Thursday, 24 January 2013

Jury duty: taking responsibility

I loved jury duty.

I tell you this not just to keep you updated on "stuff I think is awesome" (and its important corollary, "stuff I think is rubbish") but because s.e.smith reminded me of it - and of the fact that this is, if you believe every portrayal of it in fiction ever, quite a niche opinion.

The odd part was that it was the most depressing, heart-wrenching moments of it that made the whole thing feel worthwhile. Sitting around for endless hours in the waiting room, getting seriously good at sudoku, reading like a voracious banshee and remembering how to knit was all fun enough - but I was on the dole at the time, so that's pretty much what I did every day anyway. (Oh alright, and occasionally applying for jobs, but the other activities were a lot more effective at drowning out the constant sense of being a useless stain on the arsewipe of humanity. Being unemployed is NOT FUN.)
"I remember the feeling of community brewing, of democracy happening"
~ Ani DiFranco, Paradigm 

When I finally got called to a trial, it was genuinely fun: we've all seen a gazillion courtroom dramas, so seeing it for real was a thrill - especially noting all the ways British procedure is quaint and quirky and often mildly ridiculous, and less dramatically grandstandy than its US equivalent (or, at least, than US TV shows) - no gavels! for example. (Oh, the wigs.)

Picking through the evidence was great fun; no one can have read as many murder mysteries as I have and not be excited at the prospect of figuring out who's telling the truth, who's lying and why, what might be the real story. Jury deliberation was a grubbier version of the same process - if I tell you that, in one case, both the defendant and plaintiff worked at a strip club, I'm sure you can imagine the turn the discussion took. ("So do they take all their clothes off?" "I am not entirely sure that's relevant to whether or not one of them stole the other's bag, Skeevy Middle-Aged Dude!")

But once you've reached a verdict, it stops being a whodunnit, a brain teaser, a game. That's the point where you've changed someone's life forever. I remember announcing that we had found a 17 year old boy guilty, hearing his mother's wails echo around the pre-fab courtroom; gazing blankly out of the steamed-up bus window with tears drizzling down my cheeks. It's the most wretched I have ever felt.

And it's an experience I wouldn't have missed for the world.

For all the problems with the criminal justice system, we still, to an extent, put our faith in it to lock up the bad guys and protect the innocent. It's just a lot easier to do that when you, personally, aren't the one charged with telling the difference between the two. Being forced to take responsibility for that decision, alongside eleven other Good Men And True, is an incredibly powerful way of binding people to a polity. It makes you realise that justice isn't delivered from on high, but worked out, messily and imperfectly, by individual members of a community.

It's a lot easier to say "people like that should be locked up" if you're not directly involved in making that decision. Jury duty requires citizens to put their money where their mouth is, to admit their complicity in the system, rather than calling for someone else to sort out the country's problems.

Which is the hardest bit, and also the only part of it that's worthwhile.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Thomas from Yes Means Yes sure is smart

This is one of those mind-blowingly brilliant points that seems so obvious once someone else has said it:

The fastest-moving game in the world is “Get Dressed!  My parents are home!”, played regularly but on very short notice by teenagers in much of the world.  I played that game a few times.  Probably, you did, too.  Because of my experiences — the ones where even the most powerful biological urges were subordinated to the cultural necessity of not getting walked in on by parents while having sex — I reject out of hand the cultural tropes about uncontrollable male sexuality.  We govern our passions.  We do when we have to.  When we don’t, it’s because of our perceptions of the risk and reward.  Humans are not entirely creatures of reason, but we are creatures that reason, and our reason, in the short run at least, can overcome our immediate desires.
Go read.

Question: tell me how you feel about my knitted cabbage rose

This week I am playing a game called Wear As Many Items of Self-Made Clothing At Any One Time. It is very fun! And has had three main results:

1. I am being insufferably smug. (More so than usual.)
2. I will have an imperial fuckload of hand-washing to do come Friday.
3. I have a bastardised version of Independent Women stuck in my head on a loop...

The dress I'm wearing: I made it
The shrug I'm shrugging: I made it
The scarf I'm wearing: I made it
Cuz I depend on me, if I want it

The dress I'm wearing: I designed it
The shrug I'm shrugging: I designed it
The scarf I'm wearing: I designed it
Cuz I depend on me, I knitted it

Yes, I am basically a slightly less consumerist version of Beyoncé. Thank you for noticing.

