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Archive for the ‘Foundations’ Category

I’ve been thinking a lot about Antonio Gramsci lately. Hey, a guy’s got to have a hobby. If it makes you feel better, I’ve also been thinking about Britain’s Got Talent, where to find the last gold bricks on the Lego Harry Potter game and Beyonce’s nipple tassles, but will perhaps return to those another day.

In his Prison Notebooks, Gramsci analysed the history of the Risorgimento, the resurgence of the 19th Century which resulted in Italian unification under a capitalist model then, just a few decades later, the ascent of the very Fascists who had imprisoned him.  He noted that there was a strata of society he called organic intellectuals who performed a different function to the intelligentsia of academics and theorists. His example was the victorious faction within the Risorgimento called the Moderate Party, who served capitalism through a period of crisis and transition, by acting as its agents and deputies in organising the dominant hegemony – the prevailing cultural values that protect the economic status quo by shaping popular perceptions of what is “normal”, “inevitable” or “common sense” (the status quo) and what isn’t (any meaningful challenge to the status quo.)

These organic intellectuals were what we would now call progressives or liberals, speaking the rhetoric of concern and reform. They would wrongly think of themselves as being just like ordinary people. the representatives of the masses, even the voice of the masses, and this was crucial to their role. Genuinely believing they were doing the right thing, they would stifle and quash less privileged voices, preventing the emergence of alternative intellectual input from the ‘people-nation.’ (Gramsci famously believed that everyone is or can be an intellectual, whether one knows it or not.)

Organic intellectuals were genuinely well-intentioned, considering it an act of worthy charity to speak on behalf of the less eloquent and less privileged. They were not only intellectuals, they were political organisers, but drawn from a very narrow social demographic. They would be company bosses, rich farmers or entrepreneurs – “a real organic vanguard of the upper classes to which economically they belonged.”  Their influence was not directly upon the working classes, but upon their liberal admirers in the bourgeoisie, including teachers, writers and creators of popular culture who distribute the messages to the masses in turn.

Why the sudden interest in mid-period Marxist political theory Ally, I hear you ask? Well, back in the late 1920s, Gramsci could not have imagined a purer example of the organic intellectual class than the modern commentariat. In the early, optimistic days of the internet, I naively imagined that unfettered access to new media platforms would threaten the foundations of the organic intellectual. The new world of blogs and social media would shatter the portcullis keeping the hordes from the castle gates, new ideas, new voices would come flooding through. I underestimated the ingenuity of hegemony.  Rather than levelling the playing field between the elites and the masses, social media has simply provided whole new mechanisms for keeping the rabble in line.

This morning, Zoe Williams became the latest blue-chip liberal feminist to join the circling of wagons around the poor, oppressed national newspaper columnists and magazine editors. As you probably know, a powerful clique of intersectional feminists and trans activists have installed themselves as the playground bullies of Twitter, stealing the dinner money from delicate souls like Suzanne Moore, Helen Lewis and Caitlin Moran, who have nowhere to turn for support but their hundreds of thousands of followers, their national columns or their extensive circle of similarly prominent friends.

Apologies for the sarcasm, but the reality is that this is not a fair fight. Nor is it a debate about intersectionality, gender or privilege, because there has been very little engagement in those actual issues. What is happening is a concerted effort by the gatekeepers of feminist discourse to marginalise, pathologise and even intimidate into silence their own internal critics.

She who controls the past controls the future, as Orwell didn’t write, and for an example of how this works, see how the Moore-Burchill saga is now being written into history as having begun with Moore’s comments about Brazilian transsexuals, thus erasing her vicious and offensive tweets in response to being politely challenged. This entirely changes the story to one in which the columnist is the victim, rather than the instigator of the affair. Similarly, a passive-aggressive flounce from Twitter can generate waves of sympathy, notably from fellow /sister members of the elite Twitterati, who (understandably) sympathise with the experience of copping a timeline full of flak from angry detractors, and are quick to tweet about how sad it is that so-and-so has been bullied off Twitter to their vast followings.

This is not me taking sides. For what it is worth, I often disagree with the same groups of (mostly) young, angry intersectional feminists, and have had to devote days to fielding abuse, argument and insult when I’ve written something they don’t like. (I copped a sackful for my last blog, for starters.) It also looks to me like some of the anger is excessive and disproportionate or misguided at times. For example, I found the grief aimed at Helen Lewis over a recent New Statesman debate on feminism rather mystifying. That said, we’d be in a sorry state if there weren’t younger, more passionate voices hurling brickbats at the establishment in frustration at the world. If a few are ill-aimed, that is a small price to pay to avoid reactionary stasis.

