Saturday, 27 August 2011

On learning not to be awful

Things I have achieved in the last few years:
  1. Going from being virtually incapable of conducting a phone conversation with anyone other than my mum, to being commended on my telephone manner, "striking the perfect balance between friendly approachability and professionalism".
  2. Learning some basic knitting facts the hard way (50g of DK cotton is going to go a lot further than 50g of wool/silk blend, and that cheap'n'chic cardie is going to be a lot more expensive if you forget this fact: YARDAGE, Hannah, yardage!).
  3. Learning, however slowly and imperfectly, not to be a transphobic dickhead.
Number 3. is clearly not something to be proud of: congratulating myself on treating people with respect as human beings would be pretty grotesquely insulting.

Neither is this some kind of self-flagellating intellectual delousing exercise, where I confess my sins and hope that you'll all welcome me back to the fold as a penitent sheep.

It is, rather, a message of hope.

In A Mind Of Its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives, Cordelia Fine presents evidence that, whether or not you subscribe to prejudices against marginalised groups, simply being aware of stereotypes allows them to be a factor in your thinking:
You may not personally think that women are nurturing, that black men are aggressive, or that Jews keep a tight grip on their wallets, but you can't pretend not to know that these are stereotypical traits of women, blacks and Jews ...
All the information about a certain group ... is closely intertwined in the brain. This means that if you use one bit of the schema - even just to be able to say 'Ah, an Asian' - then all the other parts of the Asian schema get restless. As a result, information in the Asian stereotype is more likely to be used by the brain.
Which is disheartening: WOE IS ME, I am cis and living in a transphobic society, and so have a brain full of negative prejudices regarding trans people! How ever am I to become good and clean and not a judgey bigot!

Through hard fucking work, says Fine:
Our unconscious will eventually help out if we consistently make the conscious effort to act in a certain way in particular types of situation ... The first step is to acknowledge your brain's unwelcome bigotry.
Researchers have found that people who form egalitarian implementation intentions of this sort are happily impervious to the usual unconscious effects of stereotype priming.
In short, I've made a deliberate attempt not to let myself off the hook: when that sneaky little voice is muttering "well, what do you expect of a ... ", I tell it to shut the fuck up. I've acknowledged that I'm not perfect - identified which prejudices I subscribe to most heavily - read everything I can find so I can quickly quash any bastardish thoughts with the body slam of logic and compassion. And after a while, not-being-a-total-dickwit becomes second nature, so I'm free to cringe in mute horror at the Bones episode "The He in the She"!

Can I just say again that I'm not setting myself up as some sort of paragon here? The use of the first person in that last paragraph is not meant to convey "wahey, check ME and my egalitarian implementation intentions out", it's to avoid this becoming some sort of "I am telling you what to do, because I am perfect, uh huh". I'm not. That's kind of my point. My natural inclination is actually to be fairly misanthropic, and it is really easy to allow myself to attach shitty horrible prejudices to that.

I doubt I'll ever completely abandon all the nasty assumptions buried deep within my wacky brain: that's how the brain works. But I can try. And the most important thing I got from Fine's book is that the willingness to try is the key to overcoming one's reliance on stereotypes. I'm far from perfect, but I am willing.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Is your Porsche big enough for the world's tiniest violin?

My boss's boss's boss's boss (there might not be enough bosses in there, but he's the Lord God King of this organisation, anyway) has a bad back. This means that he can no longer drive his Porsche to work as the seat is too low - so he has to drive the Bentley instead.

I am aware that laughing at his sufferings because he is rich is irrational, leaves me open to people saying "well, you're white and thin and cis, what have you got to worry about?", and also is a bit mean, but it still took every ounce of professionalism, tact, and self-control I have in me not to snort so loud with laughter that my brain fell right out of my nose.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Shag, shag for apples, and also social capital

Like it or not, erotic capital is now as valued as economic and human capital. As Chairman Mao advised—walk on two legs.
~ Catherine Hakim, "Have you got erotic capital?", Prospect Magazine
 Or, to put it another way: "Women! You have always used sex to get what you want - just admit it, do it better, and while you're at it, put more lipstick on."

