had been grating for a while now. It all came down to a few unfortunate details…

Firstly, Eugene was pretty dull. There was no great passion here; he wasn’t one for the Big Romantic Gesture. There were no fervent declarations of affection, no outpourings of devotion, no special presents to celebrate their anniversary.

And Eugene was a little too particular. He only approved of certain types of lightbulbs. He had entire rulebooks for the proper size, shape and weight of groceries. He ironed his underwear. He had very strict stipulations about how Britney lived her life. He wasn’t controlling per se, but he had high expectations, and showed his disapproval by peering over his rimless glasses with a familiar look of disdain that she had come to find grating.

He had a very big family. They were all very nice, but Britney often got annoyed when, on returning from work, she found her living room full of strangers. Eugene didn’t like it when she called them that – they were her extended family now too. But as they sat around the dinner table in the evening, chattering away in a language Britney didn’t understand (she was no good at learning languages so never bothered to try), she felt isolated and resentful, and Eugene had caught her rolling her eyes at them on more than one occasion.

“You were unspeakably rude tonight”, he said to her, as they were brushing their teeth with toothpaste that was on Eugene’s ‘approved’ list.

“Is it so wrong to want my house to myself?”

“I didn’t see you complaining when my cousins were building the extension, fixing the plumbing and washing the car. Or when my aunt checked that dodgy mole for you. Or when second cousin Bob represented you in court. Oh no, you just got grumpy when you had to sit at the same table as them.”

Britney did what she usually did when they were arguing and she knew she couldn’t win: she walked away and decided to sleep in the spare room. As she lay there, quietly seething, an idea started to take hold of her.

Eugene would always remember the exact moment it happened. It was a quiet June morning, and as dawn broke, his phone beeped. In disbelief, he read the message twice.She was leaving him. He sighed heavily. So be it. Part of him was a bit relieved, to be honest. She wasn’t the easiest person to  live with.

Britney was on top of the world. What a brilliant idea it was! She would be independent again; she would be the boss of her life again; she wasn’t restricted to buying items from the approved list anymore! She thanked her lucky stars that she had always kept a separate bank account- that would surely make it easier…

She knew once she filed the divorce papers there would be no going back, so she moved into a caravan in the garden and starting preparing for a legal battle. She took photocopies of the documents in Eugene’s ‘household’ folder (which was alphabetised and colour-coded, naturally) and started studying. It had been over 40 years since she had had to look after herself, and she had forgotten how time-consuming and incredibly dull it was. She called the utility companies, the insurers and the credit card companies, only to find out that without Eugene’s ‘friends and family’ discount, everything was going to cost her more than she had expected. When she went shopping, she realised that if an item wasn’t on Eugene’s approved list, it actually looked pretty shady. She didn’t fancy using ‘Crusty Bake’ sun tan lotion, or ‘Look Cute but Fry your Eyes’ sunglasses. Hoping no-one would see her, she bought herself ‘approved’ toiletries, vowing to hide the receipts and cover the labels when she got home. But the cashier was a friend of Eugene – and said that as she was leaving Eugene, she couldn’t use her loyalty card points there anymore.

Britney was facing an expensive future. Her lawyers were still drafting the divorce papers, so she told them to type more slowly while she concocted a plan.

It was pretty straightforward – she needed another rich husband. So she downloaded Tinder. She used a few candid snaps from the good old days, trying to gloss over her fading complexion. She was still a catch, right? Out of sheer desperation, she swiped right on anyone and everyone, as long as they were rich and powerful. Let’s face it, Eugene had never really been a looker, and they had lived in mediocre contentment for decades…

The lawyers were typing as slowly as they could, but Eugene was getting impatient and suspicious. Britney had to make her choice quickly- but the matches she had had so far weren’t that auspicious. She had ruled out the sweat-shop owner, and the guy who looked a bit like a serial-killer, whose pictures were of him in various butch scenarios with his top off. There was a terrifying child-man whose pictures were either posters declaring how awesome he was, or staged shots of him playing with weapons of mass destruction. That left one.

Marcus was definitely an odd one. She had shown his pictures and his messages to her friends, and none of them were convinced, but she thought there was something weirdly charismatic about him. She thought she could get past the fake-tan and the questionable comments. (She was pretty sure it was just banter, though her friends kept comparing him to Hitler.) What was that on his head though? A dead ferret? Maybe he just needed a bit of a make-over. She didn’t really mind a fixer-upper.

So she set up a date. It seemed to go well – he declared how much he liked her to the whole world. He even held her hand in public. (Eugene didn’t really like public displays of affection.) She thought – “sod it”, and filed the papers.

