Glad Tidings (For Those Fed Up Of The News)

Whether you celebrate Christmas or not, I imagine most people are looking forward to some festive holidays of one kind or another. And probably looking forward to the end of this year as well; 2016’s been quite the curve ball, hasn’t it? I’m tempted to take it back and see if I can get a refund. Wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, I hope you are feeling as peaceful as this beautiful illustration by P. J. Lynch.

j_toomey_city

One thing I wanted to share with you that gladdened my heart a few weeks ago was an article in the CAM magazine that comes to alumni of Cambridge University. There’s a modest, one-page piece by Professor Simon Goldhill right at the back that talks about the group of academics and policy makers from the Middle East whom he convenes three times a year for two intensive days of debate. These people cannot meet on their own territories for all kinds of political reasons. But they come to the neutral city of Cambridge to discuss basic, pragmatic issues like civic infrastructure over the entire region of the Middle East. This is an extract from the article:

The debates are riveting – and properly collaborative. A young female colleague who grew up in Jenin was holding forth about how the United Nations’ plan to widen the streets in the camp was seen as a plot to bring in tanks. Another participant interrupted: “You had better blame me, then,” he said, “I drew up those laws. But that wasn’t their idea…”. The Palestinian instead of holding forth had to speak to the actual person who wrote the regulations – and the regulator had to face the recipient of his rules on the ground. Both learned from the exchange. Both had to recalibrate. The hope is that slowly such exchanges will eventually produce material that will change other people’s minds, too.

I thought this was uplifting in so many different ways. An excellent idea, brilliantly executed, safe, sensible and progressive. We don’t hear enough about the people out there in the world working with intelligence and insight to solve the problems that seem so threatening.

And I thought it was timely to remember that the media would not consider this to be newsworthy. It isn’t an emotionally manipulative, sensationalized, negative, fear-inducing piece of propaganda. Because that’s all the news delivers. The media keeps us in a state of anxiety, craving the next terrible thing they can tell us, the thing that proves yet again that everyone in authority is stupid, ignoring all the obvious solutions that seem so obvious to us. That’s simply a perspective on reality that the media creates; it isn’t reality. How many people, I wonder, are out there involved in properly helpful initiatives, like the one above at Cambridge? How many people are quietly going about their important work, far from the spotlight, unbeknownst to us all?

Lots of people. Lots and lots of them. We’ll just never hear about them.

But I was very grateful to Simon Goldhill when I read about his work, so grateful for the hope that work like his brings. Isn’t it time we reconsidered what constitutes the news?

 

 

 

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Trump, Clinton, the Media and Sexism

Watching the Presidential election campaign from three thousand miles away is undoubtedly very different to being in America in the midst of it all. But from here, I have to say, it’s the strangest battle I have ever witnessed. It seems to me that the candidates are being judged on radically different criteria. If Clinton came out with one of the extraordinary statements that Trump makes on a regular basis, she’d be torn to shreds by the media, but Trump seems to be bullet-proof. And whilst Clinton is digging out every tax statement she’s ever made, and even opening her medical records for scrutiny (which surely ought to be prohibited on basic privacy laws), Trump blithely fudges all similar demands. The only way I can square this is by assuming the race pits a Good Girl against a Bad Boy, with all the stereotypical reactions this engenders. If Clinton is caught out in a lie then that’s a terrible crime, as Good Girls never lie. But Trump can say whatever outrageous thing he likes, because that’s wholly in keeping with what Bad Boys do.

But what’s happening also seems to go beyond sexism and into all kinds of stranger cultural territories. I have interpretations, which may or may not be right, it’s impossible to say. But I share them with you, for what it’s worth. As Brexit has so clearly shown us, we do get the political situation we deserve, rather than the one we need.

