On being ‘Opinionated’ and ‘Contrary’

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A few weeks ago I read and was struck by a Counterpunch blog by Missy Comley Beattie called ‘I’m Obnoxious’. I was struck by it because I recognised myself as someone too “incompetent to do anything except express frustration with such intensity I’ve become un-fun”. I too have had the internal discussion, telling myself to just let it go for once, just shut up.

The piece has been in my mind again over the past couple of weeks owing to a couple of chats I’ve had with friends and some interactions I’ve seen online. The chats seemed to stem from my recent blog about e-petitions which really riled some people: a friend who shared it on his Facebook was told “shame on you!” for doing so. Many seemed to take the piece as a bad-natured attack on the good intentions of people who perhaps weren’t particularly engaged with the world – the line of reasoning that e-petitions ‘raise awareness’ was certainly the most common rejoinder. The fact that I explicitly didn’t attack e-petitions as a concept in themselves but rather the way in which they are most commonly used was completely lost but, I wondered, was that due to my tone?

Following from this, the chats with some friends were strange and uncomfortable. I was told that it wasn’t ‘my place’ to ‘correct people’, that it seemed like I had a chip on my shoulder, that I was too contrary, too opinionated. I had to ‘respect’ that people had different experiences and journeys and learned in different ways. The natural instinct when faced with this is, of course, to become defensive and shut down, which I was conscious of and tried to avoid (I failed). I’ve thought a lot since about what was said, however, because it really gets to the core of a lot of the things I’ve been writing about for the past couple of years.

I’ve written, for example, about relationships being spaces where “we seek to see our own version of our identity reflected back at us”, a kind of narcissism where we make no effort to develop empathy. Make no mistake, empathy clearly isn’t necessarily something that comes naturally to us – it’s something we practice and it’s arguably in decline. It’s easy to go from this to speaking about the rightward drift of politics in the Western world but here I’m interested in how this manifests in small, daily ways. Empathy isn’t just about feeling compassion for those less fortunate than yourself, it’s also respecting others as equals. I don’t even mean people in Uganda or Russia here, though clearly that’s relevant – I just mean the people you interact with on a daily basis. Part of that respect is surely feeling able to debate and challenge in the understanding that each has something to offer?

Now, believe me, I completely understand and still fall victim to the impulse to want to ‘win’ a debate when challenged. Indeed a big part of the reason why I’ve written about this stuff so much is that I recognise myself from a few years ago as one of those people who had the ‘right’ opinions and enjoyed the approval of peers for frequently voicing them. Yet as soon as I started moving away from this (kicked off by the Johann Hari plagiarism business and the responses to the London riots) the response was furious and fascinating. Terry Pratchett once wrote that:

People like to be told what they already know.  Remember that.  They get uncomfortable when you tell them new things.  New things…well, new things aren’t what they expect.  They like to know that, say, a dog will bite a man.  That is what dogs do.  They don’t want to know that a man bites a dog, because the world is not supposed to happen like that.

That sounds arrogant, I know, but I don’t take ‘new things’ to mean that you are blowing the mind of the sheeple with your FACTS. Rather it just means having thoughts and opinions which go against the dominant and expected – and in the past few years, I’ve seen time and time again that many people really do not like it when this happens. Hence my interest when I discovered Sara Ahmed’s concept of ‘bad feeling‘ where anyone ‘out of line with an affective community’ is pathologised and alienated. The problem becomes them rather than anything they are saying.

Of course, tone is relevant and it’s all too easy to come across as arrogant and superior. On the other hand, however, we feel little concern for this when arguing about popular culture. We’ll happily insult each other’s taste in music, films, books and argue to the bitter end about them. We as a culture have little problem with mocking and belittling celebrities whom we perceive to be there ‘for us’.  Yet this is all done with a safe, ironic distance where we don’t really think what we’re saying is important. Once we’re onto ‘serious’ topics like politics, this goes out the window.

Instead it is replaced with a very odd dynamic where we feel absolutely entitled to our opinions and to enjoy the approval and validation which can come from expressing them, but are unwilling to have them seriously challenged. This is particularly noticeable on social media where people will write indignant statuses about Vladmir Putin or whatever, rack up the ‘likes’ ‘retweets’ and approving comments, and woe betide anyone who breaks the consensus. It’s perceived to be better to keep quiet than to challenge any of these opinions, as they are almost viewed as being the essential ‘core’ of the person expressing them. This is even true if the opinion contains flatly incorrect statements. The response to having these challenged is never ‘perhaps I should read more about this’, it’s always ‘this person is a dick for pointing this out’. This has been one of the core impulses at the bottom of the ‘rows’ over intersectionality, with the challenged frequently resorting to claiming that they are being ‘bullied’. The idea is that the people challenging them don’t really care about the issue at hand but instead just want to prove their superiority.

