Thursday, 1 August 2013

Twitter Rape Threats: A Glimpse Of A Crumbling World

Since the Bank of England announced the presence of Jane Austen on the new £10 note, Caroline Criado-Perez, who spearheaded the campaign to put more women on UK money, has been subjected to a well-documented and much-discussed barrage of abuse via Twitter and her personal email. It’s been described as trolling, but the difference between trolls and Caroline’s aggressors is palpable. Trolling is the act of being deliberately provocative to elicit an angry response; a threat of rape is a criminal act. There exists a gulf of meaning between trolling and threatening violence against someone whose opinions you disagree with. It’s the difference between playing devil’s advocate and leading a targeted campaign of aggression and hate.

In addition to this, Caroline, her supporters, and other prominent feminists including two female MPs have been subject to bomb threats and racist abuse on the site. Twitter’s response to the tweets has grown sterner and faster over the week, but still the threats keep coming. The senders are quick to reiterate their numbers and resilience against banning, but Caroline and the others continue to pass each new tweet onto the police.

At the time of writing, two men have been arrested; the first aged 25, the second just 21. Their youth is striking – born well after the advent of the feminist movement, these young men won’t even remember a time before the UK’s female Prime Minister, much less a time when women weren’t welcome in workplaces or universities. For a generation who take women’s rights almost for granted, for those who have never had to afford it much thought, it’s a startling deviation from the party line.

For these men, the threat of violence is a means of control. Like the cases of ‘corrective’ rape seen in South Africa, the threats are a way to assert dominance over a woman who challenges their fragile, crumbling masculinity. Regardless of whether they would actually act on their threats or not, their weak self-concept and chauvinistic protection of outmoded gender relations reveals a complicated and defensive psychology.

They system they know how to operate in has failed, and the world has changed around them. Like a small child denied their own way, the aggressors respond by lashing out – in short, they throw a tantrum. Unlike a small child, though, they have sufficient knowledge of social convention to channel their rage into the most effective form and target it at the most vulnerable area. While they deny that they would actually commit rape, the threat of sexual violence is still powerfully intimidating; fortunately, the women in question refuse to be intimidated.

In response to the story, print and broadcast journalist Emma Barnett gave the aggressors the right to reply on her radio show. Her callers provided a telling insight into their mindset: they insist “she was asking for it... if you put your head above the parapet, like she has, then you deserve this type of abuse. It’s what you get when you are a woman shouting about something,” that “feminists like Caroline are undermining what it is to be a man” and subsequently require “sorting out”. They justify their actions by claiming “men are predators... and this is what we do... these men wouldn’t actually come and rape her. They don’t mean it. Rape is a metaphor.”  

Rape isn’t a metaphor. Rape is a tool of domination, of control, of power. Rape is a taboo that these individuals have exploited to intimidate a woman who, in their eyes, has developed ideas beyond her station and must be brought back into line. As journalists, as activists, as feminists, we must resist the fear forced upon us. These threats are an attempt to control a woman who, in their eyes, has too much to say and too big a platform from which to say it. They insist feminism will change nothing, has changed nothing, but their fear is visible behind their anger and spite; in time the mask of anonymity will slip and Caroline’s opponents will stand exposed for all to see.

Behind the explicit threats and creeping menace lies another wave of attempts to discredit; the commentators, both journalists and private citizens, who insist that retweeting threats is ‘attention-seeking’ and that ignoring the problem will make it go away. Chiming in with these are the men who write long articles and aggressive tweets claiming that feminism is no threat - if this were the case, there would be no need to confront it or publicly mock it. Ignore it and it’ll go away, right?

Those with a vested interest in maintaining the patriarchal status quo have been ignoring feminism since its first faltering steps. It’s 100 years since Emily Wilding Davison fell under the King’s horse, 95 years since women were given the vote, 48 years since the UK gained its first female MP, 38 years since the Sex Discrimination Act, 19 years since rape within marriage became a crime, two years since changes to the law of succession allowed a Princess to take the British throne. Campaigners have achieved all this with tenacity, patient effort, and a refusal to remain silent. We did not submit to ignorance then, and we must not submit to it now.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

What Nigella Can Teach Us About Violence Against Women

To outward appearances, Nigella Lawson has things all figured out: she runs her own media business, has a successful publishing career, and makes frequent public appearances looking impossibly glamorous. She’s everything that an ambitious woman is meant to aspire to be. And, it emerged on Sunday, she also appears to be a victim of domestic violence.

