For most of the last decade, despite my determination to live effectively in the real world, I have been repeatedly drawn into apparently intractable battles of words. It’s not just me, either. I’ve lost count of the number of people who’ve told me they’ve given up on politics entirely because “it’s all so toxic”, or “they are all the same.”
The first battle of words I was embroiled in happened in the Labour Party. From the side of the battle I was on, it looked like this: party staffers and MPs worked to bring down a genuinely popular leader, usually not by telling lies, but by placing factlets in misleading places, skewing emphasis, and setting a trap that gave the impression that the (at that time) mostly socialist membership were scandalously writing off anti-Semitism as non-existent or not important.
It happened to me again in the women’s rights campaign, where those battling to build sex self-ID into law led the media – and for a while, most people – to automatically call any statements about sex, women or women’s rights “transphobia”. In this particular battle, they won an early victory by getting away with calling a set of impractical demands “trans rights”. It then seemed impossible to support both trans people and women’s rights. As a result when those supporting women’s rights were asked about trans rights, they got called bigots for unpicking the question rather than just saying “yes”.
Then this year, I fell into another battle that flared up amongst the women campaigning for women’s rights. It appeared urgently necessary for all the women involved to state whether they were of the left or not, and whether they were feminist or not – and again, I felt reality slipping away where women were falling out over those things, based on what appeared to me very different (unspoken) definitions of the words “left”, “right”, “socialist” and “feminist” and above all, over what counted as “supporting” or “joining with” the far right.
A sister asked me to read a book on Conflict Resolution and kicked off a year-long obsession in my head. 99% of the content of the book was, to my eyes, quite right and totally useless. Just like 99% of the words fired in anger over the left-right battles and the women’s rights-trans rights battles. That sister got her come-uppance in the shape of a series of horribly long and convoluted emails from me, trying to make sense of it all. When I finally emerged, I had decided there was one useful sentence in the whole book. The rest of it was not wrong, but was distractingly acceptable. The sentence that was useful was:
Intention is everything
The problem, usually, is not that you are being lied to, it’s not that you’re being mis-informed, it’s that you are being dis-informed, by people who say lots of sensible-sounding things, with the intention – conscious or not – of misleading you and worse, protecting themselves from reality.
Take this perfectly sensible quote from Bertrand Russell which regularly chugs its way around social media…
“If an opinion contrary to your own makes you angry, that is a sign that you are subconsciously aware of having no good reason for thinking as you do. If someone maintains that two and two are five, or that Iceland is on the equator, you should feel pity rather than anger, unless you know so little of arithmetic or geography that his opinion shakes your own contrary conviction.”
“The most savage controversies are those about matters as to which there is no good evidence either way. Persecution is used in theology, not in arithmetic, because in arithmetic there is knowledge, but in theology there is only opinion. So whenever you find yourself getting angry about a difference of opinion, be on your guard; you will probably find, on examination, that your belief is going beyond what the evidence warrants.”
— Bertrand Russell, An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish (1943)
…. that may have been a useful thing to say in 1943, but it’s really not addressing the problem we have now.
Disinformation is not lying. It is not saying two and two are five, or that Iceland is on the equator. The difference between the “quality” and the “tabloid” (or “gutter” press) is not that one is honest and the other isn’t, it’s that the “quality” media leads you astray by telling the wrong story, or using facts in a misleading way, whereas the tabloids are – well, to be honest, they are more honestly dishonest. They just tell lies. They will say two and two are five, then stare you in the eye and dare you to try and argue.
So the second paragraph of the Russell quote is, in the context of our 21st century political battles, disinformation. It’s not wrong, but it further confuses. The two most passionate battles I’ve been in were the one about the importance and nature of the Corbyn movement and the one about the importance and nature of sex. In both cases, one side had plenty of sound evidence for their case, but the other side buried that evidence in sh– (There’s a reason for me nearly using that particular word there, which will become clear later on…)
Corbyn, anti-semitism and violence
It was not a lie to say that there was anti-semitism in the Labour Party, or that some on the left of the party were anti-establishment. It was a lie to claim that Corbyn was anti-semitic, or “supported terrorism” – It was the “tabloid” end of the media that made those claims. That was misinformation – lying – but, far more destructive was the disinformation from the mainstream media and self-identified “centrist” MPs, who amplified and emotionally charged certain facts over and over again, until most people assumed (because of the facts they heard most often) that there was more anti-semitism in the Labour Party than in other Westminster parties, and more aggression and support for violence. Most commentators simply forgot to ask about other, more common prejudices such as sexism and anti-black racism, both of which are features of the right, and both of which are major causes of violence and aggression.