Social media is obviously a particular example because so much social context is missing that it’s a lot easier for an exchange to become adversarial. Yet the ‘real life’ contexts where we feel able to debate these things shrink ever further, as avoiding ‘serious’ subjects becomes expected of you not only at work but increasingly in social interactions. So many of us vent on social media – and that is surely why it matters that we feel able to challenge, debate, even argue? Is it really the end of the world if that happens? If we can try to remove our ego from the equation as much as possible, this seems to be one of the only ways we are ever going to progress in our understanding of the world. As we progress, we then think of different ways of expressing ourselves. We don’t have to have strident opinions on everything – instead we can seek out informed opinions on those things we know little about. For all the talk of me being opinionated etc, I do my utmost to avoid spouting off about things I know nothing about. You won’t have found me telling everyone what I think about the situation in Ukraine over the past few weeks, for example. Instead I’ve just been reading as much about it as I can. This urge to speak about everything is one of my big problems with the commentariat and also where much of my ‘contrariness’ comes from. I write because it helps me think things through (and yes, I largely enjoy sharing that work with people afterwards) so I tend to see no point in writing variations on dominant themes, even though this would be a much easier way to an audience. There are enough people out there writing good things on issues they know far more about than I do so, in the end, my blog is always a personal one. My tone is perhaps more belligerent than necessary a lot of the time but I think that’s partly a response to my experiences described above, where people really have responded with fury to me changing my mind about certain things. Perhaps you do internalise this and make it a part of your identity to head it off. I’ve lost friends over it and am well aware that I’m perceived by many to be a bit of an over-opinionated bitter dick. But I’m trying. I don’t want to ever reach a position where I feel that I know everything and don’t need to keep pushing myself forward. However bad it may sometimes feel, I want to keep being challenged and keep being reminded that I am not my opinions which, in the end, really don’t matter all that much. So I apologise if I know you and you ever feel like I’m being superior with you.  Akala put it best in the brilliant Find No Enemy:

It may sound like I’m bitter but in fact, truth be told, I am quite the opposite
I wake everyday and am overwhelmed
Just to be alive and be like no one else
And the sheer weight of the thought of space
Is enough to keep my little ego in place
All that we chase and try to replace all along it was right in our face
The only way we can ever change anything
Is to look in the mirror and find no enemy

2013: The Year the Social Media Dam Broke

This article was sent to me by @wotyougot and feeds into some things I’d been mulling over re: social media and television/films for a while. It shouldn’t seem like a particular insight to say that social media is having a big effect on the way we watch things but, in this age of cultural poptimism, it’s a statement which many will take instant umbrage with. For these people social media can only be a force for good and the kids (ie us, vicariously) are alright. It’s surely difficult to argue, however, that the live-tweeting of a show like Question Time is about much more than affirming your self-image and chasing the buzz of a retweet. I speak as someone who used to do it and understands the pleasure of having a pithy comment about that week’s reactionary panel member shared far and wide. It’s a long way from actually being about politics.

This piece speaks about the ‘social media buzz’ behind many of the most popular current shows and I think a large part of what it’s getting at is that the impulses which drive #BBCQT live-tweeting are now to be fond across television. In short, we reward shows which affirm our self-image. If this doesn’t require much effort on our part and lends itself to pithy social media updates, all the better. Question Time’s facile presentation of politics clearly fits this criteria, as we already know what we think and what the ‘right’ things to say are in order to receive validation. ‘Reality tv’ in general fits the bill, whether that be The Voice, Celebrity Big Brother or Ru Paul’s Drag Race. These shows make no real demands on our attention or even our thinking: they offer quick reward for minimal engagement. It’s arguable that the next step beyond this is the recent trend for verisimilitude, the appearance of reality, in shows like Girls and Looking. These shows offer idyllic reflections of their target audiences – that’s you on screen but you’re funnier, more profound and more attractive. Even the conflict, breakdowns and drama in these shows is an Instagram-filtered gentle masochism which never threatens to disrupt our projections.

Looking is a step beyond even Girls in these regards – its sole creative impulse appears to be this reflection, whether that be gay men of a certain class or a liberal audience who implicitly feel that they deserve cookies for watching a show about gays. I thought that the latter was very evident in responses to Weekend, the previous film from Andrew Haigh (director of Looking), though viewing figures for Looking suggest that its efforts to replicate this on television are falling flat. It’s not surprising, really – having your liberal self-image confirmed in a 90 minute film is one thing but an eight-hour tv show has to offer you something more. Looking fails spectacularly in this regard, being almost entirely free of both straight characters and female characters. It’s notable, however, that its main character is a video game-playing geek, as perhaps the most obvious examples of the trends I’m speaking of are the shows aimed at self-identified ‘geeks’ (Sherlock, Game of Thrones, Doctor Who). Looking is actually being rather clever in drawing upon the increasing dominance of the ‘geek’ in gay culture but the portrayal is too particular to flatter a general audience.

We can similarly speculate as to whether a wide current audience would care to watch a long television series about slavery featuring a predominantly black cast. Would this offer the same convenient affirmations which people have been finding in 12 Years A Slave? Over the past few weeks I’ve noted that people feel compelled to take to social media and inform everyone of how affected they were by this film, more than any other I can previously recall. It doesn’t require much thought to see how this fits into the trends I’m discussing here. The Brad Pitt character is a personification of the film’s appeal for many ‘liberal’ viewers and the emotional affectation which has so often been following viewings is a performance of self-image. The film is instrumentalised to show how humane and liberal we are. Then it’s onto the next thing.