At first, the images published by the People were shocking, as you’d expect of any depiction of violence against women. But then we started to think about what happened, started to ask questions, and a more insidious suspicion took root: the casual and callous way in which Charles Saatchi laid hands on his wife in public led some commentators to suggest that this wasn’t his first attack on her.

For him to so brazenly attack Nigella in full view of both passers-by and fellow Scott’s patrons, without trying to conceal or disguise his actions, implied much about the dynamic of their relationship.  Witnesses told the newspaper that Nigella had attempted to placate her husband by speaking reassuringly and kissing him on the cheek; many readers will be able to identify this as the classic response of a woman threatened by her spouse.

But Nigella doesn’t fit the traditional profile of a victim of domestic abuse: she has economic independence, makes regular trips overseas on business, and presumably does not lack the resources to move away from her abuser. So, we wonder, why does she stay? A 1998 study[1] reported by Psychology Today may provide some answers: “Emotional abuse plays a vital role in battering, undermining a woman's confidence.”

While it seems that Nigella and women like her have sufficient self-esteem and personal agency to succeed in business and personal endeavours, their intimate relationships are far less clear-cut. What the events of this weekend demonstrate beyond anything else is that even independent, capable women can be bullied and manipulated into accepting physical and verbal attacks that, for whatever reason, they won’t or can’t walk away from.

The emotional manipulation used by abusers is well-documented and wholly discomforting; their victims are isolated from friends and family, deprived of the resources that would help them escape, and worn down to such a low ebb that they accept violence they would never have tolerated previously. In the case of successful or high-profile women, their visibility might discourage them from seeking help; the gap between their private and public personas might seem so great that to report being abused feels like admitting a weakness.

At the time of writing, the UK press is reporting that the police are investigating Charles Saatchi following the publication of these images. Saatchi may later face charges; in spite of his wealth, it seems unwise for him to pursue a libel case when the evidence is so damning. It’s inappropriate to conjecture on the future of Charles and Nigella’s marriage – perhaps she will remain with him in spite of public condemnation of his actions.

If nothing else, we can hope that the story – so shocking when presented against a backdrop of middle-class media comfort – inspires other women to seek advice and assistance if they find themselves in similar situations. This week, like every week, two women in the UK will die at the hands of their violent partners. This week, like every week, all women deserve better.


Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Of Bread And Circuses

Juvenal referred to it as ‘bread and circuses’, George Orwell characterised its worst excesses as prolefeed, and Victorians despaired of the corrupting influence of the penny dreadfuls. It’s plain to see, then, that our love affair with escapism through entertainment is almost as old as society itself.

Marxists, echoing Juvenal’s and Orwell’s sentiments, fear that focusing on the narratives of fiction – be it classic literature, blockbuster films, or soap operas – would distract the proletariat from their struggle towards revolution. In many ways they’re correct; even now, the politically aware cringe as the country invests more attention in TV talent shows than in the comings and goings of our politicians. But perhaps we overlook a significant point – perhaps these distractions are important precisely because they allow us to escape from our reality.

Times are hard, and they’re hard for almost everyone. Perhaps what we really need is to escape into someone else’s life for a while; to try out a different set of burdens like a different suit of clothes, to look out on the world from behind another pair of eyes, to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.

The shoes may take us across Dartmoor pursuing a gigantic hound, or to Stonehenge with our doomed love, or to the shores of Innsmouth fleeing unthinkable horrors. They may stand on the green grass of the Shire, the cobbles of Edinburgh, the grey earth of Winterfell or the dusty concrete of London Below. But they bear us away from our own lives, our own problems, and permit us to lose ourselves in impossible and fantastic worlds.

We submit to almighty terrors, to wrenching losses, to every twist and machination of vindictive fate, because we know we can close the book and walk away. We can explore our own strength and character without having to experience what Shakespeare called “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to”. Here we test our emotional fortitude, pitching ourselves against blow after blow to examine how well we weather the storm.

We solve mysteries, protect the innocent, play the hero or the villain. Often we don’t decide which we are until the end. We meet soldiers, lovers, wizards, murderers, queens, poets, tyrants, heroes, angels, vampires, monks, prostitutes, revolutionaries, scholars, searchers and seekers, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, children. And in time, inexorably, we begin to care.

We dedicate precious time and space in our minds to these characters. We despair that the word ‘character’ makes them sound so flat, so trivial; to us, they are people. We give them sequels, films, TV shows. We make them real in our heads and then we try to make them real in the world. We share them with our friends, discuss incarnations and iterations – are Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, and John Rebus really so different? Whose face does each of those names conjure up?