Friday, 18 January 2013

Slate thinks me and my ma are weird and creepy

"Remember how there was that one kid in your high school class whose parents were sooooo old that it was weird and creepy? That’s all of us now. Oops."
From "Older parenthood: Is Waiting To Have Kids a Feminist Triumph or a Big Mistake?"  on Slate.

1. My ma was 40 when she popped me out. I went through a phase of being omg soooo embarrassed that she had grey hair (which, actually, she'd had since she was 19, a genetic legacy I also enjoy) and was soooo ooooold. I think it lasted about a month. I then went on to being omg soooo embarrassed that my surname rhymed with 'nipple', that my dad wore his motorcycle leathers to parents' evenings, that I accidentally called my science teacher 'dad' once... I acknowledge that I was not exactly your typical child, in a few entertainingly silly ways, but you get the gist, right? I spent pretty much the entirety of the years 1997-2002 being embarrassed about something. (Actually, I think I've spent pretty much the entirety of the years 2002-2013 being embarrassed about something, too, which - for those of you who have spent time with my corporeal form, is why I make involuntary groaning noises a lot: I've just remembered that "omg I can't believe I called Mr Chipping 'dad' in year 7! I AM THE WORST".)

It's the same argument people use for why The Gays should not breed: "BUT THINK OF THE CHILDREN! THEY WILL BE SO EMBARRASSED!"

The children will be embarrassed by their parents regardless of their age or sexuality or hair colour. That's what the children do. This fact is not much of a foundation to build a magazine article on.

2. Remember that article which claimed that "a man giving birth is freakish and beyond the pale"? The basic gist of which was, "I find the concept of a pregnant trans chap icky, ergo it will DESTROY CIVILISATION"?

Well: it was a shit argument then, and it's a shit argument now. The fact that you, personally, think something is disgusting (and can't be bothered to spend ten minutes wondering why that is) is not grounds for that thing to be universally pilloried as A Big Mistake.

Having been vegetarian for nearly twenty years, I find the idea of eating the flesh of another animal absolutely fucking gross, to be honest with you. And yet! I have not formed a pressure group called Ban Meat Because It's Icky, It's Got VEINS and TENDONS and It Used To Be A Cow's THIGH, SERIOUSLY, People. I have not even penned a hastily-written and poorly-researched article about how Stuff I Think Is Disgusting Shouldn't Be Allowed.

The fact that your knee-jerk disgust-response to pregnant dudes or parents over 40 taps into wider social norms doesn't make simple revulsion a sensible arbiter for what is or is not a good idea.

3. My mum is freaking awesome. I don't know anyone else who gets on with a parent as well as I do. This is predominantly because she is objectively The Best, but I can't help but think that the fact that she spent twenty years gadding about Europe, meeting interesting people and doing interesting things, and then decided to have kids when she was good and sodding well ready, was a big factor in the unimaginable brilliance of her parenting skillz.

4. Don't call us creepy. That's just rude.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Suzanne Moore, transphobia, anger and framing

On Saturday morning, I was woken up by my gentleman companion announcing the news that Suzanne Moore had been bullied off Twitter for "one misjudged word". He read out messages of support from Dorian Lynskey, Owen Jones, and others in the lefty journalist gang decrying the call-out culture which leads people to focus on one word to the exclusion of the rest of an article.

This was before I'd read the article, before Julie Burchill weighed in, before every conversation I had that weekend somehow came around to The Controversy. I thought this was about call-out culture and online bullying and all those difficult questions that are vitally important to the state of Feminism On The Internet. I was worried that the hoo-ha around calling people out - the 'focus on one little word' - would get us to a state where we couldn't point out that people were using offensive words/ideas/arguments for fear of being called divisive. Where we were only allowed to cheer unambiguously, or keep silent; where we were required to swallow our hurt and our anger For The Greater Good.

(Funny how it's always women who have to suck it up when the left has important business at hand - just get on board with the Democrats, even as they ignore women's issues, or the GOP will get in and they'll ignore women's issues! And it's always trans people who have to suck it up when feminism has a mission which apparently can't be completed without gratuitous side-swipes at them! Don't rock the boat, it's for the greater good, are you with us or against us?)