As the Flavorwire piece notes, if a show acquires a ‘buzz’ it can get away with being a bit slower and more interesting. There’s a clear lineage of shows like The Sopranos, The Wire and Breaking Bad which are too sprawling to be easily compartmentalised but which became totemic of being a certain kind of person (it’s no coincidence that The Guardian has been a vocal supporter of them). It’s easy, then, to congratulate ourselves for watching ‘difficult’ shows but it’s certainly more difficult for ones which don’t offer facile affirmation to garner wider attention. This occurred to me while watching Rectify over Christmas. While garnering massive critical acclaim, it’s a show which is still largely-unheard of and it’s easy to see why: it’s slow and virtually impenetrable for a ‘social media viewer’, offering almost zero hooks in that regard. All it can hope for in terms of achieving wider attention, then, is to reach a certain critical mass (pun intended) where viewing it becomes a potent signifier.

It’s worth briefly noting here that this trend doesn’t only work in terms of liking something. The ‘Twitter hateathon’ which accompanies Sherlock these days is emblematic of the process working in a different way, where despising a show confirms your self-image. This is not to say that Sherlock isn’t worthy of critique but that is something far-removed from deliberately tuning in to live-tweet 90 minutes of snark.

Social media hasn’t invented the impulses which lie behind all of this, of course. It has merely, as this piece notes, accelerated and cemented them, drawing them out of more and more of us. I noted at the end of my piece on Question Time that the “series of experiences and moments of rethinking and reflection” written about by Antony Lerman offered an inspiring riposte to the social media-isation of critical engagement. Clearly there is no small irony in writing about that on Tumblr, yet it remains something to heed. Television and film have a massive amount of value to offer us and, on the whole, that value is not GIF-able.

2013: The Year the Social Media Dam Broke

Farewell, then, Ben Summerskill. We barely knew you. Can it be a coincidence that his departure came only a week after I blogged about the “self-serving and ultimately pointless” Stonewall Workplace Equality Index? Who can say? What I can say is that he name searches and as a result tweeted me to accuse me of ‘bullying’ as a result of my repeated criticisms of the organisation, which is a bit silly.

Some of my other blogs about Stonewall and its brand of politics:

Whatever good it may once have done I think Stonewall has become a largely useless organisation (I mean, its latest campaign needs no comment from me) which lends its services to the murky practice of pinkwashing dubious companies and organisations. There is much worth reading out there about its terrible record on transgender equality, while some have already noted its terrible boldness in claiming marriage equality as its own given that it was a very late convert to the cause.

This great piece touches on many of the current problems with ‘gay politics’. Ostensibly a look at a book which claims to ‘de-mythologise’ Matthew Shepard, it manages to be wide-ranging in its critique. The lede (“Many of us have a habit of being overly credulous to stories that flatter our biases”) is a succinct skewering of the banal clicktivism which passes for much current gay politics, with its endless e-petitions and inaccurate memes. Its questioning of why so many need Matthew Shepard to have been an ‘innocent’ in every possible sense (rather than a rounded human being who was the victim of an awful crime) is also highly relevant. I think this mentality in part feeds into why gay politics is so terrible when it comes to, for example, issues of immigration or why there is tunnel vision on Russia’s treatment of its LGBT citizens and not other marginalised groups.’Gay identity’ must be essentialised and presented as ‘pre-politics’ so that any perceived attack on it can be portrayed as an attack on ‘innocents’. Issues of immigration, sex work, drug use or even foundational questions of social justice are seen as post-politics: they are messy, complicated and open to debate because the ‘victims’ are not innocent but rather viewed as partly complicit. This also offers much to our understanding of why groups like Stonewall have had almost nothing to say about Chelsea Manning, who is seen to be targeted for her actions in leaking information rather than for being LGBT and so unworthy of attention. This piece interestingly presents this as a pathology of the wider left:

However well intentioned, the urge to treat Matthew Shepard as a blameless angel demonstrates so many of the pathologies in contemporary social liberalism. First is the left’s attraction to heroes and martyrs — a drive to personalize and individualize every issue, in a way that seems to directly cut against the theoretical commitment to identifying structural causes for social problems…

This seems very compelling to me and I’d extend it to include an attraction to villains and victims. Witness the endless Daily Mail-bating and the trend in current feminism to take endless photos of sexist products on supermarket shelves. These are big, complex structural issues reduced to us and them, and the ‘goodies’ tend to be the victims. Rather than argue for systemic change or a social justice which encompasses everyone we increasingly seem to focus on the ways in which we as good, deserving individuals are targeted by the bad guys – a mentality which surely ultimately leads to a cul de sac?

I’m not so lacking in self-awareness that I ignore the piece’s references to a :

proud, self-aggrandizing radicalism…the superior virtue of a radicalism that…had little personal investment, little risk. 