It is more important to recognise when the anger and disagreement is coming from a place of good faith. It is perfectly reasonable to reject criticism, perfectly reasonable to block and ignore those who resort to personal abuse and insults, perfectly reasonable to argue back, and perfectly reasonable to quietly turn off Twitter for a break (indeed it is actively recommended.)  I don’t think it is reasonable to use one’s disproportionate profile and platforms to portray one’s critics as bullies or trolls, thereby absolving oneself of any obligation to engage with them.

Zoe Williams ends her article with something of a volte face, acknowledging the need for intersectional approaches and recognising reasons to challenge transphobia. But not before she has added to the celestial chorus of voices from above that have portrayed intersectional critics as a feral, irrational mob of bullies.

For all the talk of intersectionality, privilege, oppression and assorted other post-structural jargon, I can’t help feeling there are more established ways of understanding the dynamics at play. Organic intellectuals have a collective, mutual interest in maintaining their own stranglehold over culture, discourse and language, which sustains their position near the top of the status pyramid.  The collective outrage from much of the liberal-left over recent twitterstorms is, I think, not really about angry disagreement with the points being made and not really about personal abuse and insult. It mostly strikes me as a media elite showing collective affront at being challenged on their inalienable right to set the terms and limits of debate and discourse. What I find most discomfiting in all of this is the tendency of the commentariat to rush to each others’ defence on social media or in their national newspaper columns. If that is not the behaviour of a privileged elite closing ranks, it sure as hell looks like it.

Gramsci, smart old cookie that he was, anticipated all of this and even provided a solution for those who would presume to represent the downtrodden, the oppressed and the marginalised.

“If the relations between intellectuals and the people-nation, between leaders and led, is the result of an organic participation in which feelings and passion become understanding and thence knowledge… then and only then is the relation one of representation.”

Twitter, Facebook, online commenting and blogs have offered us an unprecedented opportunities for organic participation, in which feelings and passion can become understanding. When one withdraws from engagement, when one marginalises and diminishes one’s critics, and when one loses faith in the honesty of critics on our own side, then one loses the right to represent those critics.

That’s a hell of a price to pay for a placid timeline.

 

Note: Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks are available as a free PDF. So too is Roger Simon’s excellent reader Gramsci’s Political Thought

Note on the title, for anyone not Scottish and of a certain age. I grew up listening to this song, and have been waiting for an opportunity to use this joke for about 20 years)

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If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, does it really matter if it answers to the name of Jemima?

In the New Statesman this week, Laurie Penny furrows her brow into a familiar pattern.

In recent months, as I’ve travelled around the world giving talks about anti-capitalism and women’s rights, I’ve had the same conversation countless times: men telling me, “I’m not a feminist, I’m an equalist.” Or young women, explaining that despite believing in the right to equal pay for equal work, despite opposing sexual violence, despite believing in a woman’s right to every freedom men have enjoyed for centuries, they are not feminists. They are something else, something that’s very much like a feminist but doesn’t involve having to say the actual word.

It’s a point that recurs with metronomic regularity. Last year a Netmums survey found that only 14% of women respondents identified as feminists, sparking some gleeful celebrations on the reactionary right and no little soul-searching within the feminist movement. Every time a female pop star, celebrity or businesswoman tells an interviewer “I’m not a feminist but…” the debate begins again – does feminism have an image problem? Should it be rebranded? Should women who enjoy voting rights, reproductive freedoms and protection from discrimination and harassment be obliged to honour the feminist flag under which those freedoms were won? I really don’t understand why it matters.

The most crucial information in Laurie’s article, it seems to me, is that the young women she talked to believe in equal pay, opposing sexual violence and equal access to every freedom enjoyed by men.  In describing themselves as “equalists”, we can presume that her male interlocutors shared those beliefs. That’s good, isn’t it?  There are many women (and indeed men) who work tirelessly for social justice and human rights while eschewing the F-word, or at the very least consider such issues within their personal package of democratic and political engagement.

Feminism is an easy cloak to discard, and equally easy to adopt. Sarah Palin is a prominent member of Feminists For Life, an anti-abortion lobby group. Several Tory MPs declare themselves feminist while championing social and economic policies that are devastating domestic and sexual violence services. For over a decade the US, UK and allied governments have been using the language of feminism to justify wars of aggression, military strikes and drone attacks, with countless thousands of women among their innocent victims. On the High Street, a feminist marketing gloss has been sprayed over every variety of self-empowering hedonism and non-biodegradable consumer tat imaginable.  When evaluating the health of feminism, is it really a simple matter of the more the merrier?