Let’s begin with the strangeness that was Hillary Clinton’s pneumonia. Not that it was strange for her to get pneumonia – that was the only reasonable bit. People do fall ill. And I would have thought that being a bit stressed, a bit tired, and meeting thousands of people, a percentage of whom are likely to be contagious, is a good way of catching something. Clinton’s pneumonia elicited a wave of anti-compassion that must at least say something about the weird relationship we have to illness, but let’s leave that to one side. I heard it described as ‘a poor campaign strategy’, which raised my eyebrows by a few inches. And then apparently the problem was that Clinton had tried to cover up her illness and not admit to it. So she lied, and this is all kinds of wrong.

Which, if nothing else, does indicate that the reality of being Hillary Clinton in the here and now is something no media pundit wants to take into account. I mean, just think about it. There you are, running for President of America with a massive schedule lined up, and you start to get ill. What’s the first thing you’re going to do? Hold a press conference? Of course not; you’ll do what anyone does in those circumstances. You’ll try to push through, make the least of it, look as normal as you possibly can and not breathe a word of complaint. You’ll do it for as long as you can because you don’t want to let anyone down, and anyway, tomorrow you may feel better.

That’s real, right? That’s what real people do. I can’t shake the feeling that if Trump had done that, he’d be hailed as a hero. But women live by different rules, and women really aren’t allowed to get sick. There used to be an advert on telly here in the UK for a painkiller or something, that featured two women, pushing kids in buggies, who meet in the street. They hail each other and stop to chat, discussing their busy day in prospect. It’s clear they both have stinking colds. Then they ask about each other’s husbands, who of course have the same cold but are both home in bed. See, this is what women do: they push through cheerfully and determinedly. There are no other acceptable options. This is the fantasy about female strength, and women are relied upon to make that fantasy real.

It’s no coincidence that the women on the advert are mothers. When children are little, they require their mothers not to be real. They badly need a wholly reliable presence: normal, calm, reassuring, focused entirely upon them. Good mothers do not bring their personal worries, problems and fears into the mothering realm. And I fear that the consequence of this selfless mothering is that women are forever more forbidden a chunk of their reality. They are not real people first and foremost; they are functions first and foremost.

I think it’s also a hangover from all those centuries of women being primarily wives and mothers, or else ornaments and trophies. That objectification joins up with the relationship we all had as small beings to our mothers, and the reality of being female, which includes, say, menstruation, illness, ageing, and feeling totally used by our families, becomes obscene, rather distasteful and best screened off from view. If Hillary Clinton lets slip her reality, shows her human weakness, then it’s more distressing and appalling than if Trump does it. There’s something wrong about a woman not fulfilling her function flawlessly, whereas men are allowed to be real people first, and we admire how they overcome their reality in their achievements. I think this is why men get made such a fuss of if they change a nappy or feed a baby. That man, with his important personal concerns and interests, actually took time out of his real life to do a menial chore! How amazing!

What gets more depressing is how women climb onto the objectification bandwagon in this way. There is a strong tendency for women to fight and compete over their functionality. Again, motherhood is an excellent example for this. It has become completely hamstrung by a complex and impossibly demanding set of rules, and women will be the first to call other women out on not abiding by them. In fact, there’s a tendency for women to have rules for other women in just about every situation, and to judge very harshly other women whose rules may be different. If there is a third wave of feminism that is in any way effective, it will have to tackle the brutality that can arise between women whose rules and opinions do not cohere. Note the way that men back each other up, note the basic fraternity that always means they forgive each other every flaw and petty crime. They have terrific compassion for other men involved in the business of being men. Women could learn from this.

It does go some way towards explaining the extraordinarily kind attitude that seems to prevail towards Trump and his little ways. Every time I switch the radio on or turn to the internet, it seems that Trump is getting publicity for something terrible and untrue that he has said. But the whole tenor of the reporting is genial amazement. Is it that Trump goes so far beyond the boundaries of truth and acceptability that no one knows what to make of him? No one can find the words to describe what he is doing and so he can’t be called out on it?

