Seeing red lines

Red line road markings

My partner tells me men rarely talk frankly about their feelings because they know if a bunch of men get steamed up, someone will start throwing punches. My older sisters tell me that by contrast, women’s politics is uncensored, and therefore has always had bouts of passionate screaming. That makes sense to me but I fear that, with rash accusations being plastered all over the internet, the notion of a “bout” with a beginning and an end is lost to us.

I tell my partner you find out things in screaming matches that you wouldn’t otherwise know. Weirdly, those things you find out are sometimes the things that come out of your own mouth under pressure. That being the case, I really hope that most of us will manage to tolerate others’ shouty/sweary/screamy moments and come out of the current maelstrom without having irretrievably lost friends or alliances.

Here are three of the “red line” issues that instigated a lot of the screaming:

Call a man a man

The sex-based rights campaign has been massively impeded by all the rules the LGBTQ+ industry set around those they place “under the trans umbrella”. Most people diligently learned to use people’s chosen pronouns, some even stopped using words like “sister” and “mother” and “vagina”, a few became completely incomprehensible in their eagerness to talk about issues around sex without admitting that sex exists. I began to understand what those euphemism-laded conversations must have been like in the most fastidious of Victorian drawing rooms.

Campaigners who saw the trap that had been laid took inspiration from the previous generation’s lesbian activists, and began to demand accurate, honest language. All very well, but that set a collision course between them and many of the generation of women who remember the era of “gender bending”, when we worked on validating the idea that everyone can dress how they like, present how they like and call themselves what they like, in the name of free expression.

“Call themselves” is the key phrase that gets missed. We weren’t dictating what others were allowed to say. Nevertheless, I was caught in a dilemma, as were many women my age who had gay or trans friends who knew exactly what they were and weren’t afraid to say so, but liked being called by names and pronouns that matched their acquired gender rather than their sex. It seemed churlish to refuse them after so many years because someone else was giving women a hard time, but suddenly, it had an alarming significance. It took us a while to figure out what to do — many people are still struggling over it.

Defend space for black sisters

Those who were aware of the BLM activity after Colston and the events that followed it were newly sensitised to the language and the attitudes that were making a hard life next to impossible for so many black people, and those who’d been involved in anti-racism for decades were there to help the learning process but most of that activity went unnoticed by large swathes of the population. It’s easy to spot racists when they are shouting “go home!” at anyone who looks different to them but not so easy to spot the quietly corrosive ideas behind opinions about hijabs, or the way worries about welfare spending are expressed.

That leaves many less experienced activists shocked and angry when they’re told they are being racist, and feeling that their every utterance is being combed through and called out for faults they didn’t see coming.

Stop consorting with the far right

I went to a meeting of lefty groups during lockdown to discuss a motion defending free speech and was baffled at first by those saying “freedom of speech doesn’t mean you can say what you like” and, “free speech except for fascists” and so on. It is not easy to define exactly how defending freedom of speech can marry with defending space for black people and other vulnerable minorities.

It’s commonly being said (shouted) at the moment, how important it is for organizations to publicly distance themselves from anything fascist. Does that mean having a big debate about how exactly you define fascism, or does it mean ruling out of order anything that’s going to frighten off black sisters? I see posts like this one, and I think the latter — but I get that you can’t call a session open mic, then dictate who can grab the mic.

Here’s the thing…

Those of us with a background in political organizing are well aware of how extremist groups piggy back on big public events. I have so many smashing photos in my activism files that I can’t use, because this or that organization “kindly” did a banner-making workshop the day before a demo, and there are hundreds of people toting placards with the names of organizations they know nothing about printed along the top. The modern version of that is for an extremist organization to “kindly” live stream an event, and then publish it on their branded Twitter feed, thus making the footage unusable by anyone whose organization doesn’t support their political lines. The problem causes a lot of rows because to those who aren’t politically experienced, living in a world where everything they do is plastered with sponsors’ names and adverts, it’s a completely invisible problem.

The usual solution is for event organizers to make a clear, accessible public statement afterwards, not accusing or pointing at anyone, but setting out their organization’s position on racism or sexism or whatever the conflicted issue is, but if you don’t have a background in those sorts of situations, you wouldn’t know that.

Turning up the heat

These complex differences of perception came to light around a particular event last week, and were addressed by a bunch of tired and angry women who have been abused and shouted at for YEARS over the sex-and-gender issue, and who have had all too much experience of their work being co-opted by divisive infiltrators, so we started conversations about it all with patience already wearing very thin.

So (to use my first example — those pronouns!) where we should have had exchanges like this:

Please don’t use pronouns to describe gender when we’re trying to talk about sex, it really fogs the message.

Oh, I see what you mean – but I need to figure out how to square that with my old friends/with freedom of expression.

We get exchanges like this:



And so on.

Let’s rediscover the end of the row

I don’t know about you but, by wading in and accepting a load of shit flying around my head, I have learned some stuff amidst those rows. The sisters were right, some of that learning wouldn’t have happened if we’d stayed quiet and polite and/or refused to listen to the sweary bits — but now I see many women digging up ancient tweets and hurling them to and fro without context, to prove that other women are the devil incarnate (guilty as charged. I have done this. Then I see others do it, targetting women I know and trust, and I go “oh, but what she meant was…”) and I see wild judgements flung on basis of perceived class differences which may or may not be relevant but certainly can’t be solved during a shouting match, and I see professional rabble-rousers and publicists feeding on all the noise. I just hope that the amplification and ossification of the rows that social media facilitates doesn’t mean that we have to go on screaming at each other forever.

I’m going to look around to see if I can mend any friendships and alliances in my world that have been damaged. Let me finish with one where I find myself sitting plum in the middle, in the hope it might prove a bridge-builder. My very first exchange with a certain very prominent woman in all this was when I was a Labour Party CLP officer, in the middle of the most desperately fought election campaign of a lifetime. She turned up on my Facebook time line, demanding that I denounce Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell as cowards and misogynists. If she’d been a lefty, I suppose I would have recognized her frustration at the “not now, dear” feel of our reaction, but I just thought “get out of the road!”

Parallel lines:

Scenario One: We’re desperately busy trying to fight off a mass of unjustified slanders of lefty leaders and win an election, and someone comes along demanding we add to the criticisms of those leaders.

Scenario Two: Those women are desperately busy trying to take the women’s campaign mainstream in the face of a massive barrage of unjustified slanders from the gender-woo people, and we come along demanding they make statements distancing their campaign from the far-right group who streamed their event.

Women who aren’t at the socialist end of things are saying that we lefties put up with way too much sexism from lefty men, and yet we demand that centrists call out any whisper of far-right activity in their ranks. They are right. We argue back because they don’t realize the pressure we were under during those last two general elections but, nevertheless, they have a point.

Thing is, we did give those men too easy a ride over the sex-and-gender issue and as a result, many of them still don’t get how and why it matters. I wish those women would confirm that white supremacy is out and out wrong whenever there is any doubt as to who is sanctioning what, but I get that we should not criticize unless we agree that we should challenge lefty men more consistently — let’s be fair. Let’s resolve to do so.


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