Turns out, that wasn't the story at all. It was actually a much simpler story, a sickeningly familiar story which apparently never gets old:

1. Writer uses problematic language
2. Someone politely points out the problematic nature of such language
3. Writer goes on knee-jerk fury, lashes out at anyone who isn't cheerleading their work in its entirety, ramps up the problematic shit to show that YOU CAN'T CONTROL ME, I AM A FREE SPIRIT
4. Entire online social justice universe lines up on one side or the other, form baying mobs
5. Julie Burchill globs onto the scene to resolve the issue by giving all sides something they can agree on: that Julie Burchill is awful.

Actually: I say 'baying mobs', plural, because that's what I've been told happened. All I know for sure is that this happened - and only one side of that qualifies as bullying. (Hint: it isn't the person suggestion that calling someone A Transexual is a bit fucking creepy.) I haven't been able to find the onslaught that's been described (though Twitter's being infuriatingly slow so if anyone has links/screengrabs I'd be very grateful.) - I'm not saying 'it's not there', I'm not saying 'prove it to me', I'm just explaining what sources I have been able to track down in a couple of hours' internet-trawling.

So in response to some very polite questioning of her word choices, Moore chooses to be as rude and cruel as she could possibly be without using the T word -

 - and yet this has become a story about how Suzanne Moore is the victim of online bullying?

How in the name of the black heart of Julie Bindel have we allowed the story to be framed this way? So that instead of talking about Suzanne Moore's transphobia, we're talking about Suzanne Moore's feelings? I'm not trying to diminish the awful power of online bullying. I acknowledge that call-out culture is crappy. I just don't want Online Social Justice to get into a situation where trans folk and their allies are not allowed to express anger at transphobia.

Of course, we're already in this situation, as this little episode has so vividly demonstrated. Anger is the prerogative of the privileged: which, ironically, was part of what Moore's original piece was about. Women, trans people, people of colour or with disabilities or any other marginalised group you can think of, are incorrectly accused of being angry, no matter how moderately we frame our suggestions that maybe the world's a little bit fucked up. And when we are angry, we're chastised for it, dismissed, as if our anger diminishes our argument.

My gentleman companion has said that, if he wanted to write about social justice issues, he wouldn't, because backlashes like this make it too dangerous: he's sure he'd use that infamous 'one wrong word' and be pilloried by the entire internet.

I don't think it's actually that hard. Yeah, I spend a lot of my free time reading a range of social justice blogs, so I know The Right Words to use and The Dreaded Words to be avoided, but, contrary to the political correctness myth, it's not about word choice: it's about the attitudes which inform your choices. So, if you use the T word once without realising that many people regard it as a slur, get corrected, apologise, and never use it again - you're probably fine.* If you instead respond by proclaiming YOUR RIGHT TO OFFEND PEOPLE and YOUR RIGHT TO FREE SPEECH and HOW YOU WILL NOT BE COWED BY A CABAL OF SOME OF THE MOST MARGINALISED PEOPLE IN SOCIETY WITH EXTREMELY LIMITED POWER TO ENFORCE RULES OF DISCOURSE... let's be honest, you're just being a dick.  I won't say you 'deserve' abuse in response, because that would make me a dick too, but you're not exactly King of the Moral High Ground.

(*There is the issue that, if you're going to be writing about this stuff, you have an obligation to research the correct terminology first, but anyway.)

Framing matters. Call-out culture and online bullying are a pox on all our houses. Transphobia is still bad. It's pretty fucking exhausting to have to reiterate this shit every day.

Friday, 11 January 2013

"I don't know what that means": why media representation matters

Conversation between my gentleman admirer and myself, Tuesday evening:

GA: "The new David Bowie song is amazing, right?"
Me: "Bowie released a new song? Huh."
GA: "You are literally the last person in the Western world to hear about this. My three year old niece has heard about this. Your mum has heard about this. The queen has heard about this. There are people who have been in comas for the last decade who have heard about this."
Me: "I know loads of stuff. LOADS of stuff. If you really want to go for a knowledge-off, what do you know about the First Balkan War, eh? EH?"


Conversation between my gentleman admirer and myself, Thursday evening:

GA: "You know that picture of Harry Styles on Richard Branson's island - "
Me: "Who's Harry Styles?"
GA: "Wow."


This is one of many reasons I enjoy the popular television series Bones. In response to almost any pop culture reference, lead character Dr Temperance Brennan (played by Emily Deschanel) replies, "I don't know what that means." She's socially awkward and conversationally inept and overly literal and often offensive and I love her.