Well I’m prepared to give that a try. Between you and me, I think that Donald Trump may actually be mentally unbalanced. Not as a joke, but as something that it might be a good idea to worry about. And I say this on the basis that he seems incapable of distinguishing inner reality from outer reality, which is the prime factor in all psychosis. For instance (there are a wealth of examples), his recent claim that Barack Obama is the co-founder of ISIS alongside Hillary Clinton. Even when clearly directed by his campaign managers to claim this statement was somehow sarcastic or a joke, he could not stop himself from endorsing the reality of it (as he sees it) again.

Freud was the first person to identify the disparity that exists between our inner psychic reality and the world out there. The two are not the same, because our subjective perspectives, an amalgam of hopes, fears, memories, associations and prejudices, colour everything we look at. So, for example, I remember watching an encounter between a graduate student and the Head of Department in a corridor at the Modern Languages Faculty. They stopped and spoke to each other for a moment, then moved on. The graduate came up  to me and said: ‘Well I am SO glad you were here to witness that! Did you see the way she laid into me! I can’t believe she just did that!’ And the honest answer from me would have been, no I did not see that happen at all. It looked like a perfectly ordinary and featureless meeting to me. But the graduate was unshakeable in her convictions. Her hopes and fears had got in the way.

And inner reality is a very emotional place. Nothing is stored inside our heads without some sort of emotion attached to it. We don’t even know that clouds bring rain without some sort of tagging system saying #goodthing or #badthing. It’s a terrifically complex system. But at our most sane, we are aware that some events trigger us more than others, that mood affects our judgement, that we have sacred cows and terrible fears and a stealthy tendency towards crazy thinking. However. We are deeply protective of the crazy parts (probably because they carry very tender emotions along with them) and so if that crazy thinking gets validated out in the real world, it has an unusual force to it. That graduate student longed for me to say, ‘Oh yes! My God! What outrageous behaviour by our Head of Department!’. Similarly when the apocalypse comes in the specific form of our private fantasy of apocalypse, we will be packing our bags to move to higher ground while repeating on a loop, ‘YES! I knew I was right to worry about that! Didn’t I say so? Haven’t I been saying so all along? I am justified at last!’

This is what the media has been doing for donkey’s years now. It plays on our crazy thoughts. It encourages and validates them. It blows on the embers of hatred, prejudice and envy. And politicians, seeing how effective this is, how much it makes people pay attention and feel engaged, have jumped on that bandwagon for all they are worth.

So to my mind, the media don’t know how to tackle Trump because he is their creature. He is a walking manifestation of every item of media hysteria and paranoia that has festered in an anxious mind. Donald Trump is what happens when tabloid newspapers have an orgy.

I imagine all the journalists out there, watching Trump go to work and thinking to themselves, if this guy becomes President, I’ll never have a slow day again. On Monday, he’ll create new laws that mean any woman not matching his criteria of physical acceptability must remain on house arrest. On Tuesday he’ll drop a nuclear bomb on North Korea. On Wednesday he’ll say that anyone with Hispanic ancestors within the previous century has to be deported. My career will be made!

What we wish for is as dangerous as what we fear. When will we learn that we are terrible at knowing what is good for us? It’s a good thing that outer reality is not the same as inner reality – life would be unliveable if it weren’t! It’s a relief that our fears come to nothing so regularly; moderation, good sense and reason are our salvation. Why do we not hold men up to the image of the Good Father the way we demand women be Good Mothers? The Good Father is a steady, calm reality check. He thinks before he reacts. He encourages fairness, justice, and honor, even when they go against powerful emotions. He is courteous and understanding. Wouldn’t it be good to expect a male President to embody the best of masculinity? Wouldn’t that be reasonable?

I suppose my ultimate point here is that we hold men and women to very different standards, and that is more than mere sexism – it arises from deeply-held archetypes that promote extreme reactions. Isn’t it about time we looked long and hard at that disparity?

 

[I am so sorry to have been away yet again – more issues with my eyes, I’m afraid. Anyway, that’s a long story for another day! In the meantime, I just had to get the above off my chest…]

I Call Myself A Feminist

feministTwenty-five essays collected together with a generous helping of quotes from other well-known women, with the particular slant that the essays are all written by women under thirty. It’s an overview of the issues and concerns that continue to motivate activism in the 21st century, as well as an attempt at rehabilitating the word ‘feminism’ from some of the old perjorative connotations of the past. The essays are brief, a few pages each, and they cover a wide variety of topics and perspectives. It’s a fascinating collection, provocative, thoughtful, sometimes funny.

