Yet more ways to tell women to shut up: John Pilger, Louise Mensch, feminism and class

So, fellow feminists, here’s a quick quiz. Are we:

  1. Too obsessed with class?
  2. Insufficiently obsessed with class?
  3. In the Goldilocks zone as far as class is concerned?

Because frankly, I’m confused. One week Louise Mensch is telling us that feminism’s far too full of “debates about middle-class privilege” to get anything done, the next John Pilger’s complaining that “class is a forbidden word” amongst the feminist elite. “Whose side are you on?” asks John. Well, not the side of those who think the feminist agenda has to be restricted to their own privileged experience of reality. Equality is not achieved by treating the whole world like an op-ed, waiting to be populated with one’s own broad-brush caricatures and overbearing sense of righteousness.

So a woman who enjoys class privilege thinks feminism should focus more on gender, and a man who enjoys male privilege thinks it should focus more on class. Amazing! Perhaps, feminists, we should all give up now. Let’s all go home and cook tea, assuming cooking tea is something feminists do. I’m not sure whether we’re too busy “high heeling [our] way up the corporate ladder” or ”sitting around frenziedly checking [our] privilege”. Certainly, we don’t do mundane things such as read the news, which is why people like John Pilger have to read it for us, before explaining it, boorishly, in terms we can just about understand.

I used to be dubious about the term “mansplaining”. After all, it’s not even a decent pun. John Pilger has, however, turned the whole thing into an art form. Witness, for instance, last year’s bold Guardian piece, in which he told us all that “Julia Gillard is no feminist hero”. Bloody hell, John! Next thing I know, you’ll be telling me David Cameron isn’t a gay rights warrior and I’ll have to reverse my whole position on same-sex marriage! It’s a good job you’re around to tell us that celebrating all gender-based battles won is inappropriate without your prior approval.

Now John’s noticed that one form of feminism – which he cunningly calls “media feminism” in an effort to suggest he knows of any other kind – has “subtly divided men and women into opposing camps and added a dash of moral panic”. Ooh, sneaky! I bet that’ll be the kind of feminism where, if women are being raped, beaten and murdered by men, it’s then said to be a gender issue. When obviously it isn’t. Cos that’s, like, divisive. And it doesn’t mention class. Except sometimes it does. But anyhow, that doesn’t matter. Suzanne Moore, you should shut up, because John Pilger said so.

Pilger quotes from a Guardian piece in which Moore expresses anger that so few men discuss rape and abuse in terms of gender, or, as Pilger dismissively puts it, “that men don’t care as much as women because they don’t use Twitter enough to express their abhorrence of rape and kidnap” (they’re presumably thinking deep, meaningful thoughts about it while the silly women merely tweet). Here is Pilger’s response:

How quickly the broad brush of blame is applied to a rash of dreadful murder and kidnap cases. Throw in an abduction in Cleveland, Ohio, and the arrest of “yet another TV personality” and, according to Cynthia Cockburn and Ann Oakley, this represents “the profound, extensive and costly problem of male sexual violence”.

For some reason, far from making Pilger himself worry about male violence, all this does is remind him “of Julia Gillard’s elevation to feminist hero”. It’s not clear why this is, unless it’s merely yet another thing that’s filed away in the compartment of his brain marked “stuff where privileged women shed light on male privilege and I CAN’T COPE WITH THAT BEING A THING WHEN THEY ARE PRIVILEGED TOO!”. Given that in the next paragraph he’s moved on to Harriet Harman, “the self-declared feminist who is Labour’s deputy leader”, I feel this explanation is quite likely.

The trouble is, if you can’t cope with privileges intersecting and overlapping, it’s probably best not to try. Or rather, do try, but don’t use your own lack of comprehension as an excuse to tell everyone else what they’re doing wrong. One particularly bizarre moment in Pilger’s piece comes when he approvingly quotes Heather McRobie claiming that “in media discussion of economic issues circa 2008, women were largely Sex and the City caricatures of white prosperity, frivolity, recession-triggering over-spenders”. I think that’s pretty accurate, as does Pilger, but then he gets rather caught up in the caricature and fails to remember who is fooling whom. He follows McRobie’s quote with this:

Behind these gender stereotypes lay the fake “empowering” of poor women in the United States. Persuaded to buy their own homes with rotten sub-prime mortgages, African-American women and their families fell into a chasm of debt.