It is of course always important to acknowledge the value of incremental, practical gains. It’s also important to recognise, acknowledge and interrogate your own privilege, one which in my case allows me the luxury of exploring these issues in a blog without facing persecution or violence for it. In terms of LGBT politics this is particularly the case in the US, which clearly lags behind much of Europe in terms of LGBT rights. For all my issues with Macklemore and Same Love (and indeed with the gay marriage movement) for example, I can still acknowledge that it was quite a major deal for an American staple like the Grammys to prominently feature same-sex marriage. Crucially, however, this does not mean that any of this should be beyond critique. Many of the criticisms of Stonewall and wider gay politics could be met with ‘but they’re doing something good!’, an assertion which has the ring of a truism about it yet contains multitudes in terms of unchallenged ideologies and assumptions. We cannot allow critical thought to (further) be eroded by the oppressively banal ‘cult of positivity’ which, in guises such as twee/cupcake fascism, seeks to drain the politics (the conflict) from daily life and replace it with a reactionary detachment and ‘niceness’.

This takes me back to Stonewall and how criticism of its work is framed as ‘bullying’. This riposte hinges on the ‘fact’ that it’s doing ‘nice things’ and so should be beyond reproach (an argument which was also made to me re: Ben Cohen). But this presents politics as a zero sum game where people and actions can only ever be ‘good’ or bad’ and where the politics of the ‘goodies’ is all that can be seen to exist. This is not the case. Interrogating these assumptions can help us understand the ideology behind them; they can help us understand our world in a deeper, more critical sense. In this way we can begin to see that our activism is not inherently good and we are not heroes for engaging in it. Indeed, sometimes our well-intentioned activism can be harmful and sometimes it can rest on mistaken assumptions about people which come from the blindness of our own privileges. Rather than seeking to further mystify this by presenting critics as ‘baddies’ who need to be shut up, we should be open to it and the insights it can offer. We should celebrate it, even. Critique is not the enemy of action:  our politics can encompass both and it’s necessary that they complement each other.

Ben Summerskill steps down as Stonewall boss

The Stonewall Workplace Equality Index – Because Awful Companies Like Gays Too

Another year brings with it another edition of the Stonewall Workplace Equality Index, which professes to detail “Britain’s top gay-friendly employers”. According to Ben Summerskill’s foreward:

Research shows that lesbian, gay and bisexual employees are more productive, creative, loyal and successful when they have the confidence, support and security to truly be themselves at work.

I’m sure that’s true but unfortunately my commie leanings don’t tend to go down too well with my boss. ‘Being yourself’ at work is a rather broad philosophical point, particularly in the age of emotional labour where you’re actively encouraged to “‘be yourself’ at work”(albeit an apolitical, idyllically submissive version of yourself). This fits right in with how Stonewall frame their Index as a service to capital and exclude all considerations other than “efforts to create inclusive workplaces for lesbian, gay and bisexual employees” (sucks to be you, transsexual people!) The section on LGB Community Engagement notes that “LGB people are also consumers and service users, representing a market estimated to be worth £70–81 billion per year in Britain alone.” There’s money in them hills! So the Home Office may, for example, have an utterly dire record on immigration re: gay people and Barclays may be the biggest UK investors in the arms trade which provides weapons to regimes like Saudi Arabia and Russia, but they are nice to their LGB employees! Whoo! Hilariously, we’re told that “Stonewall set additional criteria for global employers, to recognise support for LGB employees worldwide.” We can widen the scope a little but only to folk sitting in your offices.

Apparently you also get points for promoting ”commitment to LGB equality to the wider community” and “working with your suppliers on sexual orientation equality.” This ‘equality’, clearly, is very narrowly defined. The examples above just focus on the wider implications for LGB people of certain organisations – if we extend this to human rights and social justice generally the list becomes even more problematic. Goldman Sachs may be commonly described as “the most evil corporation in the world” and a “great vampire squid” but as a gay person I’m encouraged to view it through one prism only: what’s in it for me? An insidious pragmatism is present, pushing the pervasive myth that morality and politics are not located within the workplace. Stonewall’s Index, then, serves much the same purpose as Corporate Social Responsibility programmes: it elides politics, discourages a wider critical engagement with organisations and presents an essentialist view of sexuality which is both pre- and apart from politics. From this perspective there is no contradiction in Stonewall praising a Home Office which pushes racist and homophobic immigration policies or a Barclays which invests in companies that sell arms to Uganda (and indeed operates there). We’re actively discouraged from even beginning to make those links and so instead we push on with our single-issue e-petitions.

This is what happens when liberation movements become parochial and self-absorbed. As they lose any analysis of where power lies in society and how it operates, battles around areas like sexuality, gender, race, geopolitics and economic justice come to be seen as disparate and unconnected. Once this is the case it’s very easy for the movements to be co-opted by those in power and end up providing a useful service to societies which remain patriarchal, racist and capitalist. Thus we end up with the LGB demand to be ‘allowed’ to be part of the military machine or to be granted ‘equal’ access to socially destructive companies like Goldman Sachs.