We need stories. Like dreams, we use them to explore and make sense of the world. They speak to us about human nature, the subtle dance of interaction and disclosure that takes a lifetime to master. Stories are how we investigate and memorialise our humanity. Stories are what make us human.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Too Many Protest Singers, Not Enough Protest Songs

Today we buried one of the most politically important Prime Ministers this country has ever seen. That, I’m afraid, is the last good thing I can find to say about her. Like many people who were left high and dry by her policies, I had little time for Thatcher, her cabinet, or her legacy. While I agree that it’s distasteful to publicly celebrate her demise, I was secretly pleased to observe that her detractors marked the occasion with a uniquely British and increasingly popular form of protest – inflating the sales of a particular song to register their protest through the UK Top 40 chart.

In a post-Blair society where a million people can march on Westminster and be utterly ignored, it seems the nature of protest has changed. The UK pop charts, formerly the record of an important yet ephemeral cultural progression, have become the battleground for all manner of political and personal rebellion.

For years, music has been an indicator of politics, ideology and cultural identity. Now it’s become a means of registering dissent in a public arena in a manner totally removed from its previous efforts. Gone, perhaps, are the protest songs of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan; here instead are Cowell-baiting online campaigns featuring Rage Against The Machine, inspired and perpetrated by web-savvy millennials who have identified the potential that rapidly advancing technology can provide.

A disenfranchised public, seemingly aware that placards and chanting no longer carry as much weight as before, can now convey their anger and disapproval by purchasing a 79p download from iTunes. Surely even the most broadminded futurologists would have failed to envision such a development in technologically-enabled civil disobedience.

It’s not a flawless system by any means – on this most recent occasion, the BBC declined to broadcast the entire song, and their track record for banning controversial songs has been a matter of discussion for decades. Fortunately for those trying to make a point, the nation’s news media have not been reluctant to publicise the campaign; even as they condemn it for its disrespect, they provide the oxygen of publicity.

Of course, the nature of the legal download system – the only way to perform the act of protest is to purchase the track from a recognised provider – means that to register our dissent we must indulge in a singularly undemocratic act; we pay to protest. But contrast this with the alternatives and the recommendations of the new process become clear – rather than travelling to London, marching and chanting, and risking arrest if the protest degenerates into violence, the objector can make their point simply by clicking the button marked “buy”.

Should we be shocked that political dissent has now been rendered marketable, and that profit can be derived? Maybe, but we should be more grateful still that individuals still want to protest.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Why Every Day Should Be World Book Day

“You don't have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” ― Ray Bradbury
When I was a child, my parents used to hide my books while I slept. It wasn’t out of malice or sport, but necessity; hiding the books was the only way to avoid spending the entire day reading them to me. I didn’t learn to read until I was five years old and attending school, mostly because my mother doubted her ability to teach me, but once I had there was little that could stop me. Independently of the National Curriculum, I read Tolkien at age 10, Dickens at 12, Shakespeare at 14 and Chaucer at 16. Words had power, I knew, and they could take you places.
Today is World Book Day in Britain and Ireland; something of a contradiction, since the rest of the world celebrates it on April 23rd. We’ve been marking the day since 1995, and I remember the first event. I went as pre-transformation Cinderella in an apron made from an old blue sheet – a poor substitute for my first choice of costume, the peach from Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach. It was precisely my kind of event; from the moment my parents had read me The Very Hungry Caterpillar, books had been my favourite thing in the world. I appeared to be in the minority there, though.
For a bibliophile like me, it was never easy to get along with the other kids at school. I liked reading; I wanted to read the books they disdained. They wanted to watch obnoxious TV shows and talk about ephemeral boybands. It only got worse once I reached senior school. It wasn’t cool to know things. It wasn’t cool to actually understand and enjoy the Shakespeare the others pretended to read. They didn’t want to learn; I did. I wanted to go onto college and university and do nothing except inhale and exhale words for the rest of my life; I’d wanted to do nothing but that since I was eight years old.
The society I grew up in displayed – and still displays – a rabid anti-intellectual streak that imperils the potential of every intelligent, curious child within it. It’s not cool to be intelligent; a large vocabulary is a burden, not a blessing. Grammar is something that happens to other people. We communicate in writing more than ever before. We read more than at any other point in our history. We are never far away from words on a screen, if not in print, and yet so many people still struggle to make themselves understood. Eventually I found a place where I fit in, surrounded by university lecturers and creative types in pubs filled with vibrant conversation. There was no going back.
Books are amazing. They take us to places we could never go by ourselves, places that only exist in the landscape of the mind. I’ve been to the Shire, Wonderland, Narnia, the Discworld, other planets and other times. I’ve spoken with witches in the Highlands of Scotland, watched young lovers swoon in Verona, charged across bloodied battlefields in France and accompanied pilgrims to Canterbury. I’ve shivered in the trenches of World War One and battled dragons under mountains at the edge of a different world. I’ve run through moonlit woods with werewolves and hunted in the night with countless vampires.
I’ve solved murder after murder and tracked the course of endless lives and loves. I’ve burnt books with Ray Bradbury, spiralled between blissful highs and desperate lows with Sylvia Plath, been on a boating holiday with Jerome K Jerome, and fled from unspeakable horrors with H P Lovecraft. I was in 1930s Paris with Anaïs Nin, 1900s Dublin with James Joyce, and 1970s Las Vegas with Hunter S Thompson. I’ve lived more lives than anyone has any right to, and there’s no way I’m stopping now. The feel of a book, of paper under fingers, is a trigger no less powerful than the kiss of a lover, and I am not ashamed to feed the addiction.