Perhaps the most profound section of Laurie’s essay explains why she rejects labels like “equalist.”

 I have no interest in equality with men within a system of class and power that slowly squeezes the spirit out of most people unfortunate enough not to be born into wealth. I have no interest in settling for a few more places for women on the boards of big banks. I believe the world would be better served if we had no women in those boardrooms – and no men, either; not if they intend to continue to foist the debts run up by their recklessness on to the backs of poor women across the world.

Laurie is here positioning feminism firmly behind the barricades of radical politics. She is a feminist, not an equalist, precisely because she is socialist and anti-capitalist. Where does that leave those who advocate equal gender rights while supporting neoliberal free-market capitalism? Are they not really feminists, even if they opt to wear the badge? That would appear to be the implication. Personally I don’t identify as feminist, but don’t disagree with a word of the paragraph above. Where does that leave me?

As something of an aside, I am also suspicious myself of terms like “equalist” and “egalitarian” as alternatives to feminism. These terms have no agreed ideological basis, but to the best of my understanding they usually stem from a Panglossian faith in meritocracy, equal opportunities and a childishly liberal conception of free choice. There is no appreciation of the massive impacts of hegemony, social circumstances and cultural conditioning upon access to those opportunities and upon influencing those choices. Equalism is a call for everyone to play by the same rules, without acknowledging that there is no level playing field to begin with.

It seems to me that feminism cannot have it both ways. Either it is a radical movement for change that demands a fundamental overhaul of our political, social and economic structures or else it represents a vague, platitudinous commitment to equal opportunities for women. By the latter definition, we would expect a high proportion of the population to adopt the label. If it is the former, we must accept that the majority of people – by definition – are not political radicals, so will be unlikely to describe themselves thus.  If only one in seven women describes herself as a feminist, is that troubling, or exactly as things should be if feminism is doing its job in challenging the foundations of society?

This is certainly not a call for women or men to reject the flag of feminism, or for that matter to adopt it. I will continue to applaud and support those who fight for social justice and civil rights across the board, while doing my best to condemn and resist those who foster discrimination, inequality, hatred, exploitation or violence of all sorts. What descriptive labels they do or do not wear seem to me entirely irrelevant.

That said, there are obviously feminists to whom it does matter. I’ll sign off by asking any feminist readers – in a spirit of genuine inquiry because I would love to know – does it matter to you that most women do not adopt the label of feminism, and if so, why?

 

 

UPDATE (18/03/13, 11pm) Katherine Sacks-Jones has  just sent me a link to a recent article of hers on Labourlist which addresses just this question.  It gives maybe the strongest answer:

We need to be able to name these injustices and inequalities and the movement that unites us against them.

It rather echoes a good comment made below by jellypopblogger.

I can understand the point they both make. I can understand why movements against women’s oppression need a name, and I can understand why feminists want as many women as possible to be involved in that campaign.

But I think it is a slightly different point to the one that I was getting at. I wasn’t challenging the need for activism or the need for a movement called feminism, or for the need to get more people involved in it. I was more thinking about the great majority of the population who are not politically active, beyond voting occasionally and chatting to their friends online or off. I think it is important that those people believe in equal rights, believe in equality, believe in challenging violent cultures etc. I still think that it is rather less important that they describe themselves as feminists in doing so. So for example, I wouldn’t see any cause to celebrate if right wing Republican or Tory politicians and their millions of supporters start to call themselves feminists if their underlying beliefs don’t alter.

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Fifty years ago this week, Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, widely hailed as the foundation stone of second wave feminism. One hundred years ago the British Suffragette movement was at its radical peak, and June of this year will see the centenary of the martyrdom of Emily Davison at the Epsom Derby.  Such things are always arbitrary, but this seems a reasonable moment to join Ellie-Mae O’Hagan in celebrating feminism’s angrier flanks.

I’m really not much of a fan of Friedan’s tome and had some issues with Ellie’s article, but the core of her argument is a good one. “To put it bluntly,” she wrote, “a new feminism should not be afraid to piss people off.”