She is, basically, a wonderfully refreshing contrast to every character that the other Deschanel has ever played.

It's unusual that stories get better during the transition from book to screen, but I found Kathy Reichs' books plodding and uninspiring - definitely the least thrilling thrillers I've ever encountered - with none of the zip that enlivens that Detailed Science in the TV show.

What's even more unusual is a female character getting more abrasive, less personable, and more cynical in that transition.

Brennan refers to marriage as "an antiquated institution", frequently professes her lack of interest in a long-term monogamous relationship (though her commitment to the single existence begins to shake on the sixth season), enjoys frequent casual sex, is a vocal atheist, refuses to pander to other people's definitions of how she should behave, performs no emotional drudge-work, is unabashed about proclaiming herself to be attractive, genius-level intelligent and extremely good in the sack. Basically she breaks every single rule in the Sympathetic Female Character Handbook - and is still portrayed as lovable.

Her social ineptitude is played for laughs, sure - but in an affectionate way. The joke is in that it is Not Acceptable to be an openly confident woman, but - in contrast to every other female character I can think of whose confidence is a major facet of their personality - this does not make her a Bitch.


It's comforting, somehow, to see a character who reflects elements of yourself in fiction. We're always searching for representations of ourselves - for reassurance that we're normal; to fantasise about living different lives; for that sense of well-being that identifying with another person brings.

It's not that we want characters to be us, exactly - to be honest, a drama about a brown-haired knitter who spends 90% of her free time in bed eating cheese and blogs to deliver herself from frustrations and is undergoing a mid-20s crisis due to her Revolutionary Road/Seth in The OC-style "I DON'T KNOW WHAT TO BE BRILLIANT AT BUT I AM SURE I AM, SOMEHOW" mind-gunge would not, actually, be that much of a thriller, and would probably just make me want to tetris myself to death. But recognising points of commonality with other people is sort of the point of fiction (or one of its points, at least).

And the further the character is from your own experience, the harder you have to work to feel that kinship. So, if you are a lady who fancies ladies but never sees lady-gay kissing on TV, you can still slot yourself into fictional romances, but with a bit more effort. If there's one lady-gay relationship on TV (that kiss on Brookside which SHOOK THE NATION), you have to ignore everything about that relationship that doesn't ring true for your own experiences. If there's a hundred lady-gay romances to choose from (The L Word! That thing about Lipstick! But I'm A Cheerleader! A load of others!) - it's a bit more likely you'll find the one that tugs on your specific heartstrings.

And no, this isn't the only point of fiction, obviously. The flipside of the search for commonality is the search for something new: for instance, I will look for fiction which deals with particular societies, groups of people, historical periods (etc) which I'm interested in learning more about, because it's a low-effort way of getting a grasp on a new topic. For areas I'm already familiar with, it adds depth and humanity to drier, more academic research. In this way, I'm 'using' fiction as a way to learn about people/situations/etc which are different from me, rather than looking for ways in which the characters mirror myself.

But when there's just one of you - the only gay in the village, say, or the only socially inept cynic with different cultural reference points to everyone around you - finding a character who shares those traits can feel like a lifeline.


I still don't know who Harry Styles is. I'm okay with that.

Edited to correct the location of The Lady Gay Soap Kiss Which Shook The Nation, and Harry Styles' name, which I managed to get wrong in the process of writing a post on how I didn't know who he is. Styles. Not Stars. Still don't really care.

Monday, 7 January 2013

Where have I been? Will I ever return?

Do excuse the quietness on the oldjawjawing front; I'm lost somewhere in that midwinter lull of 'where has all the sunshine gone?' and duvet-craving sulkiness. It's that really irritating side of depression - the one that isn't "stay up all night analysing everything and coming to the conclusion that it's all shit, but having fun anyway", but more "spending twenty seconds analysing the prospect of going to the shop to buy teabags before coming to the conclusion that nothing is more interesting than sitting in bed playing Tetris for the rest of the day".

Basically, I'm in the middle of a two-month hangover, where the very idea that I have to do anything that involves leaving the house, or switching on a braincell, seems like the biggest pain in the arse ever.

Blogging is coming into that last category.

But my feelings aren't actually that interesting, so I will return when I have managed to string together an idea more complicated than 'fuck off, everything'.