But there are buts. Not one woman writing has a child, although motherhood remains the last great bastion of identity straitjacketing. All are women who have enjoyed early success and made something of their lives – they speak from a position of earned privilege. I found myself appreciating most the essays from a Nigerian woman who had grown up in a traditional and oppressive religion, a woman who worked in a centre for the victims of acid attacks and a female human rights lawyer. A large number of the other essays spoke about behavioural issues – from the difficulty of making the decision to change gender, and the resistance and prejudice one might consequently face, to the irritating tendency of men to hog the armrest in seats on the London tube (exert your right to space, ladies!). Several rightly evoked the appalling reputation of the media – tabloids, magazines, advertising, mostly – for reinforcing stereotypes. But most of these essays left me thinking that whilst Western women have removed the majority of physical constraints on their choices, the real battle remains with the mental chains we so easily place on our own thinking.

I was taught that feminism was about two things. It was about equal access to power – economic, political, social – and the freedom to be oneself, resisting the old insistence that Woman should be helpmate, carer, nurse, selfless angel. It was about creating a structure that offered equal opportunities within which we could all be individual and different. Where we seem to end up now is micromanagement of the behaviour of others, which is highly problematic.

Let’s look at the case for the opposition first. Laura Bates, author of Everyday Sexism writes ‘As feminists we are used to being told what we ‘should’ focus on, or scolded for ‘making a fuss’ about particular topics. Talking about rape or domestic violence is acceptable, but mention street harrassment and you’re ‘getting upset about nothing’ […]There is no reason why we shouldn’t tackle every manifestation of gender inequality, no matter how apparently ‘minor’.

Absolutely! A society free from all discrimination would be a utopia indeed. But there’s a danger that the woman who is harrassed on the street might be led to believe that her plight is equal to the woman who has been half beaten to death by the husband who controls her cash flow. And that wouldn’t be right, would it? Don’t we still need to maintain a sense of perspective? I don’t think that equality means that all crimes committed against women are equal.

There’s a very well-written essay about how important words are and how right it is to police them. One of the examples cited is scientist Tim Hunt’s foolish comments – poor attempts at a joke – about women in his laboratories, which provoked a twitter storm, viral humiliation, and some consequences for the man’s career. The writer is convinced that this was the correct outcome. Yet I say, where was the woman whose courage, generosity and sense of fair play made her stand up at the end of the speech and say: ‘Could you please redefine your position on this issue, because I think what you said may be open to some serious misunderstanding.’ There could have been a proper debate on the spot; it would have been a fabulous example of grace and diplomacy and the exercise of women’s right to speak up for themselves. Why does it feel to me that the thrill of self-righteous indignation held sway here instead? Words are indeed terrifically important, and I would rather use them to educate than crucify. Women have a power of intervention unparalleled in their history. Is twitter shaming the best we can do with it?

We may often regret our male colleagues’ thoughtless, sexist and downright stupid comments. We may well wish that their behaviour would be more respectful and courteous. But if we want to improve social behaviour, we all have to sign up to the same charter. That’s equality. So if women want the right to be outspoken, to be ‘unruly’, to speak our minds and shout down or shame the other, then it has to be okay for men to do the same things. If, as one writer in this book says ‘Women whose behaviour is repulsive and selfish entrance me. They seem far more alive and aware and unapologetic than most would ever dare to be’, then we must accept that men might be entranced by their repulsive and selfish behaviour, and feel more alive for it, too.

