Brave Man: Rejecting ‘Allyship’.

No-one would have predicted that a Will Young video would inspire comment pieces at all, let alone in 2015. Yet Brave Man inspired two Guardian pieces in one day due to its depiction of a trans man, played by a trans male actor. As these pieces note, reaction to the video was mixed and it led to a (small) reignition of debate around the concept of ‘allies’ (the subject of Owen Jones’ column.) As a result, Paris Lees took to Twitter to praise some ‘trans allies’:

Untitled

This list was illuminating for all of the wrong reasons. Aside from overwhelmingly being made up of celebrities and ‘the commentariat’ (which I’ll come back to later), it implicitly suggested a particular definition of ‘trans’. It did not, for example, suggest that any trans people could be harmed by Islamophobia (see Cathy Newman’s lying about being ‘ushered out’ of a mosque), racism (Grace Dent’s appalling take on teenagers who join ISIS, suitably deconstructed here) or the use of AIDS and ‘tranny’ as casual punchlines. The inclusion of the managing editor of The Sun, renowned for its bigotry and extreme right-wing views, was particularly breathtaking but perhaps unsurprising as Lees writes for it. What the list seemed to represent, then, was less ‘allies of all trans people’ than ‘allies of trans people like Paris Lees and Paris Lees’. Indeed, Owen Jones was included in the list and returned the favour by liberally quoting Lees in his column defending allies:

Paris Lees is passionate about winning trans allies through the impressive awareness raising project All About Trans, and is irritated when there’s “a big backlash against anyone who tries to be an ally”. They should be given space to grow and educate themselves, she believes. But she puts the anger of many trans activists in an important context: “I don’t know of any trans people not deeply damaged by discrimination, and so there’s lots of angry people out there.” An ally will get it wrong and upset those they want to support. But the reaction surely is to listen and understand an anger that erupts from a toxic mixture of prejudice and marginalisation.

Jones is savvy enough to anticipate the pitfalls of defending the concept of ‘allyship’ in his opening paragraph, suggesting you may get accused of ‘drowning out’ minority voices or ‘making it about you’. Yet of course this is what the column does, with its lengthiest paragraph being about Jones’ previous experience of writing about trans rights. Someone who identifies as an ‘ally’ to trans people writing in defence of ‘trans allies’ can’t help but seem somewhat self-indulgent, especially when you’ve been criticised for e.g. sitting on a panel called ‘How To Be Happy And Transgender‘. Even Jack Monroe’s column is angled as a defence of the video from those criticising it.

Yet if someone trying to be an ally should, as Paris Lees suggests, ‘be given space to grow and educate themselves’, why approach criticism largely originating from other trans people as unwarranted and unhelpful? The framing of ‘ally’ here is quite a typical one: it suggests that people deserve props for ‘trying’ and for ‘speaking out’. This implies that there is some place we arrive at where we are ‘enlightened’, whether that be with regards to gender, sexuality, race, disability or whatever. There is no such place. Whomever we are, we are always engaged in an everyday battle to overcome the mental barriers of what bell hooks calls white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. We cannot escape this and, as hooks’ term underlines, we particular cannot escape the myriad of ways in which these oppressions interact and intersect

The concept of ‘allies’ largely negates this idea of constant struggle, replacing it with the risible notion that you deserve praise for ‘trying’ not to be racist or transphobic or sexist or homophobic. For me it lessens the complex humanity of those at the sharp end of these kinds of oppression and positions them as abstract groupings. They are presented as learning tools, as chances to show how ‘good’ you are (note Lees’ ‘who’ve gone out of their way to be friends to trans people’ as if it’s a project) and at its most cynical, as marketing opportunities. It’s notable that, in the LGBT world at least, the term is most commonly applied to the kind of people Paris Lees listed: celebrities and those in positions of some power. Take this recent Gay Times tweet:
Untitled

“A straight ally in every sense.” What does this even mean? It seems to boil down to ‘he says he thinks homophobia is bad, loves his gay fans and poses in his pants with a rainbow painted on his torso’. It’s absolutely nothing to do with oppression and everything to do with boosting his profile. In the process of celebrating this drivel, we are complicit in being patronised and erasing the many differences within our communities. Attitude gives an award called ‘Honorary Gay’ to straight people (who, if recent recipient Lorraine Kelly is anything to go by, merely say nice things about gays) while many lap up the self-serving ‘charity’ of Ben ‘gays love grooming’ Cohen or the Warwick Rowers with their UKIP supporting ‘leader’. It’s a neat bait and switch: having benefited (in varying degrees) from white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, ‘allies’ then elevate themselves again by feigning to oppose aspects of it in the most weak manner imaginable. Yet we see ‘allyship’ actually serving to reinforce aspects of this by policing the kind of ‘minority’ we’re supposed to (aspire to) be – e.g. as a gay man ‘allyship’ tells me that I am supposed to fit into white supremacist capitalist patriarchy as far as possible rather than challenge it. “Look, this rich and successful white man thinks gays should be able to get married – and you complain?!