If a political movement for change is not pissing people off somewhere, it isn’t worth a wet fart. That said, just pissing someone off is never enough. To be effective, political activism needs to somehow threaten or disturb the very structures and mechanisms of society, and those are always fiercely guarded. Ellie-Mae O’Hagan, better known as an anti-capitalist and tax justice activist than as a feminist, perhaps gets this more readily than most. It is certainly difficult to even look at the cover of the new Sexy Feminist book with anything but derision or nausea. Whatever one’s feelings towards Caitlin Moran, it is hard to deny that if she really represented a threat to the established patriarchal order, she probably wouldn’t have become rich and famous through the largesse of Rupert Murdoch.

Moran and the Sexy Feminists are the latest incarnations of the feminism of personal transformation, a safely corralled, individualistic philosophy of self-fulfilment. There is nothing wrong with that, it is genuinely a good thing if people can be made to feel better about themselves, or simply entertained and amused, by gaining a stronger appreciation of how their gender has impacted upon their lives. Ironically perhaps, The Feminine Mystique could be described in the same way, albeit with fewer jokes and vajazzling tips. The historical importance of Friedan’s book is that the story didn’t end on the final page, but continued into the political realm with the creation of the National Organization of Women, the Women’s Strike for Equality and the National Women’s Political Caucus, all of which had a profound and lasting change on the world. The Feminine Mystique didn’t just make readers angry enough to want to change their lifestyles, but to change the very foundations of society.

By coincidence, the Good Men Project this week published an impassioned defence of angry feminism by Anne Theriault which raises a similar point. This section in particular captures my feelings perfectly:

“…anger can be a good way, sometimes the only way, to fuel change. Anger at injustice is often the spark that ignites political and social movements, and anger can keep you fighting the good fight even when all your other resources feel used up”

You may recall a certain article by Suzanne Moore which was republished recently and became notorious for the wrong reason, but that too covered the same ground. Although probably due more to a moving spotlight than a shifting agenda, angry feminism is right back in vogue.

There is an important difference, however, between the angry feminism of the 1960s and its descendant. Back then there were few statutory protections for women and discrimination was all but omnipresent, Women had few reproductive options and abortion rights, virtually no legal protection from spousal abuse and sexual violence or harassment and sexual choices were tightly constrained by custom and even criminal law. Those issues and many others presented tangible, specific battles for social justice to be fought and won.

The transition from second to third wave feminism is usually pinned to changing perceptions of gender and sexual identities in the era of academic postmodernism, but I don’t think it is coincidental that the ideological shift happened at almost exactly the same time as a practical, political shift in the goals of feminism. The criminalisation of rape within marriage in England in 1991 marked the removal of the final significant structural flagstone of patriarchy in British law. Since then, it seems to me, feminism has fought on three separate fronts. The first has been to protect some of those hard-won rights from reactionary backlash, as necessary. The second has been to challenge various forms of the sex industry and sexualised media. This has proved particularly difficult for feminism, not least because it pitted the rights of women to live free from the (supposed or alleged) harms of prostitution and pornography against the rights of other women to make a living from their own bodies as they choose, or create and enjoy erotic pleasures of their own choice.

But the final battle for feminism is the biggest and toughest of all. It is the battle to change individual attitudes, beliefs and behaviours.  The articles by O’Hagan, Theriault and Moore provide between them a long list of reasons for women to be angry: the continued prevalence of sexual and domestic violence, rape apologism, widespread sexism and misogyny, gender stereotyping and discrimination, all common in numerous manifestations in our own societies and around the world. It is striking, however, that they proposed not a single legal or structural demand between them.

In her piece on The Feminist Mystique for the New York Times, Stephanie Coontz asked why, after decades of progress, women’s strides towards equality in the US have halted or even reversed. Rather reductively, I think, she attributes it broadly to a failure of workplace culture and rights to keep pace with modern attitudes and lifestyles. Coontz fails to notice that in the UK, where the workplace rights she applauds remain stronger, we are seeing the precise same effects.

Changing a law that allows an employer to appoint a less qualified man over a more qualified woman is easy. Changing an attitude that leads an employer to perceive a man to be more qualified, or indeed an attitude that leads a woman to believe she is less deserving of a promotion or a pay rise than a man, is much, much harder. It doesn’t an Act of Parliament to change this – it takes a social shift over generations.

Progress is happening. This week the British media are consumed with the allegations of sexual harassment against senior Liberal Democrat Lord Rennard. It is notable that this scandal centres on questions of who in the party may have turned a blind eye to sexually predatory behaviour or covered it up. There is no suggestion from anywhere that his behaviour should or could have been considered acceptable or reasonable. Just a generation ago (indeed perhaps at the time it was alleged to have happened) such behaviour was broadly unremarkable in politics or anywhere else.  The national mood has changed.