This is particularly egregious as the Index is so self-serving and ultimately pointless, even on its own terms. Companies have to apply to enter it. This is free but, we’re told, “The majority of entrants are members of Stonewall’s best practice employers’ programme, Diversity Champions”. Membership of this programme costs £2,500 or £4000 for global organisations. Every single member of Stonewall’s ‘directory of gay-friendly employers’ is a member of this. This tells us absolutely nothing about how the vast majority of people work (I work in an organisation of about 13 people and none of them give a toss about my sexuality). It does, however, provide a steady stream of income for Stonewall. My friend works for a global organisation who has applied to the Index every year for a few consecutive years. Despite being LGB-friendly to the point of having networks, social groups and regular events specifically for LGB staff, it’s never made the list. Instead, Stonewall keep coming up with recommendations for training and seminars – all of which cost money. While this goes on my gay friend merrily goes about his working life…and we continue to shrink ourselves to one-dimensional beings while allowing egregious organisations to benefit from it.

12 Years A Slave and racism in the UK

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I saw 12 Years A Slave a few months ago at the London Film Festival. I liked it well enough – it’s well-made, features some brilliant performances and proved engrossing. I wasn’t, however, as blown away by it as most of the American critics I’d read had been. I particularly found the claims that it was the ‘most brutal’ Hollywood film ever made to be quite odd: yes, it’s difficult to watch at times but the violence (which is rarely as extreme as much advance word would have it) is countered by a strong sentimentality. It was no surprise then that I found bell hooks’ take on it (“sentimental clap-trap”) to be compelling, if characteristically blunt.

As I left the cinema after seeing it, the sound of weeping echoed around the room. It’s certainly the most tear-inducing film I’ve ever seen in a public setting. What partly drove some of my own thoughts on it was the presence in the audience of some people whose response to the London riots had both angered and upset me. How, I wondered, did the racism portrayed in the film connect in their minds to the racism which played such a massive part in the riots and responses to them? Did it even connect at all?

I was reminded of this earlier this week while reading Hadley Freeman’s take on the film, specifically this observation:

Whenever a movie, documentary or otherwise, is made about a terrible historical atrocity – the Holocaust, genocide, slavery – the easiest approach for the filmmaker is to shock the audience while simultaneously making them feel good about themselves for being so different from those brutes from another era – validating all of their beliefs about the past (bad) and themselves (good.) But 12 Years a Slave is too brutal a film, and McQueen too clear-eyed a filmmaker, to do that.

I was completely bemused by this comment because I think it’s exactly what the film does. The ‘racists’ in the film are almost uniformly sociopaths, barely recognisable as human. The big exception is Benedict Cumberbatch as a ‘humane’ plantation owner – but viewers are pretty much invited to sympathise with him, to view him as a ‘good man’ because he treats his slaves with a modicum of dignity. In this way racism is individualised, portrayed as a consequence of how we act. This is most egregiously underlined with Brad Pitt’s cameo as (SPOILER) a carpenter whose intervention ultimately leads to Solomon Northup’s freedom. This is, of course, loyal to Northup’s autobiography but the decision to cast Pitt in the role, looking and sounding to all intents like some American Jesus Christ, is a major misstep. White viewers inevitably identify with him, we think “that’s what I would have done!”

If the film does indeed intend for us to think about racism as a deeply-embedded structure of inequality, of brutality, of human misery, it is a failure. The brilliance of the novel Alone in Berlin is that it makes us realise that most Nazis were just like us, rather than the caricatured visions of evil that we so readily imagine. To get ahead in Nazi Germany meant at the very least acquiescing to what was happening while being a ‘good’ person and opposing the Nazi regime meant almost certain misery and probably death. How many of us have that moral courage? I think it’s a very difficult and uncomfortable question to answer, if we’re honest with ourselves. 12 Years A Slave avoids this discomfort and I can’t imagine many viewers leaving the film wondering what their behaviour might have been had they been alive at that time, in those circumstances. The racism it depicts is both very obvious and very in the past.

If this offers comfort to me as a white (and liberal) viewer, it offers us nothing in terms of understanding racism as a force today. What seemed clear from the riots and was underlined yesterday by the Mark Duggan verdict (and the responses to it) is that many (most?) people in the UK have absolutely no understanding of racism as an endemic system where it’s not only the police force that is institutionally racist. The popular law tweeter Jack of Kent instantly responded to the verdict by tweeting “Hurrah for a jurisdiction where juries can come to verdicts which are unpopular” before engaging in some twisted point-scoring, portraying himself as the dispassionate and rational observer against a legion of over-emotional nitwits who had rushed to offence. This was about the law, not about race, a line taken by the police even as they lied and smeared after killing yet another black person and getting away with it. If the instinctive rush to defend the police is disturbing, meanwhile, the sense (also seen re: the riots) that many believe ‘thugs’ and ‘street criminals’ are less than human and deserve to be brutalised is downright terrifying. The police and many in the media know this – that’s why they have repeatedly tried to control the narrative and assert that Duggan was a ‘violent gang member’.