This is the problem with all issues surrounding behaviour and identity. We all want people to behave better, and the chances are overwhelming that we will never be able to make them. We use the law against acts of violence and crime. But in the lower reaches of human behaviour, it’s hard to ‘make’ people give up their worse natures. Where did all that PC battling get us? The recognition that it’s unacceptable for people to express ugly predjudice in public places. Excellent! And then we created the internet whose main purpose can seem to be to provide a safe space for all that prejudice to be resurrected under the blissful cover of anonymity. Human nature is aggressive and judgemental. People will find a way to judge.

Believe me, I know how awful it is to be on the receiving end of sexist belittling. When I was nine or ten, the teacher who taught me every day, for every subject, was a man called Mr Wickenden. He regularly said unpleasant things about me in class – I remember him laughing with the other boys and saying I didn’t care about people, I only cared about money and clothes. I was quick-witted as a child, which didn’t go down well in the 70s. Once, doing some maths (my weakness) I struggled to understand the equation on the board; he humiliated me in front of the class until I was in tears (and I did not cry easily). He never treated any of the boys this way; I felt his persecution and it undoubtedly added to my belief that if I wanted to get away with being clever and well-spoken and tidy and good, I would need to make myself invisible.

For many years, this sort of behaviour struck me as completely unacceptable, as something we should legislate against, yes, why not! But as I have grown older, I have changed my mind. What I needed to learn to do was to look Mr Wickenden in the eye and think: you are so completely irrelevant to my sense of self. We are animals underneath it all; we know fear and vulnerability instinctively. What I needed to do was grow up, grow stronger, learn to protect myself without recourse to aggression, practice integrity. In some ways the issue was a sexist one, but in all the ways that mattered, I have come to understand it was developmental. And Mr Wickenden to one side, the worst, most insidious bullies I’ve come across have been female. I needed a strategy to deal with them, too. Thinking the world shouldn’t be cruel, that I shouldn’t have to fight for my right to be different, that I must be able always to do things my way without encountering resistence, even if it horrifies the ideology of the tribe, has actually held back my own growth.

I think that one of the best acts of feminism we can do on an everyday basis is support the women we know. Do something whenever possible to make their lives a little better, a little easier, a little richer. I think we need to expend our best energy on the real victims of the world – those caught up in war, famine, violence, plague and tyranny – and to keep a weather eye on the lesser crimes and make sure we don’t commit them too, in the name of retaliation. And when a first world, non-violent man makes a sexist comment, we might just raise our eyebrows and find him ridiculous; why on earth would we assign such behaviour more power than it truly has?

Internet Shaming: Why The End Doesn’t Justify The (Being) Mean

shamedJon Ronson’s latest book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed begins his enquiry with a completely engrossing account of the onslaught of public shamings that have become increasingly popular on social media, Twitter in particular.

Chances are you’ll remember at least some of them. Jonah Lehrer is his first Twitter victim, a clever hotshot writer who embellished six of his Bob Dylan quotes in a book he wrote about creativity. For this he was virtually flogged in the online streets. When he attempted a public apology, he had to give his speech in front of a screen displaying an audience Twitter feed that quickly turned vicious. Under such circumstances, Lehrer froze emotionally, and that was enough to convince those tweeting that he wasn’t really sorry and his apology wasn’t good enough. They didn’t say it quite so nicely. His reputation in the three subsequent years has never recovered.

Then there was Justine Sacco, a PR person who made a regrettable joke tweet about AIDS before getting on a plane to Africa. By the time she landed there were photographers at the airport, ready to catch the look on her face when she turned her phone back on and was hit by hundreds of thousands of 140-character judgements of bile and hate. And Lindsay Stone, who had a silly photo taken of herself being disrespectful at the Arlington National Cemetery and posted it on Facebook. Oh there are more (Cecil the lion being one of the most recent) and in every instance jobs were instantly lost, reputations ruined, families destroyed, people thoroughly shamed. And the twitterers lapped it up; scarcely a day passes still without social media turning into judge and jury on some unlucky idiot.