I understand that feminists are angry about sexism, misogyny, discrimination and violence against women, indeed they should be, and I share their anger. I understand that many men (and women) are angry about society’s tolerance of violence against men and boys, the marginalisation and othering of male victims of domestic and sexual violence, discrimination against fathers in family courts and the social perception that men’s health and wellbeing, even men’s lives, are of incidental importance. I share that anger too.

Anger is not incompatible with compassion and empathy, it is often the product of them. Indeed, unless it is tempered with compassion and empathy, anger can easily be misdirected into fascism and hatred. When I despair of debates on gender (which is often) it is usually because those involved, on either or both sides, have found their anger but lost their compassion. That is a dangerous mix.

The reasons and the need for anger go way beyond issues of gender. Take a look at the world, or even your own little corner of it, take in the panoramic vista of injustice, inequality, abuse, violence and exploitation, and if you’re not angry then you’re not paying attention. We should all be angry with those who abuse, who assault, who exploit. Those who abuse, assault and exploit on an industrial scale should reap anger on an industrial scale.

Anger has changed the world before, for both better and worse and it doubtless will do so again. We should all be proud of our anger. It is our responsibility to ensure we use it well.

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For previous blogs on this topic, please click here and here.

It’s fair to say that I’ve found the reviews, critiques and comment pieces inspired by Hanna Rosin’s End of Men rather more thought provoking and educational than the book itself.

One of the first pieces to come out was in The Atlantic, where Chloe Angyal drew comparisons between Rosin’s argument and the lives portrayed in the much-hyped HBO series Girls.

“the anecdotal data, the experiential accounts of what it’s like to be a young American woman in this particular cultural moment where women are on top and men are “ending,” suggests that even if the statistics say that they’re winning, young women feel like losers. This year’s critically acclaimed new HBO series Girls, created by and starring Lena Dunham, takes that experience of floundering and lays it out for all to see. Dunham’s Hannah and her friends, despite their privilege, don’t feel like they’re running the world.”

I must confess this made me smile. It inadvertently (I presume) illuminates the irony at the very heart of the notion of privilege. One’s own privilege is, according to the classic metaphor, an invisible knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks – invisible not to others but to ourselves. Privilege doesn’t feel like privilege, it just feels like a natural state of being, the norm.

I’ve already explained my reasons for rejecting the theory of the End of Men, and I don’t for a moment believe that women are now the dominant or privileged gender. But it is worth pointing out that if they were, according to feminism or critical theory, this is exactly how it should feel. The girls in Girls don’t feel like they’re running the world but, get this, nor do the vast majority of men. I believe much of the anger directed towards feminism from the angry dudes of the internet boils down to the disconnect between a narrative that tells men they are privileged, and the lives being lived by those guys, which feels largely powerless. They don’t feel privileged, they feel like losers, they’re floundering, they don’t feel like they’re running the world. Hey ho.

In the weeks since Rosin’s book was released, a quite almighty stramash has erupted within feminist circles. You can’t have missed it, and I won’t reiterate the arguments here, but it began with Caitlin Moran and her statement that she ‘couldn’t give a shit’ about the all-white line-up of the cast of Girls. It has since spiralled into an angry, sprawling debate that orbits around issues of privilege and intersectionality.

Of the near-endless articles and blogs thrown up by the debate, the one I liked best was by Stavvers. She offers an analogy for the concept of intersectionality that is as good as anything I’ve read on the topic by a feminist.

“one can think about a four-way junction (or, as the Americans call it, an intersection). One road is not being male. Another road is not being white. Another road is not being able-bodied. The last road is not being cis. Now, if you stand in the middle of any one of these roads, you’re going to be dodging traffic. But if you stand right in the middle of the junction, you have cars coming at you from four ways, and you’re going to have to do a fuckload more dodging than you would have if you were just in one road.

I don’t know if that’s why it’s called intersectionality, but if not, it should be.”

I love the vividness of this analogy, but it doesn’t quite fit with how I understand society. I’d like to offer a slight twist that perhaps illustrates a key difference between my gender politics and those of Stavvers and many other feminists.

Stavvers describes her roads in negative terms (not being male, not being white etc) whereas the analogy works better for me if we think in terms of who we are, rather than who we are not. That is all I know.