We as a country are in denial about race. We are so in denial that we actively shout-down those who dare to suggest that we might have a problem, at best portraying them as bitter and over-sensitive cranks and at worse hurling abuse at them. As a white man with a lot to learn I’ve still had plenty of the former when discussing racism – the latter seems largely reserved for the black commentators, who are perceived as ‘angry’ and ‘difficult’ from the off. Even amongst ‘liberal’ people, responses such as these (re: the last Lily Allen video) seem common:

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“I guess it’s just me who sees a person as a person, not as their skin colour first.” This is how I feel. Racism continues because it’s consistently brought up.” You get that? Racism is your fault, losers! Stop bringing it up! People are just people! It would be hysterical in its stupidity if it wasn’t so damaging and widespread. 

I noted in the Lily blog that I was seeing a lot of white gay men shouting down black women who were asserting that the video was racist. This sprung to mind again yesterday with the announcement by former footballer Thomas Hitzlsperger that he is gay. While this may be a positive move with regards to football, the hysteria it elicited was completely (but inevitably) overblown. So far, so standard, Where things became dumbfounding was when the Sun posted its morning front page online:

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The UK’s biggest newspaper apparently didn’t think the verdict on the police killing which sparked England’s biggest riots in generations, a verdict which had instantly aroused anger and fear of further riots, was front page news. More than that, they went with a front page contrasting the ‘brave’ white gay man with the ‘loser’ black one. The people behind The Sun knew exactly what they were doing here: they understood the racial tensions triggered by the Duggan verdict and they knew what message their front page sent in this context. Knowing that The Sun is a racist rag, we might not be surprised at this. Where things got incredible was when people started congratulating them on this move:

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The Guardian’s James Ball led the charge, joined by Charlie Brooker, Stuart McGurk and many others. It was like they were living in some alternate world where nothing much of note had happened that evening. Perversely, Ball and others then followed up with a chorus of sneers at anyone who thought Hitzlsperger’s coming out wasn’t ‘news’. Of course it was, they insisted – gay people are oppressed! And so by writing some patronising words about a gay man (after decades of poisonous, destructive homophobia) The Sun managed to push its vile racist message, that they don’t care about black people, without criticism. It’s a move which is testament to how far the UK has come with regards to homosexuality – what was once hated is now wheeled out as a diversion tactic. This is no surprise given the neutered self-obsession of the gay movement and its firm embedding within the neoliberal mainstream. Gay liberation and gay politics poses absolutely no threat to the wealthy interests The Sun acts as a front for – interests which are served well by our racist structures. Nonetheless, as night follows day you’ll find a white gay man drawing a comparison between gay people and black people. There are volumes of books that could be written about this facile and offensive comparison, which does a disservice both to the fight against homophobia and to anti-racism. Suffice to say that we’re not in danger of being stopped and searched because we’re gay and we’re certainly not about to be shot dead by the police any time soon.

In applauding The Sun people get to feel good about themselves. The whole Duggan affair offers no such balm and even threatens widely-held images not only of our country but of ourselves. And so it’s easier ignored. 12 Years A Slave might offer a visceral depiction of racism but ultimately it offers the same soothing balm and makes it easy to affirm our self-image as ‘good’ and ‘not racist’ people. As long as we keep buying into this and avoiding the reality of racism, the Mark Duggans of this world will keep paying the price.

Comic Relief, Charity and the Elision of Politics

Comic Relief is in the news today due to the imminent transmission of a long-delayed Panorama exposing some of its more dubious activities. Investing in the arms, alcohol and tobacco trades does indeed run so counter to CR’s stated aim of creating “a just world free from poverty” that it beggars belief; in a wider sense though, it’s fairly typical of the rarely-discussed contradictions found in the charity world. Panorama apparently touches on some of these, looking at the activities of other charities including Save the Children and Amnesty International. This particular section about the former organisation struck me:

The programme will also criticise Save the Children, alleging the charity has “self-censored” its criticism of the energy industry so as not to upset potential and existing corporate partners – something the charity denies. “The quest for money is beginning to destroy the mission,” Dominic Nutt, former head of news at Save the Children, told the programme. “Every year I would prepare a line, to go to the media, to criticise British Gas. Every year it would be quashed.”

The relationship between charities, corporate partners and major donors (wealthy individuals) is a complex and, to my mind, deeply problematic one. Much of the time of any charity fundraising department is taken up in wooing these companies and individuals. They are invited to special events, intimate meetings, wined and dined and generally treated as a class apart from the members of the public whose main contact with some of these charities is likely to be having tins or clipboards waved at them in the street. It may be strictly true to say, as the CEO of Save the Children does, that “It is simply wrong and misleading to suggest our silence can be bought.” That’s not, however, because there’s absolutely nothing in the claims that the mission is ‘compromised’ but rather because positioning your charity to be ‘acceptable’ to big money is seen as perfectly ‘natural’. An organisation like British Gas generally wouldn’t have to demand that a charity dropped unfavourable references to them because very few of them would ever venture there in the first place.