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Basildon Hospital Have My Gallbladder, My Trust, And My Thanks

A week ago, I had my gallbladder – and the numerous large gallstones within it – removed. For geographical convenience, the procedure was performed at Basildon University Hospital, part of the beleaguered Basildon and Thurrock NHS Trust. It wasn’t my first encounter with the hospital – I was born there, I’ve had migraines and disc prolapses treated there – and I doubt it will be my last. It was, however, possibly the best.
Speaking as the owner of long-standing and problematic phobias of both hospitals and needles, the experience was never going to inspire feelings of hope and contentment. No-one likes going to hospital, of course, but my fear was liable to make me tense, anxious, and, regrettably, unco-operative toward the medical staff treating me. To give this some perspective, previous visits have demonstrated that it requires no fewer than four qualified, experienced clinicians to insert a cannula into the back of my hand. I was never going to be Basildon’s biggest cheerleader, and stood a decent chance of becoming their fiercest critic.
In the weeks immediately preceding my visit to the hospital, Basildon and Thurrock NHS Trust were named in the enquiry resulting from the Mid Staffs investigation – one of five NHS Trusts to be singled out for special attention. Concerns were initially raised over the hospital’s “persistent high death rates”, but as the story progressed, former patients came forward with tales of unchanged dressings, unheeded toilet requests, missed medications and Legionella outbreaks.
None of this inspired me with much confidence as the date of my operation drew closer. Gallbladder removal – or Laparoscopic Cholecystectomy, as it’s known to professionals – is a relatively commonplace procedure, but is not without risk. An unexpected bleed or overly large gallbladder can compel the surgeon to move from keyhole surgery to an open procedure, increasing healing time and necessitating a longer hospital stay. Given the reports circulating at the time, this wasn’t a possibility I was relishing. As it turns out, and to my considerable relief, the procedure went well.
It now remains only for me to credit the staff of Basildon Hospital and the extended NHS Trust for ensuring that I’ve had such a smooth ride over the last nine months. My GP, for taking my bellyaching seriously, for pushing on for ever more diagnostic tests and anti-emetic drugs, and for calming me down when I thought I’d inherited the liver tumour that killed my grandfather. My surgeon, for answering my nervous questions when he was obviously up against it and keen to get on. His Senior House Officer, for talking to me like an intelligent, autonomous, informed adult with a degree of insight into their own condition. His registrar, for ensuring that the SHO had gone through absolutely everything I needed to know, and then drawing me a diagram so I was absolutely clear.
Beyond the surgical team, there’s also the Day Unit nurses who clerked me in and helped me push my dodgy leg into the restrictive TED stocking. There’s the nurses in the blood clinic who looked after me when I began to faint in their chair, and didn’t even mind that needles make me panicky and subsequently ridiculous. There’s the Endoscopy team who were doubtless frustrated beyond the bounds of patience when they eventually abandoned all attempts to perform the biopsy I needed, particularly the nurse who succeeded with the cannula where six previous efforts had failed. There’s the doctor in the ultrasound clinic who finally confirmed a diagnosis of gallstones, showed me them on the screen, and looked only a little surprised when I laughed and told her I’d won a bet.
There’s the theatre nurse and anaesthetist who did everything they could to keep me calm when panic really set in, just before I went under. Most of all, there’s the nurse on Laindon ward who was there when I woke up, helped me to the lavatory when I was still dazed from the anaesthetic, carefully and attentively performed observations on six woozy patients every 30 minutes, brought me endless glasses of water, called my family to reassure them when she really didn’t have to, gave me the only painkillers my body would tolerate, kept me calm while she removed the cannulas from my hand and wrist, and discharged me professionally and patiently whilst running the ward single-handed and still called everyone “darling” like she meant it.
Basildon might be struggling as a hospital. It might be a victim of circumstance, or it might genuinely have a minority of staff members who are incompetent or lazy or both. In this way, it differs from no other workplace. But what it also has is staff who are dedicated to their jobs and their patients, even difficult patients like me. Many of their staff are probably overstretched and likely feel underpaid, and many departments are underfunded and potentially understaffed sometimes, even if only due to occasional staff sickness. Basildon has its problems, but it also has a body of staff who perform difficult and often unpleasant jobs with professionalism, dedication and grace, and without whom all patients would be at a complete loss. When you denigrate Basildon Hospital, you denigrate them too.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Words Matter