I’m a white, straight , cisgendered, middle-class, able-bodied male. I cannot accurately know what it feels like to be anything else, but I know perfectly well how all those things do or do not impact upon my life.  I’d prefer to think of Stavvers’ traffic as all the various pieces of shit, large and small, that life throws our way simply for being who we are. If you’re a black, lesbian, disabled woman, yes, that shit is coming hurtling at you from all sides and however hard you try to avoid it, some of that shit is going to mess you up.

I know what it is like to be a pedestrian on the highway marked ‘white.’ It’s a breeze. The amount of shit-traffic heading my way down that road is all but zero. I could lay out a sleeping bag across the white lines in October, set my alarm clock for Spring and lie down to hibernate, safe in the knowledge that not one single car, truck or bus will squish my toes. Being white is a piece of piss. The same goes for the road marked “straight.” The same goes for being middle-class, able-bodied and cisgendered. All those things are just big old lonesome highways without so much as a trundling tractor to disturb the bliss. I should know, I’ve been walking those roads for 45 years.

Crucially, however, this isn’t exactly how it feels to be male. Not to me, and not to many other men either. Standing in the middle of the road marked ‘male’, I have to dodge loads of shit-traffic. Whizzing by on one side are the gender expectations, the demands to be a stoical, self-sacrificial breadwinner and provider, a sexual conqueror, all that old, stubborn heteronormative and patriarchal bollocks. Whooshing past on the other are the prejudices and assumptions about male aggression or violence, laziness, criminality, domestic and parental incompetence and all the rest. All around are the institutional shit-trucks sent by legal structures, education policies, health services, military traditions and more. Is the road marked ‘male’ busier and more difficult to traverse than the road marked ‘female’? I very much doubt it, but it doesn’t need to be, this is not a competition.  If you’re a woman and/or a feminist and you’re reading this and sneering, thinking “that stuff doesn’t sound too difficult to me, what’s your problem?” then congratulations – you’ve just entered the precise, privileged mind-set of every angry anti-feminist MRA dude on the internet. Of course you don’t see it – it’s not your road.

Personally, all that male shit-traffic is pretty easy for me to dodge. I’m not at a busy junction. I don’t have to worry about being caught on the blindside by a juggernaut hurtling down the White Road or the Straight Road, so I’ve mostly found it pretty easy to sidestep all that shit on the Male Highway. But if you’re a boy from a poor background in a poor neighbourhood at a poor school, you’re likely to find one vehicle marked “you’re stupid” racing at you in one direction while another marked “you’re lazy” arrives from the other, and bang, the result is often academic underachievement and a NEET future. If you’re a working class black lad then heaven help you. You’ve got one shit-truck marked “you’re trouble” and another marked “you’re a criminal” and another marked “you’re violent” and bang, unless you’re lucky you are another stop and search statistic or another reluctant conscript into gang culture.

Understanding intersectionality in those terms is very useful for me. It’s a great example of how we can apply feminist thinking to the male experience and male-specific problems. It doesn’t require one to sign up to either a feminist or an anti-feminist agenda and could fit comfortably with either. It gives me a sense of perspective on my own (fairly fortunate) place in society, why the world looks like it does to me, and crucially, why it might look entirely different to others who stand on a different intersection.

So it is useful in understanding where we are, but I think it is also useful in terms of where we would like to be. At a political level, we can ask what it is about our society that is sending so fucking much shit-traffic down some of the different roads – the disabled road, the  black road, the Muslim road, the women’s road and, yes, the men’s road too. We can not only ask how we can reorganise society so there is less shit on anyone’s road, we can also constantly ask ourselves whether our behaviour, our deeds or our words and language are sending a bit more unnecessary shit-traffic down someone else’s highway.

As my final word on Rosin’s The End of Men, I’d observe that the book does not describe an improving world. It describes a world where there is more shit-traffic than ever on women’s roads, and more shit-traffic than ever on men’s roads. When I wrote previously that the transformation of the workplace and domestic realm was not a victory for feminism but a victory for capitalism, this is precisely what I meant.  If we aspire to a better society, socially and economically, for men and women alike, then counting the vehicles on the various highways of shit might be a very good place to start.

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I had a lengthy chat with a producer from BBC Woman’s Hour the other day, about a feature they ran this morning on some men’s reluctance to identify as feminists. I missed out on the chance of a free BBC croissant in the end. This may have been partly down to my inconsiderate refusal to live in London like normal people, but in truth I think I lost her when I started channelling Nina Power on the reconstruction of feminism as a neoliberal capitalist accessory and the interchangeability of emancipation and consumption in the dominant discourse. With hindsight I should have stuck to the question of whether little girls can pee standing up.