In this way the CSR – Corporate Social Responsibility – programmes of big companies and the charitable activities of wealthy individuals serve a far more insidious purpose than just making them ‘look good’. They actively discourage criticism from some of the organisations which should be at the forefront of scrutinising their actions. We may for example read about the activities of the ‘Big 4’ accountancy firms in aiding and abetting tax avoidance and other corporate misdemeanors but you’ll struggle to find a charity which links this to the issues they ostensibly work in – poverty, cuts to services, healthcare and research, international development and so on. This self-censorship is so internalised that it’s not even seen as a guilty secret – rather it’s viewed as ‘grown-up’ campaigning, the Realpolitik of charity work.

A perfect example (and one which has started to be picked up on in the past year) is the involvement of Gary Barlow with Children in Need (and indeed with other charities such as MENCAP.) The former “awards grants each year to organisations supporting disadvantaged children and young people in the UK” while the latter offers support ” to people with a learning disability and their families and carers”. It simply seems impossible for both organisations to separate their missions and values from Barlow’s tax avoidance and support for the Tories at the 2010 election. Both charities have found themselves more necessary than ever due to government cuts to services in recent years; MENCAP has even actively campaigned against government policies. It seems not only mendacious in the extreme but actually harmful to then present Barlow as an apolitical ‘good bloke’ doing his bit for charity. Doing his bit would be paying his taxes and being made to face the consequences of his political decisions.

We saw this too on last weekend’s X Factor where the judge’s panel, including Barlow, got misty-eyed watching a video about the work of Great Ormond Street and Together For Short Lives, both of which will benefit from the winner’s single. X Factor is incredibly calculated in the charities it selects each year, with children and/or the military tending to dominate because both ‘causes’ have the powerful effect of nullifying critical thought. This is particularly strange in the case of Great Ormond Street, where we’re encouraged to ‘dig deep’ to help the sick kiddies. The fact that GOSH is an NHS hospital and as such funded largely by taxes is completely elided. To do otherwise would be to face the unavoidable truth that government cuts and NHS policy have a direct impact on the care of the children we’re invited to coo over; more than that, it would make it seem utterly perverse that we could possibly think buying an X Factor single was the way to help the most vulnerable in society.

Everywhere, then, we find charity actively removing politics from the equation and instead presenting issues as solvable with more money and some polite e-petitions. This is perhaps most striking in the international aid sector where, as the brilliant The End of Poverty documentary makes clear, the role of global capitalism in perpetuating poverty and hunger is hidden from view and we’re instead presented with a continent which is just innately ‘broken’ and only fixable by following Western policies. So we had last Summer’s If campaign presenting e-petitions aimed at the G8 as the ‘solution’ to these issues while the governments in question continue to push neoliberal policies which ultimately harm the cause and maximise the positive publicity resulting from the ‘charitable’ shutting down of criticism.

We have to inject the politics back into charity and be far, far more critical. It’s simply too easy for people and organisations to cloak themselves in the warm blanket of ‘charity’, whether that be Ben Cohen or some naked rowers clearly gaining personally from their vague ‘charitable activities’ or multinationals and governments masking their misdeeds behind banal campaigns. Charities are not and could never be separate from politics – they are politics and we need to understand that the issues they address require political solutions rather than celebrity calendars, talent show singles and scraps from the tables of enormously wealthy financial organisations. If the Comic Relief revelations can open the door to this discussion, they couldn’t have come along soon enough.

Something Rotten: Mugabe’s Son, Tom Daley and Gay Identity

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We’ve seen before how quickly and widely misinformation can spread if it fits the right narrative. This is undoubtedly true in broad terms but I’ve tended to write about it with a particular, personal regard for LGBT issues. Because, truly, something is rotten in the state of Denmark. It seems increasingly unavoidable to me that the mainstream LGBT (for which read: overwhelmingly white gay male) ‘community’ is underpinned by a collective delusion based on a peculiar mix of victimhood and self-regard. Critical thought is notable by its absence. The Maria Miller and ‘hanged gay men in Iran’ memes went unchecked and were widely shared because they reflected these ‘values’. They assured us that we were oppressed. It’s noticeable that much of this comes from  gay people who are privileged in many other ways – intersectionality requires us to be aware not only of the many different ways in which people can be oppressed but, crucially, the ways in which we may oppress others. Where is the cachet in this? There is none and so it’s largely absent and, if raised, derided. Instead we face a seemingly endless parade of stories detailing how awful things are for us, with the truth being largely irrelevant. A story about a ‘teenage gay couple’ kicked out of McDonalds while ‘celebrating their anniversary’ went viral – it turned out they weren’t a couple, weren’t gay and weren’t even kicked out. Evidence of the awful homophobia faced by a waitress in America travelled around the world in hours – it now appears that it was a cruel hoax perpetrated by the waitress herself. The corrections to these stories are, of course, never shared with remotely the same zeal. Where’s the fun in truth if it doesn’t victimise us? Indeed, given that those of us living in the ‘democratic’ West face less and less problems due to our sexuality, there’s been a marked upswing in stories about how awful things are for gay people in other countries. Aside from serving the narrative these stories have the added bonus of being difficult to check. So there is little to no engagement with the people who actually live in these countries, little to no efforts made to listen to them and be led by them. Instead their oppressions become ours and we do with them what we like.