One of the many wonderful things about going to visit my dear old mum for the weekend is that we get two Saturday papers. Twice the puzzles, twice the property porn, and a breathtaking three articles on Hakim's new book, Honey Money. (Zoe Williams' interview was by far the best, managing to be both hilarious and thoroughly smacking down some of the more ill-thought-out logic gaps in Hakim's thesis.) So I spent the train ride back reading the lot, underlining everything which pissed me off (my pen ran out. Seriously.) and scribbling furiously in the margins. It was a bit like being back at uni, but with more swearing.

Full disclosure: I've not read the book, and I'm not planning to pay £20 to do so; you can read the abstract of Hakim's original article here, which asserts:
1. Erotic capital is a fourth "personal asset", comparable to economic, cultural and social capital.
2. Erotic capital is increasingly useful, both in the "mating and marriage markets" and in one's working and social life.
3.There is a "large imbalance between men and women in sexual interest over the life course", meaning that women "are well placed to exploit their erotic capital".
4. Both patriarchy and feminism see the use of this asset as morally wrong.

And just to clarify what "erotic capital" actually is:
(a) Beauty; (b) Sexual attrractiveness; (c) Social skills; (d) Liveliness (physical fitness, social energy, good humour); (e) Social presentation (including self-adornment); (f) Sexual competence, energy and imagination.

Good gracious, she likes energy, doesn't she? Me and my chronic fatigue are knackered just reading that.

So starting at number one. Whatever you want to call it, being pretty smoothes your path in life: there are a number of stats in that Prospect article, and anywhere else you care to look, that bear this out. (I used to be a walking example of this: on days when I wore contacts, people were noticeably nicer to me than on speccy days.) Being personable, sociable (and having the energy to be sociable) and presentable are fairly obviously advantages, though I'm not sure why they're grouped under the "erotic" heading. And being good at sex... probably just means you'll have good sex.

Going back to the "beauty" and "sexually attractive" components, which most of the media fuss is focusing on (not least because it means they get to illustrate the articles with pictures of Indonesian sex workers and/or Angelina Jolie): yeah, these are deemed important for everyone, but especially for women: we're caught in the double-bind of (a) being expected to be pretty, and (b) being devalued for it. Everyone is treated better if they're good-looking - but women are only valuable if they're good-looking, regardless of their other qualities. Being that inconsequential, infinitely powerful creature: a pretty girl might give you a fleeting importance, but it enables people to dismiss you as nothing but just as quickly.

As far as I can tell, everyone seems to be white in this theory. White, and able-bodied: there's no acknowledgement of how "erotic capital" works very differently for, say, black women (seen as hypersexual) or women with visible disabilities (seen as sexless). Imagine you use a wheelchair: how to "exploit" men using your six-point scale of fuckability when he deems any hint of your sexuality as grotesque and unseemly?

The assertion in number 3. depresses me so much I almost can't bring myself to write about it. I know we're dealing in broad-brush strokes here, because without that you can't really come up with any grand theory about society, but - as I think I may have mentioned - any pronouncement on How Men Differ From Women always raises my hackles. Especially when it conforms to a widely-held but rarely-proven stereotype, while claiming to be some iconoclastic revelation. (FACT: for centuries, men were supposed to be all enlightened and rational - which meant that they were less sexual than women, less susceptible to their crotchy urges, and had fewer such urges in the first place. Women, driven by their wildly starving vaginas, were thought to be all "shag the crap out of me, I have no morals at all!") For more detail on the paucity of the statistical evidence Hakim offers on this point, check out the Williams interview.

Apart from being on scientifically shaky ground, this is also a particularly bleak look at the human race: women probably don't want to have sex, but they should act, look, and dress like they do to "exploit" men. Brilliant. Hakim asks, "Why does no one encourage women to exploit men whenever they can?" Shit, I don't know, maybe because we're actually hoping for equality and don't see men as The Enemy?

And in case you thought she just despises women: fear not, she also thinks gay dudes have no personalities and that gay ladies and asexual folks are exhibiting "a flight response to male domination, and are defeatist"! The "gay community" (she means dudes) are, apparently, "not interested in talk, not interested in getting to know you". Which is why no gay men ever have relationships, or friends, or interact in any way with other human beings except via the penis.