The conversation did however give me pause to think about a fairly key question. I’m often told I am a feminist by others, in roughly equal measure as a compliment and an insult. I take it in the intended spirit either way. If others think I am a feminist so be it, but it is not how I define myself.  By coincidence, this morning also saw the launch of a new blog edited by Joseph Stashko, entitled Meninism, exploring the place of men in the movement. I had the honour of the first piece on there, in which I argue that the feminist trope “the patriarchy hurts men too” is not the solution to male-specific gender issues. The tl;dr version would be this: Even if patriarchy does hurt men too, that’s for men to realise and address; we can’t leave it to women and feminism to solve it for us.

Feminism is and should be a movement of women, for women and led by women. While any man can offer a voice of agreement, it is not for us to define the issues and prescribe the solutions. But with whom are we agreeing? Feminism is an impossibly diverse ideology, riven with internal argument and debate. To be a full participant in the movement, one needs to be able to take sides in those disputes. That puts a man in the impossible position of either telling half the feminists that you’re wrong and I know better, or else smiling and saying “well you both make very good points” like a liberal vicar trying to intervene in a pub fight.

If I’m forced to define my own politics, it would be in broad terms as a believer in social justice and human rights. From that perspective, I would have no qualms about telling a feminist that I think she is wrong about an issue. To take one example, there are many feminists who argue that there should be no prosecutions of women who make false allegations of rape. In my opinion, this is a patently unjust position, not from the perspective of feminism, but from the perspective of justice. A man who is grievously and maliciously wronged by such an act deserves redress, and others who may be so wronged deserve the protection of a legal deterrent. I can make that point more strongly and effectively if it is not prefaced by three little words ‘As a feminist…’ Indeed, I think a man who argues any point with those words is likely to find himself hoisted by the goolies, and probably deservedly so.

By identifying as a feminist, I would have a lot to lose, and little to gain. My stance does not preclude supporting feminists where I support their aims. For example, I wrote in support of the Slutwalk movement last year, not because I am a feminist, but because I agreed with the fundamental aims; I applauded their inclusive approach to men and trans people; and I admired the fusion of assertive female sexuality with demands for bodily autonomy and personal safety. I don’t need to define as a feminist to say that. On the contrary I’d like to think my words carry slightly more weight precisely because I do not.

Over the years I’ve been called feminist, pro-feminist and a ‘mangina’, I’ve been called anti-feminist and misogynist, and sometimes those allegations have all come in response to the same piece. Once there was a time when I cared about how my views were labelled by others, these days I mostly just eye them with curiosity. I’ll try to call the issues as I see them, and you can call me what you like. Deal?

UPDATE

By coincidence, the Good Men Project has also run a series this week on men’s place in feminism. There’s an awful lot of talk of transformational journeys and personal healing and the kind of thing that generally makes me reach for the sick-bowl. Sorry Tom, Hugo et al, but I don’t think the arena of gender politics is the best place to work through one’s personal demons and guilt. The series left me no more convinced about the value of the label “feminist”, and less convinced than ever about the label “good men” which is deeply problematic to me. One day I might come back to that.

But within the series, there’s a piece by GMP editor Noah Brand which is, I think, absolutely brilliant. Unlike me, Noah does identify as a feminist, but he does absolutely nail the point that feminism offers a lot to men, not just in terms of practical outcomes but in offering an intellectual toolbox to help us understand and analyse gender issues, and possibly even find some solutions. Go see.

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In the spring of 1979, the long battle for social justice and equality in the UK entered a dramatic new era. In electing Margaret Hilda Thatcher as Prime Minister, the British people served notice that gender was no longer an insurmountable barrier to attaining even the highest office. The ultimate glass ceiling had been breached and shattered, and for twelve long years the shards would rain painfully down on the poor, the working class and the vulnerable, leaving deep wounds which bleed to this day in our inner cities and the former industrial heartlands of Britain.