We saw this on Thursday when a ‘story’ about Robert Mugabe’s son being gay quickly spread across the internet. Despite originating on a website no-one had ever heard of, relying on suspiciously vague sources and being about a son who doesn’t actually exist, the report got as far as being reported on one of the main LGBT news sites in the UK (now altered to try and save their embarrassment.) People began to realize that the story was a hoax within the hour…yet even today I can still see it being shared. At a glance you can understand the appeal of the story – notorious homophobe has gay child. Karma! If you think about it, though, it’s actually a pretty twisted one. If it had turned out to be true you would imagine that life for the son would have been pretty difficult and there’s something rather perverse in celebrating homosexuality as a ‘punishment’. Yet this was irrelevant to the ‘lol gotcha!’ angle from which people were reporting it. Now, of course, the story has nothing to offer us and so the treatment of gay people in Zimbabwe will be forgotten until the next e-petition. As for discussion of wider issues in Zimbabwe – a non-starter.

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The concern with our own sexual identity rather than with the truth can also be seen today in the response to Tom Daley’s rather low-key assertion that he’s in a relationship with another man. Daley explained that he was motivated to speak out to correct misconceptions, stated that it shouldn’t be a big deal and went to pains to point out that he was still attracted to girls. This rather measured approach was almost immediately lost in a frenzy of ‘Tom Daley is gay!’, ‘Tom Daley is one of us!’  and ‘Tom Daley is so brave!’ hysteria. There was almost instant recourse to that favoured trope, the tormented gay kid, to emphasis the earth-shattering importance of the ‘announcement’. Daley’s concern with misrepresentation and his avoidance of labelling himself became irrelevant; indeed, while some have stated that he’s ‘come out’ as ‘bisexual’, others have dismissed this and claimed him as ‘gay’ (Pink News did and have since altered the headline). The crucial thing is that he’s no longer ‘Tom Daley, diver’ but rather ‘Tom Daley, LIKES MEN, IS BRAVE’. The need to align this calm announcement with the victim narrative is unsurprising but is instructive of the patronising and simplistic way in which we handle these matters. We can’t even grant teenagers the right to identify themselves (or, indeed, to not identify as anything). We can only deal in absolutes and, regardless of Daley’s wishes, he’s now a gay role model who can save other gays. His sexuality isn’t his any more – somebody think of the children!

What the hell is going on? We trample over facts with complete disregard and dehumanise anyone who ventures a sexual interest of any kind in their own sex, all to maintain the particular notions of sexuality which our identities rely on. How can this possibly be viewed as a good thing? Who exactly is it supposed to be helping? If we’re in the business of imagining kids who need saviours, it’s perfectly conceivable that someone struggling with their sexuality will be repelled by the strict, delineated identities which we deal in. You will be gay, it will be the core of your being and you will be a victim. This is what the transgressive defiance of Stonewall has transmuted into and it’s ugly. Rather than spending all of our time looking for homophobic bogeymen we should take the time to think about our own attitudes and the assumptions about sexuality which underpin them. As I’ve written before, the kind of world we speak of wanting seems to be one in which people can be whomever they want in terms of sexuality; our rhetoric and actions, however, completely contradict this and demands clear (and oppositional) identities. We can do better than this. We can be better than this. More and more it seems that the approach of Western gay politics is in many ways a barrier to ‘equality’.

EDIT – 12/12/13 An edit to include a particularly egregious illustration of the above from noted gay neocon Andrew Sullivan. Apparently Sullivan knows Tom Daley’s sexuality better than Tom himself does. Quite some feat! You can hardly get a better example of the dehumanizing that I wrote about than Sullivan’s hideous bet that “Daley will never have a sexual relationship with a woman again.” Placing bets on the future sexual activity of teenagers – doesn’t it make you proud?

Sullivan knows that Daley can’t possibly be attracted to women because saying so is a “a classic bridging mechanism” – one that he deployed too. Yes, Sullivan said he fancied women and men but didn’t really, so everyone else who says so is clearly lying. As arguments go that’s up there with the attacks on trans people which go ‘well I liked playing with dolls but I didn’t have to change my gender to do it!” It’s not just unsophisticated, it’s downright stupid.

Sullivan also wheels out that hoary old argument about how male bisexuality isn’t really a thing “because male sexuality is much cruder, simpler and more binary than female.”  Leaving aside the role of gay men like Sullivan in perpetuating this with their sneering demands that people ‘take sides’, his dire analysis that this state of affairs is “much more nature than nurture” completely neglects the role played by patriarchal society. I wrote a bit about that here but suffice to say, given that science has yet to provide any semblance of a clear ‘explanation’ for sexuality, I don’t have much faith that Sullivan has much of a foundation for his assertions beyond his own prejudices.

 As I wrote above – Daley’s sexuality isn’t his anymore and while Buzzfeed and HuffPo may trawl the internet for the inevitable homophobic responses, any sophisticated analysis has to take account of the unhelpful prejudices found in many gay people.