I don't know. I think Hakim's argument has some good points, formulising things that are fairly self-evident; she also throws in some horrendous bigotry and comes up with an immensely disspiritng conclusion. Speaking on burlesque, Laurie Penny observed that "the power to titillate, to excite, to look beautiful" is ultimately kind of empty on its own, concluding that "I prefer real power, power that involves my brain, that doesn't rely on tawdry male attention, and that will stay with me throughout my life." Using sex to get on can only make us feel "a little bit better about the hand we've been dealt".

In a way, it's similar to the power behind the throne theory that I spoke about last week: fetishising a very small, limited way of negotiating your way through an oppressive society, and deluding yourself into thinking that this in some way smashes some great blow to the heart of the oppression itself.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Angel in the kitchen, whore in the parlour, chef in the bedroom

I was quite looking forward to writing something that wasn't about riots for a change. I was considering a thorough analysis of the conflicting feminist/misogynist messages of the works of Philippa Gregory (stay tuned!). I was ruminating on the ways in which a depressive personality can be an advantage in life, and will probably remain with me however well I manage actual depressive episodes. And then Bryony Gordon's god-awful piece on Kirstie Allsopp's contention that it's okay to be nice to men turned up. Bingo! I thought. It's fisk o'clock.

Okay, first things first: Allsopp's comments aren't actually that bad. The quote pulled out of her Hello! interview simply said:
“If I want to talk to Ben about something difficult, I shouldn’t do it when he walks through the door after work. That is the best way to have a flaming row… if you want to talk about feelings, make sure they have a full stomach when you do it.
Which isn't really to do with gender in the slightest, it's just simple common sense. I don't know what else she said, because the interview isn't available online and holy fucksticks I am not buying a copy of that rag, but it is being reported as "high-flying successful businesswoman PUTS HER MAN FIRST!" I trust that the misogynist message implicit in such reporting is not lost on you clever people.

The rest of the article is predictable crap, characterising feminism as forbidding women from Looking After Their Man ("It's okay to be nice to men." BOMBSHELL.) and thinking that all men are "horrible little tosspots". Do I have to drag out my favourite people again to demonstrate how much I love the dudes? Do I have to point out, AGAIN, that it is misogynists, not feminists, who think men are rubbish, with their inability to put socks in laundry baskets or resist the endless tyranny of their penises' demands? Or are we all on board here?
In short, we need men, and they need us, and it’s about time that we all stopped pretending otherwise. After all, the world will not survive through turkey basters alone.
Haha, because all feminists advocate lesbian separatism, all women are straight, and also actual lesbians are nothing but a punchline, am I right?

She then goes on to advocate using your "feminine wiles" to sneakily control Your Man while letting him think he's the boss - the dolt.
This might seem submissive and housewifey – but in actual fact it is very clever. When you smile sweetly and humour a man in the home, you gain the upper hand. You render him docile and put yourself in control.
Aha, you might think you're living a life of oppressive drudgery, but let me tell you: this is LIBERATION! A very special kind of liberation which only works in a world where relationships are a battleground - remember, you don't actually like your husband.

I can't add anything to Emily Hauser's comments at Feministe (in relation to Beyonce's Run The World (Girls)):
you’re not talking about running things. You’re talking about slotting yourself expressly into a male-dominated structure and at the very most, subverting it by using that structure for your own purposes.
That’s not running things. That’s making the best of a bad lot. That’s being — if you happen to be one of the few women anywhere near the throne — the power behind the throne, and singing the praises of being stuck back there.
The article's comments quickly descend into in-depth discussions of the philosophical import of dirty socks: where they go once abandoned by sweaty feet, and how - and by who's agency - they end up in the laundry basket. The discussion seems predicated on the idea that Men leave them on the floor, and Women pick them up. With this in mind, may I give you a snapshot of my bedroom floor this morning:

Just so we're all clear on quite how much time I spend picking up my own socks.