Eugene’s legal team hammered hers in court. She lost far more than she had anticipated; it was a nightmare. She left court weeping, and fled to Marcus’s house. “There there,” he said. “I’ll look after you.” She was filled with gratitude. It was all going to be all right.

On the day of their wedding, Eugene watched the ceremony on television. There was something iffy about that new man of hers, and he couldn’t quite put his finger on it.

Britney was having a wonderful day. She was free of Eugene and his boring rules. She had a rich new husband who had promised her the world. She was wearing lipstick again! Everyone around her was sure she looked 40 years younger. It was a return to her prime, she was certain of it.

When the guests had gone, Britney and Marcus went to their honeymoon suite, and Marcus poured them each a glass of bubbly. “A toast”, he said. Britney smiled and raised her glass expectantly. “To us,” she said. Marcus laughed. “That’s not quite what I had in mind”, he said. A predatory look was in his eyes. Britney suddenly felt a shiver of fear.

“The thing is”, said Marcus, “you seem to think that we are equal partners in this marriage. I don’t know if it’s funny or sad.”

Britney had a sick feeling in her stomach.

“Here’s how this marriage is going to work,” he continued. “You will do exactly what I say, and exactly what I want, or-”

The silence was loaded. Britney’s mouth was dry, and she could barely muster the courage to speak.

“Or what?”

He smiled and then any humour fell from his face as he whispered, “Or I will destroy you.”

With that, he left the room, locking the door behind him. She was a prisoner. As she fell to the floor weeping, she thought of poor, boring Eugene. He might iron his underwear, but he would never have hurt her.

What had she done?

 

 

 

“Ye are many – they are few.”

There are plenty of intelligent, reasonable and compassionate people in the world whose political opinions differ from mine, and who I enjoy a bit of political banter with from time to time. We can have grown-up intellectual discussions about what’s going on in the world without resorting to trolling and abusing each other. So when I say that this week’s post is about uniting against a common foe, you understand that I don’t mean you.

Our common foe: bullies.

I took a trip this week. I went on a little journey out of my social media echo chamber, to see what was being said by people on the ‘other side’. As predicted, there was a lot that I didn’t agree with. That’s fine – I was on their turf; it was to be expected. But a lot of it really wasn’t pretty.

Some of it was fairly predictable. Some of it – not so much.

Some of it was quite well written. Some of it – not so much.

I think what surprised me the most was the use of the phrase ‘liberal elite’, which has apparently become a fashionable insult. Its use puzzles me; it doesn’t really hold up as an insult, and it has been deployed rather disingenuously by far-right politicians in their (sadly successful) attempts at capturing the mood of the moment.

Which part of it is meant to be insulting? A liberal person is progressive, left-leaning, open-minded, tolerant, in favour of equality, compassionate, probably inclined to pacifism… As far as labels go, I’m happy with that. But let’s face it, one doesn’t need to identify as ‘liberal’ to be anti-violence and compassionate… Liberals aren’t the exclusive owners of these qualities, and it’s not helpful to set up liberal/conservative as a pair of binary opposites, where we use nice sounding adjectives for one and mean sounding adjectives for the other… That’s not ‘grown-up’ politics.

Is the ‘elite’ part insulting then? To describe someone as elite suggests that they are powerful, privileged, and rich. Again, not really seeing the insult. And this part makes even less sense. There are elites on both sides of the political spectrum; to present Brexit and Trump in terms of working class revolutions against ‘the elites’ is a grotesque misrepresentation of the facts. A presentation of alternative facts, if you will. (Sorry- cheap shot.) The Trumps couldn’t be more elite if they tried! And Brexit shifts power from EU elites to British elites. Let’s not pretend otherwise.

No, the problem comes from the collocation ‘liberal elite’ itself, for it is meant to conjure up images of two things: smugness and weakness. ‘Snowflake’ emphasises this weakness. And ‘libtard’ is a blend that’s meant to undermine the intellectual capital of this group, suggesting its political foolishness and (apparently) easily exploitable vulnerability.

It’s all very ‘playground’, isn’t it? This sort of behaviour is what we all saw from the domineering and obnoxious kids in school, who picked on the smart kids. They were told then, “don’t bully nerds- you might need them to hire you one day”. They have been waiting to get their own back, and now is their moment. When Gove infamously declared that “people in this country have had enough of experts”, he was signalling this shift in attitudes. They perceive this ‘liberal elite’ as condescending know-it-alls who have been scolding them for years, while crying sad little tears of stupid empathy, tying the public up in ‘red tape’ and generally being interfering busybodies. They think that this excuses targeting liberal people online and saying hurtful, hateful things to them.