Some time ago, I got involved in a Facebook debate over offensive humour, which rapidly disintegrated into an argument over free speech. We managed to avoid invoking Godwin’s Law, but we did successfully provoke the following comment, which typifies the public attitude to free expression: “FREEDOM OF SPEECH means you can say anything to anyone! That does not mean you are right or even moral but you can say it!”

To anyone that’s encountered the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the error will be obvious. Free speech is not an absolute right - most countries have laws which state that freedom of expression may be limited in "the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety; the prevention of disorder or crime; [or] the protection of health or morals”. Most mouthy schoolboys and drunken racists will insist that they have a right to say what they like about who they like, but a quick examination of statute will reveal that it's simply not so.

Additionally, the Malicious Communications Act and recent Hate Crime legislation, not to mention defamation law for attacks on specific individuals, have clarified the law on what you may or may not say in a public arena such as Facebook or Twitter. Freedom of speech should be invoked in countries where you're imprisoned indefinitely without trial for criticising your government, not bleated about by people who are cocky enough to think that their need to be funny is more important than respecting the feelings of other people around them. Freedom of speech is a conditional right, not an absolute one, and when you think about it, there’s a good reason for that.

The truth is, words matter. Words are how we make contracts, build relationships, connect with others, and describe the human experience. We’re by no means the only species that communicates meaningfully, but we’re the only one capable of such subtlety and nuance. Albanians, for instance, can distinguish between 15 different types of facial hair, and are similarly specific about eyebrows. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Italians can name 500 different types of pasta, and the descriptions of colour in Webster’s dictionary are a symphony of shade and comparison.

There are currently more than a million words in the English language, their ranks swelled by new coinages like “vajazzle” and “selfie”. A tabloid newspaper will use about 8,000 individual words in a single edition. The average person regularly uses 35,000, a university graduate 50,000, and a writer as many as 75,000. Many are beautiful. Some are ugly, inelegant, or too often overlooked. All are powerful, but some are more powerful than others.

Of course, with great power comes great responsibility. Some words can comfort, praise, and reassure, but others can sting, wound and affront. For some people, it’s difficult to respect the broad vista that language opens up for us. They would use it like an indentured servant, all the while claiming that by doing so, they protect its freedom from those who want to see it muzzled and caged.

Instead, we must treat language – all language – like the rare and delicate gift that it is. Where in the past we’ve hurled shards of it at women, disabled people, those of other races, religions and sexualities, to mock the wounds it makes on impact. The time has come to pick up the pieces. This isn’t being ‘PC’ or ‘leftie’ or any other such ridiculous notion; this is about not deliberately insulting the other people we share the planet with. It’s easy to imagine that our house, our marriage, our family is a tiny ship tossed on a stormy sea of outsiders, battered by the wind and waves – in fact, that’s how we should view our planet.

In an unimportant solar system, in a modest galaxy, in one corner of an infinite and uncaring universe, intelligent life has struggled from a swamp and established an empire greater than that of Rome or Britain – the empire of the Earth. We have developed language, enabling us to begin to comprehend the vastness of our reality, or just gossip about inconsequential details. As I’ve said before, we have only each other – seven billion of us against the infinite coldness of space. We are fellow passengers on that storm-tossed sea, and yet we don’t huddle together for warmth and security; we keep confined to our quarters, the doors and stairwells blocked by obstructive, angry words. The worst of it is, we put them there.

What I’m trying to say, I suppose, is best summed up by a seasonal message that we let our children sing but never actually heed. We’ll pick it up, remove its historical gender bias, and repackage it for use all year round. Dickens said it, Dawkins implied it, and I can only echo it: peace on Earth, and goodwill to all humanity.