NB This is an old article, published today in honour of Diane Abbott.
We have terrible issues of prejudice, fear and silence to deal with; issues around race, sex and class, and people’s apparently endless suspicions of each other’s nationality, accent, religion, financial position, political views… but there’s hardly any time to talk about those things, while a huge great block of time is taken up by ethereal ‘isms’, distractor issues that have become political tools.
Freedom of speech for the semantically clumsy
I have never, ever been so silenced on so many issues as I have since I’ve been a Labour Party officer. It’s something all politicians and diplomats will be aware of – when it’s all about talking, persuading, rallying, competing for attention – words matter, and have to be looked at forwards, backwards and in several different lights before it’s safe to let them out of your head.
I suspect politics doesn’t have to be this way. I suspect we could do it in a manner that allows for my lifelong habitual way of exploring ideas – I like to say something to some people and use their replies to find out if my idea is crap or not. Can’t do that any more – if it’s trivial crap it will draw bad headlines, bad publicity. If it’s serious crap, I’ve ‘brought the party into disrepute’, which is an offence to be met with a suspension or a ban from the party. (I’ve never been good at polite – I wonder if I’m allowed to say ‘crap’?) – I don’t seriously hate anyone so I doubt I do ‘hate speech’, but I do do ‘angry speech’ and ‘frustrated speech’ sometimes and I do worry that sooner or later I’m going to fall victim to one of the distractor ‘isms’. Some people can get away with it…
Racism, Sexism and mocking the afflicted
Okay, I can try to be careful – but the competing factions in politics actively use diffidence like mine to prevent the debates their own policies are vulnerable to. Imagine being a socialist in the shadow cabinet. One mistake about figures, and the right wing politicians will spend the rest of your political career claiming that because you’re a leftie, you can’t do economy. Amber Rudd recently took yet another snipe at a mistake Diane Abbott made – not a mistake in ability or accounting, but in saying numbers wrong when she was ill and distracted – but Rudd, who really cannot afford to have people thinking about the consequences of her party’s financial actions – or indeed her own, if you believe that millionaires should pay a good chunk of tax, or even the legality of what’s going on at the Home Office under her watch…
Rudd will use that mistake for as long as Abbott is her ‘shadow’. It makes Rudd’s opponents in her constituency increasingly nervous about taking the risk of discussing economics at all. Big win for Rudd, which I’m sure she will say owes nothing to racism or mocking someone when they are vulnerable – but she sure used both those tendencies to deflect legitimate, political criticism of her own position.
And try having a calm conversation in any public debate about the difference between anti-semitism and political criticism of Israel. If you say Israel’s policies are wrong, you are offering yourself up for suspension from the party because it appears to be the supporters of Israeli policy who are currently using the ‘anti-semitism’ method of silencing people. That is why one of our delegates to the Labour Party conference was in the mood she was in when she made this speech, demanding the right to differ with Israel’s supporters (and please don’t underestimate the amount of preparation, negotiation and general trembling in one’s boots it took us to win this 3 minutes of talking. There’s no such thing as a free speech …)
Gender and transphobia
Here’s an example of what happens when life-changing decisions are made by politicians without full understanding of what they’re doing, or of the consequences they have for the people concerned. The Tories propose a change in the law, and Labour follow with a similar change in policy, on the rules around gender identity. This is an enormous issue for transgender people but is also an enormous issue for the women’s movement, which has put generations of effort into providing the services and protections necessary to level the pitch for that section of humanity who have to deal with all the issues around reproduction – menstruation, contraception, pre- and ante-natal care, abortion, surviving the financial and emotional consequences of family responsibility, taking expensive chunks of time out of their academic and/or business lives, being seen as the natural ‘carers’ and managing the young, the old and the sick within the family, being menopausal in a world that no longer provides public loos, and all the weight of the psychological dump of gender expectations that fall on their heads if they complain about anything, so that all these things become issues not just for women who choose to have children but those who choose not to, and find the path to contraception, abortion and being-taken-seriously-at-work fortified against them…
And then there’s all the anxious parents and carers of autistic children – children who can almost be guaranteed to go through periods of angst over their gender identity. I personally don’t believe ‘gender identity’ has any biological reality but it is undoubtedly one of the most complex of social roles, and learning social roles is exponentially more difficult for those with autistic traits. Their parents are worried that they’ll run into a teacher or doctor or psychologist who’s feeling silenced over doubts about how to treat gender-anxieties, worried about being called transphobic… that’s a complex conversation, and you can’t have it if people are being shouted down.
It’s likely that we can give trans people what they need without the law running roughshod over all the issues above, it’s possible that at least some of the worries the women’s movement are feeling are misplaced, but we can only find out if we can get our law makers to stand back and disentangle some often misunderstood notions about the distinction between sex – a scientific classification of all mammals, according to which part they have in reproduction – and gender – a partly or wholly (depending which books you read) societal construction that influences how male and female lifestyles differ, and then tell us which characteristic which laws and provisions apply to.