According to some tweets I had the misfortune to come across this week, ‘liberal elites’ are “brainwashed morons, who need to accept that their liberal ideology is going to be eradicated”. Sorry to disappoint you, but no, it won’t be. Not while we are here to defend it. We might need to take some time to think about where we ‘went wrong’, but we aren’t going anywhere…

We won’t stop being compassionate, or tolerant. We will defend the people you attack. We won’t be led into hate, and we won’t support attacks on fundamental human rights.

We will call you out on your alternative facts. We’ll stick up for science, for research and for actual facts. We won’t let you disparage the qualifications that we worked for.

We can win arguments with words. We make excellent placards. And we are not afraid to wave them.

The more you bully, threaten and mock, the more we will keep going.

And after a while, I suspect we will start to see something that my lovely, brilliant sister calls ‘Negative Unity’. This is where people find common ground despite their many differences, by uniting against a common foe. The grown-ups of the world – the ones who can have very different political ideas and discuss them in a civilised manner without resorting to name-calling and threats – will start to see past the binary oppositions that we thought divided us. We will recognise that we all want to do what’s best and what’s right – we just have different ways of going about it.

We will unite against the bullies.

So let’s keep it civilised and polite. Let’s be emphatic, yes, but never cruel, personal or offensive. Let’s focus on the real enemies here.

Bullies are cowards. They lash out at others to hide their own shortcomings. They think of nothing but themselves. Sometimes, they hide behind pictures of eggs, and fake names. Sometimes, they are in plain sight and are even elected to office, but even then, they cannot stand up to a united opposition. So rise like lions, my friends, whether you are liberals or conservatives, elites or ordinaries; rise like lions.

Peace and love x

Rise like lions after slumber

In unvanquishable number –

Shake your chains to earth like dew

Which in sleep had fallen on you –

Ye are many – they are few.

 

 

“All of this has happened before. And all of this will happen again.”

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It’s been hard to know where to start with this week’s news. Earlier this week, I had a whole post drafted out; it was written at the height of a feminist rage, and I thought it was best to let it sit in my drafts for a while, until the red mist dissipated slightly. That was the writing equivalent of taking a deep breath and counting to ten.

I haven’t abandoned the original post, but I have edited it significantly. As the news piled on further shock and disappointment, I found that there was a recurring theme, and that’s where my title started to appear from the mist. In the end, I went for a quotation from Battlestar Galactica*. References to post-apocalyptic and/or dystopian texts are currently as ubiquitous as demonstrations of Godwin’s Law, but we have got to a point when they require very little stretch of the imagination.

My theme for this week: history repeating itself. Ad infinitum, ad nauseam.

It started with an executive order that effectively sentenced thousands of women to death under the guise of being in favour of life. Predictable, yes, but horrifying nonetheless.

I’ve always tended to think of Pro-Choice vs Pro-Life as a false dichotomy. I am passionately Pro-Choice because I am pro life. I care about the women whose lives and psychological wellbeing are threatened by pregnancy. I care about the lives of women who will lose access to contraceptive and reproductive services because some men in Washington feel squeamish about a medical process that, let’s face it, is never going to be someone’s first choice, never going to be something fun to do, and never going to be a decision that is made lightly.

I respect people’s right to have different opinions on abortion. But you know what? If you don’t like it, don’t have one. Don’t ban it, or feel that a woman’s uterus is within your moral jurisdiction. Mind your own bloody business.

A few days ago, I found myself saying, “At least Gilead only went this far because there was a population crisis…” That’s how angry I was.

Was this all Trump? Not convinced by this… unless it was a revenge move against the women who humiliated him last weekend by, you know, turning up to marches, trying desperately to prevent this sort of thing happening again.

Was this just to keep Pence on his side? Possibly. Was it just because it’s become a Republican tradition? Again, possibly. But I thought he wanted to do things differently?

He could have played a blinder here. If he had openly declared a change of heart on this issue, he could have portrayed himself as a president who listened and wanted to do things differently. It would have momentarily wrong-footed his opponents. He could have portrayed himself as a moderate, single-handedly keeping the extreme Christian right at bay. And it might have worked. (Yes, I have a Machiavellian side. Apparently more so than his team – that’s worrying…)

But that’s not the only scary development of the week. This was the week that also brought us:

  • The wall. Historically, when have they gone well?
  • The Orwellian press conferences, and “alternative facts”.
  • The denial of climate change and the silencing of scientists who spoke an inconvenient truth.
  • Trump’s idea that torture’s not that bad really.