‘It felt,’ Ronson writes ‘like we were soldiers in a war on other people’s flaws, and there had suddenly been an escalation in hostilities.’ Was it a sort of hysteria caused by group violence, he wondered? He looked into public shaming and discovered that it had been outlawed as a practice back in the 19th century because it was considered too brutal. The law has its limits, after all. People, alas, once unleashed do not. And once shaming has begun, it spreads contagiously. Ronson thought that his stories ‘only revealed that our imagination is so limited, our arsenal of potential responses so narrow, that the only thing anyone can think to do’ is shame, and shame again.

Ronson’s book is brilliant at pointing out the outrageousness of such behaviour (I was certainly spitting feathers at some points), but understanding the motivations of social media is a lesser goal in his book. He does argue, though, that even the most extreme shamers feel they are doing good – and the paradox of a million-strong crowd of self-righteous tweeters, all thinking they are on the side of the angels but looking from the outside like an avenging mob of bullies has the ring of uncomfortable truth about it.

Instead, Ronson goes on to explore what can be done about shame in the aftermath – how is it possible to recover from the public trashing of one’s reputation? After the fire and brimstone of the first half of the book, the second falls a lot flatter, but there are some crucial discoveries made. The most important of which is what terrible psychological damage shaming inflicts. Ronson talks to the psychologist and prison reformer, James Gilligan, who was sent to some of the worst US jails in the 1970s where murders and suicides occurred daily. After spending time with the most violent offenders he realised there was an obvious origin to their behaviour. ‘I have yet to see a serious act of violence,’ he told Ronson, ‘that was not provoked by the experience of feeling shamed or humiliated, disrespected and ridiculed.’ The more horrific their early experience of shame, the more violent they became in adult life. Shaming is profoundly destructive. It certainly does not achieve its intention of bringing a person to heel, or if it does, the cost is excessive.

But obviously, it must make the shamer feel like the good and acceptable side of the interaction. Ronson doesn’t talk much about the wider media, except to say that ‘in our line of work the more humiliated a person is the more viral the story tends to go. Shame can factor large in the life of a journalist – the personal avoidance of it and the professional bestowing of it upon others.’ And yes, the professional media offers a powerful model of misconduct that has filtered down to social media, showing us that this is how you behave in the presence of perceived wrongdoing.

But it doesn’t really explain the excessiveness of the threats on twitter in comparison to the perceived crime. You have to wonder why such outrage could be created by a writer who adds an innocuous half-sentence on the end of a Dylan quote? Jonah Lehrer’s case is the most perplexing of all.

Ronson never really comes up with answers either to why shaming is so tempting, nor to how we recover after being shamed. Unless we count hiring a specialist internet firm to bury the offending material under a ton of bland google entries. And I was surprised that he never went to talk to an ordinary psychotherapist, who would have told him some useful basic information about shame.

Shame only happens when an accusation chimes with a deep-seated fear that the criticism is correct. So the worse we feel about ourselves, the more vulnerable we are to being shamed. The answer, you might think, is to feel good about ourselves. But that urge is what provokes much of the thrashing around on social media that we see; the act of shaming is part and parcel of the need to tell others how ethical we are, what fabulous things we do, what great lives we are leading.

Funnily enough our entire culture seems to have forgotten the unbeatable antidote to shame and never once is the word mentioned in Ronson’s book: humility – and for all concerned. Humility is the recognition that we are flawed, that we are going to make mistakes, that we do not have all the answers, and never will. It’s a gentle acceptance of the reality of the human condition, in the awareness that we can and do learn. It’s a kind thing and a quiet thing (which is probably why it’s in short supply on shouty social media).

Although Ronson’s book is essentially about shame, it’s the parts about the internet which are by far the most fascinating. If you travel here regularly, you know that the virtual world is ruled by energy and entropy, and given there are so few attempts to control what happens, we get a pretty accurate portrait of what unrestrained human energy can do. It’s essentially a junior school playground without enough dinner ladies. We know the internet is a place where wonderful things can happen, but it can be vicious and spiteful too. We need laws here, not least because this book shows us that the law is much kinder than we are.

In the absence of those laws, though, perhaps all would-be online shamers might consider one important distinction: attack the issue, and not the person.