At the precise same time, five hundred miles from Downing Street, I was watching at close quarters as a very different battle for gender justice raged. I was a first year pupil at a large state school in the East of Scotland, a mixed-sex comprehensive which merely aspired to the standard of bog. As was typical of the time, each week our class was divided for a couple of hours. The girls would learn home economics (a euphemism for cookery and sewing) while the boys would take technical studies – metalwork, woodwork and technical drawing. I was ham-fisted and uninterested in the subject, then as now, and my lacklustre efforts to shape some dowelling rods into a wobbly mug rack must have been as frustrating and pointless for my unfortunate teachers as they were for me.  More than once I’d pondered whether it might be more useful for me to learn how to boil an egg

In my form class were a couple of pupils, aged 12 or 13, who took exception to the school rules. Aileen and Helen were very clever and quietly assertive. One day they decided that their education might be better served by the rudiments of engineering than the need to whip up a sponge cake or let down a petticoat hem. They lined up for a battle for equality, flanked by supportive parents and, crucially, the head of the technical department. Across those trenches were the head of home economics – an elderly, fearsome traditionalist called Miss Dyer, the headmaster and school council.

Aileen and Helen’s claim for gender rights went all the way to the local authority, and they won. That September they joined the boys in the workshops, the first two girls ever to study technical subjects at Perth High. They were not only bright and gifted with their hands, but of course they were highly motivated and, almost inevitably, they finished the year at the top of the class by some distance. Their mug racks probably still stand to this day, while I never did master a soft boiled egg. A year later, the rules changed and both boys and girls were finally provided with a genuinely comprehensive education.

I don’t think anyone in my class objected to or resented the girls’ victory. To me, and I think the vast majority of my peers, their demands were palpably, unarguably just and fair. As a female industrial chemist was taking charge of the country, how could it possibly be right that girls were excluded from any subject?

My generation was born and raised with women’s liberation in the air. Those crusty old men who resisted the tide were mocked and branded male chauvinist pigs. From an early age our teachers and, in many cases, our parents impressed upon us a certainty that girls could do anything boys can do – if not always vice versa. The battle fought by two young girls in my own class was being replicated in other schools, workplaces and households throughout the country and the developed world. Legislation for equal pay and equal opportunities was in place and beginning to take chunk after chunk out of historic inequalities. If anything seemed strange to me, it was not that women were demanding and achieving equal rights, it was that those rights had ever been denied in the first place.

Jumping forward about 30 years, I find myself writing about the trenches of a new gender war. It is for the most part a war of words not bullets. Others have used a similar metaphor to allege or describe the War Against Women or the War Against Boys, detailing the physical, political and social impacts of our gender disordered society, I do not subscribe to either case. Instead, the war I describe is the frontline of the debate, the angry, vitriolic volleys of argument, abuse and insults that provide the mood music to all discussion of men’s and women’s issues online.

Of course like all media, the internet thrives on conflict. Arguments about religion, politics, ethnicity or the environment can also spark impassioned dispute and some nasty name-calling, but gender debates stand out for the sheer animosity. The threads and blogs are not just politically charged; they are wildly emotional and deeply personal.

Some see this as the sparks from the dying embers of a patriarchal era, the last gasps of male chauvinism. I believe the phenomenon is new, and different. Most of the people involved seemed to be younger than me, born and raised in the era of equal rights. Susan Faludi’s epic feminist tome Backlash detailed the reactionary forces of the capitalist establishment which strive to keep women in their place, from the media to academia to big business. Those forces still exist, as a quick glance at the Daily Mail’s Sidebar of Shame will reveal, but these new voices are different. They are not, for the most part, the custodians of power and privilege stomping on uppity egalitarian rebels.

The cry from that side of these trenches is more a chorus of despair from (mostly) young men who feel disempowered, maligned and yes, perhaps, emasculated by the prevailing analysis of gender issues. On the other side are feminists who mostly find it laughable that any man could complain about his place in the gender pecking order when it is still overwhelmingly men who run our institutions, our corporations and our governments. At the salient peak of feminism, we have women using their expensive private schooling, Oxbridge degrees, national newspaper columns and Westminster lobby passes to decry the privilege of men, be they billionaire bankers or homeless street-drinkers.

It seems to me that something is often absent from these debates on both sides, and that is a willingness to view the battlefield from the other side. The hostile, accusatory tone of gender debates has led to many positions becoming defensive. The online wars become ever more entrenched. If we are to find a path out of the trenches, it will be on a map drawn with compassion and empathy.

I’m not the first to make this point, and if I am not standing on the shoulders of giants here, I’m at least treading on the toes of a few fellow travellers. Nonetheless I expect and indeed welcome plenty of disagreement with my positions from men and women, feminists and men’s rights activists alike. I’m not hoping or even attempting to fix the men’s movement, far less fix feminism. If readers take anything from this blog, I hope it is that amid the blogosphere’s myriad commands to check our privilege and check our facts, we make occasional effort to check our empathy too.

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