Women and transphobia
Similarly, it was not a lie to say that some people are transphobic, it certainly wasn’t a lie to say that youngsters trying to present as the opposite sex have a hard time, and are often dangerously depressed. It was disinformation from the BBC and the mainstream media that, for a while, convinced most of the population that the blame for the plight of trans people rests with women who dare to talk about sex-based rights.
Usually, they didn’t do it with lies. Usually, they did it by placing one or two facts about trans issues alongside one or two facts about women’s groups in a way that suggested women’s political groups were “anti-trans hate groups”. As a result, most commentators simply forgot that women’s legal right to single-sex spaces and services is protected by law, and for a good reason that we all know about, and that the only reason practical safeguarding for women and girls exists is that such women do speak up for them.
No good information?
There is plenty of good information about the nature of anti-semitism, and the sources and motivations of terrorism. Above all, it should not be difficult for any reporter, journalist or MP to look at Jeremy Corbyn’s work down the years. Anywhere he appears in the political record (which is a lot) you will see him serving the causes of anti-racism and compassion. There is not one jot of evidence anywhere that he has ever been anti-semitic, or encouraged violence. There is, however, a Westminster-commissioned report from a few years ago, still publicly available, that demonstrates that all forms of racism, especially anti-semitism, are more prevalent in right wing political groups than in left.
Having seen that, any decent investigative reporter would quickly see why – there are a lot of socialist Jewish people in the Labour Party (or were – I believe the leader who replaced Corbyn has kicked quite a lot of them out). There was a huge increase in black people, particularly working-class black people, in the party membership during Corbyn’s leadership. They saw that the Corbyn movement was standing up for them in a way other parties did not. As a result, during the Corbyn years, the Labour Party membership was less likely to exhibit any kind of racism than other parties, or than professional politicians.
The battle lines were drawn between an influx of inexperienced party activists and a team of salaried staffers and MPs who had no intention of allowing their world to be disturbed. Intention is everything.
Click here to watch Al Jazeera’s The Labour Files
Similarly, there is plenty of good information about our biological make-up, and the reasons for sex-based rights activism. There is plenty of good information about the social position of women, the reasons for sex-based legal rights, and what happens to women and girls if organisations ignore those legal rights, so this is another case where paragraph two of the Russell quote is nonsense.
Hundreds of people argued ferociously, viciously and illogically for several years, apparently completely unaware that there were facts and evidence available that would have cleared up those arguments about whether sex matters, and what exactly is happening to young people with “identity issues” – but that information was ignored, because people had been not just misinformed, but disinformed – they had been emotionally charged by a miasma of leading suggestions, often caused not by lies, but by the strategic misplacement of information.
The battle lines were drawn between an influx of inexperienced feminists and teams of professional lobbyists who had no intention of revealing their true aims. Intention is everything.
What is the solution?
I decided, last summer, that the answer was to go back to basic principles, and focus on deeds rather than what I was beginning to see as those slimy pieces of weaponry formerly known as words. One of my long-standing basic principles is that class politics is more useful than party politics. If you base your actions on what needs to be dealt with around sex, race and class, you are probably doing more good than harm. The same is, in my view, broadly true of feminism.
(I paused at my keyboard then, wondering if I should say “real” feminism, because “feminism” is one of the words that’s had a really hard time in the battles, but I’m just going to hope that you remember that feminism is about working for a world in which women and girls can thrive, and be perceived as humans rather than as “the other lot”.)
So, for my contribution to the left-right battles, I asked some of the people I know who have worked practically, not “just” academically, in those fields, to come together and help me run a workshop at FiLiA, presenting feminism and socialism as things you can do, in a practical way, not just things to argue about.