Alright, I'm being facetious. Housework is obviously a matter of importance: we all know that, in heterosexual partnerships where the couple live together, women do the vast majority of housework, and men generally do the more fun, creative tasks: cooking a flamboyant meal rather than washing up afterwards, say. Which sucks! And should change! And should be seen as a collective problem, resulting from societal messages about what work is important and what tasks are the 'proper' domain of men and women, so that every single woman living with a dude doesn't have to fight this battle alone! (Yeah, okay, when you're cleaning the bath for the thirteen thousandth time, "it's a result of societal conditioning" is probably not much of a consolation, but it's a good place to start. When gendered crap leads to disagreements with my own gentleman friend, having the structured knowledge of feminism and gender expectations to hand is invaluable: not necessarily in winning the argument, but in making me not hate myself or him.)

In short: this stuff matters. But smiling sweetly while you capitulate, and congratulating yourself while you do it, isn't a solution. It isn't "grown up". And it sure isn't power.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Saturday night and Sunday morning

Even odder than seeing police officers out in force: seeing television reporters' vans on the streets of N15. News just doesn't happen here. The last time we had a media presence so large must have been 1985 - the last time there was a riot. I guess "thousands of people of hundreds of different races, nationalities, and religions living together in Peace'n'Harmony" isn't great headline fodder, and that's the reality of life round here. Although I'm sure there are racial elements to the anger - the black community in particular has a history of being singled out for harassment and violence by the police - this is not a "race riot". People didn't go out yesterday afternoon and say, "You know what, guys, I really hate white people. Let's smash Argos!"

Everyone's out on the streets today; some are looking for friends or relatives, some just rubbernecking, like me; everyone is utterly bewildered, just trying to work out how we got here.

Night of the 80s Undead: riots on the streets of Tottenham

You never see police officers in Tottenham. My dear Socialist Worker housemate attributes this to the fact that police exist to protect property, and everyone here's broke. So on the rare occasion when you do see someone in uniform, your gut response is not "hurrah, our noble protectors are here, nothing to worry about" but "holy fuck, what's going on?"

Turns out we're having a riot!

Two days ago, a local man, Mark Duggan, was shot dead by police officers. A peaceful protest gathered at Tottenham Police Station this evening to press for answers. Surprisingly, none were forthcoming, and someone chucked a brick through a panda car window. And off it went. Two cars, a few shops, and a bus are on fire; at least 200 people are confined in the area around the station, hemmed in by riot police, mounted police, and police dogs. I can hear the helicopters through my window, echoed a few seconds later on rolling news.

A BBC interviewer asked former Met Commander John O'Connor whether the violence could have been avoided if a police spokesperson had come outside early on to give a statement and calm the crowd.

"You can't have dialogue with people bent on violence," he replied. "Do you really think we can have dialogue with people like that? These people are hell-bent on causing something which I suspect is something to do with revenge. It's a tad hopeful to expect that you can talk people out of this."

Not now, no. But before?

He spoke of "the nature of the area, the history of that part of London, the smouldering antipathy towards the police, [which means that] this kind of thing is likely to happen. And if you get the catalyst of a police shooting, you can anticipate that things could kick off."

'Catalyst' is an interesting choice of word. It sounds uncomfortably close to 'excuse'.

He says that officers should "protect life and property, and we can talk about the niceties afterwards."

I spent eight hours in that police station once, queueing for six of those hours to report being mugged. Aforementioned Socialist Worker Housemate and I took it in turns to nip out for fag breaks, battling raging hangovers and striplight-induced nausea. We're both nice white middle class people, 'well-spoken' and frightfully respectable, and they treated us like fraudulent criminals wasting valuable police time. So I can only imagine how they treat people of colour, working class people, who make up the vast majority of this area. I can only imagine what my attitude towards the police would be had I grown up here, faced with that kind of dismissive antipathy every time I came into contact with our glorious forces of law and order.

Clearly I'm not saying "woohoo, let's riot!" - I'm nervously peering out of the window, checking that the front door's bolted and hoping to fuck that the riot doesn't spread any closer. I'm saying that if this area is indeed characterised by a "smouldering antipathy" towards the police that Mr O'Connor speaks of, it's not because we're all violent crims intent on bashing coppers. People are angry, people have questions, and even I can see why.