Indeed, as we see in the columns about Brave Man, anyone who responds to ‘allyship’ with strong criticism quickly finds the limits of how much their voice is truly valued. They will inevitably be accused of being ‘cynical’, ‘ungrateful’, ‘unreasonable’, ‘angry’. The responses to Bahar Mustafa and the consent lessons at Warwick are prominent examples of people feeling attacked by having forms of oppression raised because they think they’re on the right side already. Celebrating ‘allyship’ does not lend itself to self-reflection or accepting criticism but instead places individual ego at the centre of social justice. When I wrote about the absurdity of Ben Cohen appearing on Newsnight to discuss homophobia, I was attacked by Antony Cotton (no  less) who seemed to think I should be grateful for Cohen’s ‘activism’. Any criticism is accepted entirely on the terms of the ‘ally’ and supporters.

The question at the heart of all this, then, is inevitably ‘ally to whom?’ To return to Paris Lees’ tweets as an example, many trans people are clearly excluded by those she deems as ‘allies’ (particularly trans poc). When Jones writes that “trans people are basically where gay people were in the 1980s” it doesn’t seem to occur to him that many queer people are still there in many ways. The recent OUTstanding list of business ‘allies’, meanwhile, includes such luminaries as the union-busting, tax-avoiding Richard Branson and a veritable horde of execs at morally dubious firms. These people are certainly not my allies by any stretch of the imagination yet, in ally discourse, I am supposed to celebrate them because they have LGBT networks, have diversity targets or enable people to put rainbows on their Facebook celebrating ‘equal marriage’ (which was only ‘equal’ for some).

Only a robust, intersectional approach which recognises our full humanity can counter this. Of course representation matters but to suggest, as Owen Jones does, that ‘solidarity’ = ‘building coalitions’ = “allies” is wrong. We have to reject the idea that ‘trying’ is worth either our gratitude or our celebration. We try because we are human and because we care about other humans, not because it’s an ostentatiously ‘good’ thing to do. We should always be able to criticise and always open to criticism. We should not be complicit in our own reduction: do not celebrate being patronised by celebrities, do not rejoice when media companies worth hundreds of millions ‘amplify our voices’ without paying us, do not award executives who make positive noises on equality while enabling industrial scale tax avoidance and helping arm dictators. The kind of ‘allyship’ which has entered the mainstream bears little relation to anything of true value. Rather it brings a host of problems and few benefits. I am not an ally.

A few thoughts on Paris Brown

Last year I wrote about the increasing authoritarianism which surrounds social media and has seen people arrested and even convicted for their words online. We’re seeing it again with  the current ‘storm’ around Paris Brown, which has gone viral on Twitter and has led to the great and the good of Twitter leaping to her defence. This intrigues me –  last year’s case of Azhar Ahmed, convicted for posting an ‘offensive’ message about British soldiers on Facebook, springs to mind as both are young and both landed in trouble due to ostensibly ‘private’ (ie they weren’t addressed to anyone in particular and weren’t ‘harassment’) messages they posted on social media.  Despite initially being charged over a year ago, a search on Ahmed’s name returns less than 1/9th of the Google results which a search on Brown’s does. Indeed, it’s safe to assume that most people will never even have heard of Ahmed and issues of race and the idiotic sanctification of the armed forces no doubt play a large part in that – many will be absolutely fine with him being arrested and convicted. Yet he was a private citizen making an ‘idiotic’ comment whereas Paris Brown came to our attention due to being the inaugural ‘Youth Crime Commissioner’, an odd job which apparently is intended “to reduce the gap between younger people and the authorities” and commands a salary of £15,000 a year. As someone who has actively applied for and obtained a public role (and the first such role in the country), it’s a no-brainer that she would attract scrutiny. So much so that it’s staggering that no-one seemed to consider that social media could have become an issue as some simple precautions (such as checking her tweets before appointment, making her account private or deleting it altogether) could probably have avoided this whole mess.

Does she deserve to be persecuted? Of course not. Nothing she wrote is anything more than idiotic. Yet I’d be very curious to see who leapt to her defence if her words were less banal brainfarts and more ‘offensive communications’ such as Ahmed’s. Cases such as the latter seem to arouse little ire when, to me, they are far more sinister than that of a newly-appointed public figure being found to have said some dumb things which relate to her new job.

