I cried last night. Long, hard, sad.
I cried and then, because it was far too late, I turned out the light and rocked myself to sleep.
A lot of reasons, but the proximate, the main was a piece in today’s Observer by Julie Burchill. I won’t link to it – if you really care, go find it yourself (but be warned: it is seriously triggering) – , because what I want to say today, here, isn’t about the words used, the precise arguments made or references put.
No. Its about feelings and emotion. Compassion. Feminism at its most basic.
The trans week that was:bad news and bullying
Its been a difficult week for trans folk. Beginning with what looked and felt like an attack on our health care, continuing with a silly spat between Suzanne Moore and a number of activists, somewhat amplified by a twitter tendency to reduce debate to name-calling. Mostly, if I have something serious to say to someone I don’t tweet it. I e-mail. Or pick up the phone.
Then Julie Bindel leapt in. And today Ms Burchill. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The trans community were bullying Ms Moore and this should stop forthwith. Which is a sentiment I agree with and, while some will claim the twitter outbursts to have been justified, I won’t agree.
Not because, à la Bindel, I believe some sort of “trans cabal” has it in for those who fail to toe the party line. Like, Ms M writes something that isn’t quite up to scratch; whereupon the trans central committee instantly dispatches the virtual equivalent of a squadron of X-wing fighters to beat her up online. What a quaint idea!
Its more a starling thing: the way flocks wheel in unison, responding to some subtle change in the atmosphere, as opposed to following the uber-starling leader. Though the effect is not dissimilar. When a bunch of people spot that you’ve written something they disagree with – whether on gay rights or circumcision – and some start to call you names on twitter and the rest just pick up the popcorn and come along to watch: the net effect, whether intended or not, is bullying.
I’ve been on the receiving end of that a few times. Its not nice. Terrifying, even. And while I suspect I attract a smaller bully following than the grandes dames above, I also get paid a lot less for my pains.
Jokey blokes and clever schoolboys
So, Moore makes a minor faux pas – the sort of journalistic equivalent of the mostly good guy who makes a slightly off joke at the xmas party before realising that he isn’t at the bar of his local rugby club any more. The community piles in. Moore defends. Bindel rallies. Yet more brickbats are hurled until today, Burchill sallies forth with a piece of such dripping venom that I found it hard to believe anyone could write such stuff and live with their conscience.
Still, this is doing what I didn’t mean to, falling into intellectual deconstruction of the event. Whereas, for me, the issue is much simpler. I briefly fenced with the Guardian’s David Batty earlier this week. Then backed off, because I had no stomach to deal with his tone, his manner which was about as clever-clever as that of the posh public schoolboy, putting on a point by point defence of an argument “because he can”.
Yeah, yeah. We all know that, in intellectual-land, you can defend pretty much anything you want so long as you’re quick enough on your feet, prepared to pick every nit, and trip your “opponent” up on something they said three tweets back.
But that says it all, that paragraph. Look at the language I just used: “opponents”, “tripping up”. It’s the language of combat: the stuff that boys do so well. The discussion becomes a debate between opposing points of view: mostly whether “offense” confers some notional right to interfere with the free speech of others.
There is, somewhere in this, a seductive – and wrong – line of thinking. The very idea that it is a debate to be “won” or “lost”, which itself reeks of macho, masculinist politics. And its there on both sides: there, too, in the rhetorical digs about whether the Observer would be as keen to publish a piece making rude remarks about “faggots” or “queers”.
Let’s communicate, share, and stop arguing
A more apt simile, for me, is that of the insensitive legal expert, holding forth with some abstruse argument about rape. No, its not equivalent (before someone picks up that and says I’m saying that rape and verbal abuse are identical). But the insensitivity to how an audience may feel about an argument and the language used, the idea that its all about content and nothing to do with feelings, has direct, horrid parallels.
This isn’t about winning, at least not in the sense above. I admire Suzanne Moore. For all that Julie Bindel and I disagree fundamentally on some issues, I support her on others. I’d enjoy meeting them, talking to them, sharing with them. I don’t want to fight them.
Most of all, though, I’d ask everyone spewing forth anger and bile in this context to stop and think about what, exactly you are doing. Another individual I admire much – Bidisha – observed a couple of years back that she did her best to avoid this sort of argument with other feminists, because women as a whole had far greater issues to deal with and didn’t need to be wasting time and energy fighting with one another. Seconded!
Kindness and caring: the values we need
Beyond that, would someone please think, briefly, of the effect this stuff is having on the vulnerable. Sure, I do emotion like falling off a log. And I’m a sucker for the idea that a lot could be achieved just by people being NICE to one another. It’s a standing joke amongst friends that “Jane needs a box of tissues to get through the average rom com”. But I have friends. I have a support network. I have a degree of inner strength.
Not everyone does. Its hard enough transitioning without having to fight the system as well. But many have to. Its hard enough fighting that without abuse in the streets from the idiots who think you’re an easy target. But people do.
And when all that is said and done, its lonely and frightening and seriously depressing to pick up your weekend paper and read that you and your kind are nothing other than bullies and people have a right to – nay, have a duty to – get angry at you.
That’s not kind.
(and if you think that’s a weak finish to some deeply-held sentiments, think again: in my book, kindness is a much under-rated virtue and one that caps pretty much all the point scoring of the week gone by).