My endeavour immediately proved its necessity – the first, and the second, and the third women I asked proved unable to come to FiLiA, because of obstacles related to sex, race and class that always hamper women’s political and academic activity. Well, that gave me the content of my part of the workshop presentation: I wasn’t trying to teach feminism or socialism – I knew that most of the women at FiLiA would be as knowledgeable, in many cases more so than me, on those topics. I was aiming not to inform, but to place us on a practical footing, to flag up the kinds of reasons people often cannot easily join in politics, and to drum up some ideas about what works and what doesn’t, what brings us to a place where we can reach and work with those people (and this is most people) who are hampered by obstacles related to sex, race and class, often exacerbated by issues of age, disability, nationality and sexuality.
[My sincere and humble thanks to Leah Levane, Mandy Clare, Diane Jones and Juemin Xu, who made up the final panel. I’ll be writing more about your fantastic work, soon.]
I was very happy with the panel I finally assembled. We presented some of the problems of race, sex and class to the group, and asked them to talk about what works, what doesn’t, and what we can actually do. Listening in on the resulting conversations, I felt I’d made the right decision. If you really are tackling the issues of sex, race and class you are, I think, automatically excluding the hard right because that’s just not what they do – but then, during the final round up, one woman angrily declared to the group that she wouldn’t work with the likes of Farage and Bannon and I thought, drat that should be obvious. Are we still disinformed?
Bannon himself is a self-declared master of disinformation. Here’s a quote that speaks to our situation far, far better than that old Russell one:
How to unlearn
So how do we counteract the zone full of shit? First, we need to do, and encourage others to do, a lot of “unlearning”. I think Caitlin Johnson’s particularly good at unlearning. She posts something every day in her campaign to dismantle the false narratives that have sent people down emotionally-charged, destructive roads. Admittedly, she is not UK-based and her work tends to be US-focused but, as the US is precisely where some of our most troublesome disinformation comes from, she’s worth attending to. She has a blog, a website, social media accounts – do give some of them a try.
What is not immediately clear, when you’re trying to do battle with the likes of Bannon is that the reason their smoke-and-mirrors is so effective is that most of it is true. Bannon’s “zone full of shit” tells you, for example, that there was a lot of potentially incriminating stuff on what was almost certainly Hunter Biden’s laptop, and that the US media squashed the story because they’d decided they wanted Biden to win the presidency; that the liberal-influenced establishment in the USA spreads a lot of mind-bending stuff in schools under the heading of LGBTQIA+ education, and can be far too squeamish about classical literature that doesn’t suit modern politics, and that neither the US nor the UK governments made a decent job of responding to the COVID crisis.
The reason that counts as a zone full of shit is that those facts are then laced with notions about Satanic bible-burning pedophiles, mis-applied critiques of campaigns such as Black Lives Matter and the idea that Donald Trump is offering a pathway to freedom.
The smoke and mirrors make it very difficult to argue for the apparently (but not really) opposed ideas that the media should not be biased in elections, that gay, lesbian and anti-racist issues should be taught in schools, and that it is a good idea to do things that reduce the spread of new viruses that many people are at severe risk from.
We can only unlearn the nonsense and stand up for truth when we’ve sorted out what from which. The best way to do that is to do your learning out in the real world, away from both social media and mainstream news.
How to do politics
I’m not saying “give up on social media”, I’m saying don’t rely soley on a politics of words. There have been a million declarations of left and right, and of what’s feminist and what’s not around social media this year. They weren’t useless, but they’re not enough. I’m not saying “deeds rather than words”. I love discussing, and I love writing. I’m saying that our words won’t work unless our deeds are seen to match them, and we are experiencing the world as feet-on-the-ground community activists.
I’m thinking of a time when someone who was feeling very vulnerable fell out with just about everyone on my Facebook page. Looking at the page that night, I thought we were all going to be enemies for ever. Fortunately, I saw that someone in town the next day, when we were both out doing things in the real world. We grinned, we hugged, we mended it.
Right – I’m off to do some practical strike support now. Out there amongst the activists, it’s not “all toxic”, and they very definitely are not “all the same”. Hope to see you on a picket line, or at a women’s action, somewhere soon.
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