And then, finally, on Holocaust Memorial Day, the edict that finally broke me.

I mentioned Godwin’s Law earlier, and how it requires no stretch of the imagination any more. It’s not even like it is evidence of an argument being taken to its extreme, or reductio ad absurdum any more. It’s right there on the surface, and we need to call it what it is. If we start using euphemisms like ‘alt right’, we are letting fascists hide in plain sight. Let’s describe the attitudes here- what we have is the demonisation of human beings who happen to have a different theological perspective. These are people who are suffering, and turning to the USA in desperate need of sanctuary, only to be turned away; people who will die unless they are given aid; people who are viewed with suspicion because leaders don’t understand that national, political and religious identity are separate things that can co-exist peacefully. The comparison makes itself. Has America not learned from the past?

Can we break the cycle? I don’t know. But we can certainly try. The best tool we have at our disposal right now is refusal. And fortunately, for the world and for my blood pressure, there have been some heroic tales of refusal this week as well. My favourites? The park rangers who wouldn’t stop tweeting. Not all heroes wear capes.

Refusal and resistance are not the same as rebellion. They are not mutinous. They are merely a reminder to leaders that they rely on the consent of the governed.

In case this all blows up as horribly as it could (and as horrendously as it has in the past), I would like to leave a note here, to the historians of the future, who are reading the online outpourings of this generation in order to understand how it all began: yes, we could see it starting. No, we did not accept it.

Peace and love x

*If you really want to be a pedant, a very similar line appeared in Peter Pan, but the wording isn’t exactly the same, and the context is different. So there.

 

 

Letters to two presidents

Dear Barack,

I doubt that words can express how I feel about your time as POTUS coming to an end, but I will give it a go.

I am not really one of yours- I cannot claim the honour of having voted for you, being British and all… But for a year, early in your first term, I was an adopted citizen of your nation during my teacher exchange, and so you were my President. You are the only President I have ever had.

Thank you for your dignity, your eloquence, and your gravitas. You have been an inspiration to so many, in your own nation and around the world. Please pass on my thanks to Michelle- my only First Lady- for being such an excellent role model. Her warmth, intelligence and kindness never failed to inspire.

I am sure that it will be painful for you to see others trying to dismantle your legacy. If you ever want to get away from it all, you are more than welcome to come round for a cuppa. You were such a lovely host that I would be happy to return the favour. (Just give me a heads up so that I can tidy up a bit.)

Yours sincerely,

Hannah

 

Dear Donald,

You have always been a powerful man, and I can see why you wanted to become the most powerful man in the world. But as we learned in Spider-Man, “with great power comes great responsibility”. I’m guessing that you are starting to feel the weight of that responsibility now. Being a head of state is a burden- your life is not your own, and the lives of millions of people are in your hands. This is likely to keep you awake at night- and it should. It is not a job to be taken lightly.

I know that you want to make political changes, that’s inevitable. But please, take the opportunity to listen to your people. All of your people. Especially the ones who didn’t vote for you. The ones on your side? They’ll give you some time. You’ve won them over already. It’s everyone else you need to be worried about. There are millions of your people who are terrified right now. They are terrified that they will be assaulted, oppressed and persecuted. They are terrified that they will be left to die without medical insurance. And you are the only person who can reassure them. To do that, you will need to change your ways.

You might not feel that you want to. You might be angry with the people marching in protest this weekend. You might be too angry at the way you are being satirised. Guess what? If you didn’t like it before, you are in for a shock. There will be 4 more years of pretty brutal comedy at your expense. But here’s the thing: you have to take it on the chin now. You’ll need a thick skin for this job. Did I mention it was a burden?

You need to recognise that your opponents have a point, listen, and think about what they are saying to you. You need to let your anger go. There is no room for a temper any more. You need to modulate your language. You need to apologise when you make a mistake. You need to put your ego aside. You need to be- dare I say it- a little bit nicer…

The world is watching, Donald. We are hoping that you rise to the opportunity. If not, well, we’ll be scared, but we’ll definitely join in with the satire. (And as a warning, we’re pretty good at that over here…)

Yours sincerely,

Hannah

P.S. I won’t invite you round for a cuppa, as I can’t risk you getting too close to my cat. I know how fond you are of kitties, but my Cosmo doesn’t take too kindly to being grabbed… he would lash out, and I wouldn’t want the Secret Service to shoot him for scratching you.