Debate, drama and violence
Various groups have attempted to start a discussion on sex and gender, in order to come up with ideas about how the law-change might work for everyone but various interested parties do not want this discussion, either because they are afraid of the discussion or because they see it as being an obstruction to those who already know exactly what they want. They block the discussion using another annoying conflation tactic which suggests that offensive language is unacceptable therefore (for example) if you say something that I react to by being offended, you are guilty.
The silencing of a realistic conversation allows the silly, shouty ideas to take precedence. As a result, all that is regularly visible of the sex/gender debate is a very troubling notion that there is a battle over the law-change, that it is a battle between natal women and transgender women, and that natal women are accusing trans women of being predators and tricksters.
That last idea has come about because women have used articles from countries where this law change has already been implemented, showing alarming stories of people who have claimed to be women then caused trouble in women’s hostels, prisons and other institutions. The women concerned do not mean to say that that’s what your typical trans woman is like, they mean to say that this law, if badly implemented, will open the door to such abusers. The danger is also present for trans women – a disturbed and predatory male could just as easily use the situation to crash in on a transwomen’s support group as they could to follow an ex-girlfriend into a women’s refuge, or indeed find and harm a transwoman in a women’s refuge.
I’m told this is becoming a generational issue within the sex/gender debate – that it’s mostly the older women who see potential problems brewing – well, maybe it’s co-incidence that I’ve met women of all ages who (privately) have concerns. I can see that many radical younger women are telling us we’re being old fashioned. I admit I’m in the older camp but I am not going to be told that I’m too old to understand. I suspect that the importance of maintaining women’s spaces, bursaries and other provisions for natal women becomes much clearer as you get further down life’s path, and experience the full range of obstacles that society puts in front of those of the child-bearing persuasion, whether they actually have children or not. It’s true that we are not understanding each other here, but that is surely because we haven’t talked enough yet.
And here I am adding to all this wordiness online because real, face-to-face debate is being choked off in our political and social organizations by language gerrymandering and politically motivated accusations of ‘isms’ and ‘phobias’. And then the drama: in the sex/gender debate it appears to be because the gay community see the issue as a call to re-fight the battle for gay rights, and they are coming in all passionate and accusatory. We need to calm down, we need to talk and, judging by recent events at Hyde Park for example, we need to be quite brave in order to do so…
Confrontation versus conversation
There are times when sassy press releases, adversarial tactics and noisy activism are necessary – generally when people who don’t have the money to hire a PR company wish to be noticed by an organization that does. I will be in front of a railway station this evening, doing dramatic banner-waving and other activisty things at a company that’s bullying its workers.
There are times when non-adversarial conversation is necessary. (Remember, debate and conversation are not the same thing). Such as when policy is being formed that treats personal issues and complex ideas – things that can hurt people.
Recently, it seems to me, it has got so difficult for ordinary people to get any purchase on our government or any other big organizations, that we’ve come to assume that shouting, banner waving and even street-fights are the first tactic to deploy when anything affects us, even if it’s a clash of interests between ordinary, non-privileged people. This, my brothers and sisters, is downright bullying, not brave activism. We need to remember which tools to use in which situations.
This is the beginning of a campaign for freedom of speech
For now, we have a powerful Israeli lobby using smear tactics and social media trawls to ‘defend Israel’ (from political debate), we have professional politicians using latent racism, sexism and Islamophobia to add emotional punch to their weak arguments and social groups using anti-corporation street-tactics on their fellows – meanwhile, presumably, individual people continue to suffer from racism, sexism and all the rest of it and unless they are as brave and experienced as Dianne Abbott is, they’ll just sit at home worrying, as the victims of bullying have always done.
We don’t just need one hasty conversation in a corner, we need events, articles, talks, debates, we need lots of that until everyone understands what’s going down in all these areas of policy – and we need a lot of brave people to organize those conversations in the face of a chorus of shrieks about transphobia, or TERFism, or anti-semitism or sexism or racism or whatever, and we need to help those who fear speaking, have a bit of empathy with people stumbling, developing ideas – even when mistakes are made, and we need to be really, really careful that we are having the debates we want and need to have, not the ones dictated by political distractors and manipulators.
Just think, how serious a problem is antisemitism in this country, at this time? Sure, it needs watching. Sure, violence and thuggery must be jumped on immediately but — compared, say, to racism, women’s issues, Islamophobia, classism or the slandering of the poor by the super-rich? And how much time do our politicians and media commentators ask us to spend on each?
I suggest that most politicians and commentators are just doing what’s easy and low-risk to them, or what’s useful to them. Addressing issues that really are sensitive or potentially dangerous is just too much bother. Please don’t shout at those who are actually trying to have the difficult – that is, important and necessary – conversations.
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