Paris Brown seems an interesting choice for people like Owen Jones to be defending and it largely seems to be down to the fact that she has been ‘exposed’ by the Daily Mail – a point which most have fixated on. It’s a truism on Twitter that if you ‘offend’ a prominent left-leaning figure you are quickly deemed to be a ‘troll’ and you deserve everything you get; if it’s the Daily Mail (or The Telegraph and so on) who get up in arms, it’s absolutely fine. The eagerness to kick the Daily Mail seems to have led some to rather odd positions. Jones asserts that her future may be ruined due to her “behaving like a teenager” while Dorian Lynksey sums up her behaviour as “in short, she is a teenager”. Joanna Moorhead in The Guardian writes that she “did what every teenager in Britain does”. This is an absolutely bizarre argument, seeming to suggest that the Daily Mail took it upon themselves to comb Twitter for the ramblings of some random person rather than investigated someone who was suddenly (and voluntarily) very high-profile. Furthermore, the ‘they’re a teenager’ argument strikes me as ridiculously patronising. It’s been quite a while since I was a teenager but I’m fairly certain that most don’t refer to gay people as ‘faggots’ or assert that they become racist when they’re drunk. In fact most teens aren’t even on Twitter. Contrary to this ‘oh we’re all awful dickheads when we’re teenagers’ narrative, it would have been relatively easy for Kent to find a teenager without Brown’s baggage and while we can certainly understand the follies of youth, it’s absurd to imply that being a teenager necessarily means being homophobic or lacking self-awareness. Lynskey makes a comment, as I have before, that he’s glad Twitter wasn’t around when he was younger. Yet if I think back to when I was a teenager do I think I would have been tweeting heavily-loaded offensive terms? Would Lynskey have been? Do we think any of the journalists defending her would have been?

Funnily enough, last year one of those sympathetic to Brown had a very different take on a 17-year old tweeter. Graham Linehan noted in the case of “@Rileyy_69”, who was arrested for tweeting abuse (and a lame death threat) to Tom Daley:

As a symbol of free speech, Riley69 is not Lenny Bruce. He’s not even the EDL. He’s a teenager going through that thing a lot of teenagers go through where they seem unable to feel empathy. This kind of temporary sociopath can be very dangerous and using these new tools they can wreak havoc more efficiently than ever before.

He was all for Riley’s arrest – there was no ‘oh teenagers!’ on display here. Yet Riley69 wasn’t a public figure, just someone who had tweeted idiotic comments to a celebrity. If Tom Daley had quickly blocked him, almost no-one would have ever heard of him. Instead Daley alerted his followers and we ended up with people like Linehan defending Riley69’s arrest. The logic, then, that it’s simply awful to bring to light the casual homophobia/racism etc of a newly-pointed police figure but fine and dandy to arrest someone of the same age for their idiotic tweets seems rather…pained. It’s for this reason that I have zero doubt that, had Brown’s tweets not came to light via the Daily Mail but rather (say) through some left-wing blogger who presented them as highlighting her use of ‘faggots’, the response from many would be very different.

As I’ve made clear previously, I think the offence taken on Twitter tends to be overblown and nothing that blocking or a breather can’t fix. I think it should very rarely be an issue for the authorities. Sadly, the logic of people like Linehan and others who fixate on ‘trolls’ and use their profile to draw attention to people who offend them feeds directly into an atmosphere where everyone is ready to pounce on anyone who says the wrong thing. It’s really not that big of a leap from asserting that some rubbish insult is unacceptable and something must be done to the cases of Azhar Ahmed and Paris Brown. Everyone feels entitled to their outrage and this seems unlikely to change, requiring some self-awareness and caution when online. Unfortunately research is suggesting that we’re becoming less compassionate and empathetic and this is most pronounced in teenagers. We do, after all, live in an age of narcissism; of self-obsession; of reality tv and stars who are big on sassy put-downs and low on social engagement; of individual and ostentatious ‘creativity’ being seen as the highest goal to which we can aspire. Hell, perhaps a lot of this has to do with over 30 years of atomising neoliberalism and Paris Brown is neatly illustrating Thatcher’s Britain. Whatever the case, we should stop presenting it as inevitable that teens are going to embarrass themselves online and realise that it’s a tool which we all need the skills to use. We need to think about how and why we use social media. It’s certainly not only teenagers who use it to find, express and validate their identities and it can only be a good thing if we think more about who we are in a fundamental sense offline. In the meantime, things like this are only going to keep happening and things will never change unless we start wondering why.