What is the actual argument here? That Sex and the City feminism duped African-American women into debt? That the narrative of gaining “empowerment” through money was written by feminists? That all feminists are these Sex and City caricatures? That feminist debate on the effects of recession has circled around sexist stereotype rather than a clear-headed analysis of the effects on the poorest members of society, and the specific impact recession has when these people are women? Because none of these explanations make sense. Furthermore, I’m wondering whether Pilger even recognises the feminist achievements of African-American and working-class women. Presumably they can’t be feminists. They’re too busy being poor and waiting for a nice white man to save them with a brilliant, piercing article. This is “equality” in its most colonialist form, and it’s not good enough.

If women are angry about gender inequality, it’s no good for a man to tell them to be angry about class instead. Likewise, if women are angry about class inequality, a women like Louise Mensch can’t just tell them to show more respect for alpha females. That’s not creating unity or action. It’s just telling people to shut up about what matters to them. The sad thing is, it might also matter to you, if you only took the time to listen.

8 thoughts on “Yet more ways to tell women to shut up: John Pilger, Louise Mensch, feminism and class

    1. And I totally agreed with him on the Iraq war! It wasn’t like you have to think “sorry, can’t deal with illegal wars, got me wimmin’s stuff to focus on …”

  1. I’m glad you took the time to pick this article apart – thank you. I skim-read it today (only because the NS handily mentioned it at the foot of Laurie Penny’s column and I obediently followed) and found his argument completely incomprehensible. I thought I could worry about both gender and class at the same time but obviously not. Silly me!

    1. Thank you for saying that! There was a bit of me thinking “there must be something I’ve missed” cos I don’t get it, either! But no, it just doesn’t make sense, does it?

  2. John Pilger is often a refreshing and tenacious advocate for the oppressed (his book Heroes is excellent), which his piece ‘there is a war on ordinary people’ fails miserably to do.

    His confused attempt to deconstruct one-sided media run conversations about gender, especially those that he seems to think erroneously point out the endemic problem of male violence in society (no-one mention Assange here ok) fails to acknowledge the overwhelmingly patriarchal context in which these conversations run. As the Sex and Power 2013 report points men continue to dominate every public political arena (state, church, science and sport) and are able to support a widespread agenda that reflects their interests and beliefs.

    Pilger claims these conversations run with the terms already decided – well welcome to the world of the oppressed. This is perhaps why the ideology of democracy with it’s principles such as truth, justice and equality remains such a potent force in societies across the world.

    The neutering of credible resistance to the socio-pathic system that currently dominates the world has most definitely not been suppressed or legislated against by the feminist lobby. (Which for me naturally aligns with Occupy and other social justice movements.) Let us look once again to the elite, corporate, male-stream media for that eh!

  3. Though in Australia the Bureau of Statistics observed: “In 2011, there were 1,069,000 higher education students. Of these, 57% were women.” I believe that there needs to be change when it comes to women’s participation in public life, and recognition of women in sport. But I am interested in whether the aim really is *equality*; in which case lower men’s participation in higher education, and lower Secondary Education results – should be seen as an issue which needs to be addressed also. I also think that in the ‘mainstream’ public sphere class really has become ‘unspeakable’. If we are about a ‘movement of movements’ and extending the principle of solidarity then class needs equal billing with gender. People need to express solidarity with each other to remedy ALL the various ways in which they experience disadvantage, exploitation, oppression – and should not relent in that solidarity if they enjoy success in their own sphere. I’m not saying ‘feminism’ does this generally. But some (not all) liberal feminists do not extend the principle of solidarity to include class.

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