On reality, gender and empathy

Yesterday Paris Lees wrote a blog post on Avery Edison, a trans woman who was being held in a man’s prison in Canada. In it, she described “a culture that punishes difference, blames victims and lacks empathy”:

It’s a disbelief characterised by privilege: the cushy, unquestioned joy of not knowing what it feels like for the other person. To stand there, humiliated, while people you don’t know tell you what they think your gender should be. That you are fake. Inauthentic. Not what you say you are.

Powerful and beautifully expressed, this touches on something that lies at the heart of all movements for social change – this sense that you are not what others define you to be, that you are more human, more real, and as such you deserve more. That your life has a pattern and meaning other than those being imposed on it from above. We all know our realities better than anyone else. We know what forms us and we know what hurts us. We own the context of our own experiences.

I was thinking of this when reading Roz Kaveney’s response to my New Statesman piece on cis identities, gender and womanhood. It’s not a response as such, more a remarkably unfeeling lecture on how to be empathetic. It’s a curious thing, reading that what you believe and feel about yourself isn’t right, and that someone else knows better. It’s not an unfamiliar sensation of course; as a fellow woman, Roz, I’ve had people do this to me all my life. And here’s a gentle reminder, if you’re going to write about empathy again any time soon: the respect I show for your reality doesn’t render mine a poor, second-class version.

Your experiences don’t override mine, filling in the gaps, blotting out the parts no one wants to see. Your understanding of gender is different, but not heightened, not deeper, not more “real”. I am interested in the context it gives to mine, and the extent to which I may need to recalibrate in response; nevertheless, my flexibility doesn’t extend to offering up my own version of womanhood at the altar of your ego.

In a piece filled with kindly, long-suffering explanations of what I “really” think, Kaveney describes how “when someone like Glosswitch, not ill-intentioned and probably not meaningfully describable as transphobic, announces that they are going to talk about gender, alarm bells ring all over the trans* part of the internet”. I know! Just imagine, me, a feminist, having opinions and thoughts about gender! It’s bound to be total crap, right? The whole tone of this sounds disturbingly patriarchal. I picture myself in a Mike Leigh film, a seventies housewife who’s got drunk at a dinner party, my embarrassed husband making excuses for us both: “Don’t mind Glosswitch, she means well but she hasn’t a clue what she’s talking about!” Poor Glosswitch. She does get these “ideas” about womanhood. Don’t hold it against her, eh? She’s not transphobic, after all; well, not “meaningfully describable” as such (wink, wink).

Like all people who mistake projection for empathy, Kaveney seems to suggest she is being kind:

I get that, as a young cis woman, Glosswitch experienced major areas of dysphoria about body and social role; I understand that she thinks, not entirely without justice, that these give her some share of what trans people go through.

Well, actually: no. That’s not what I think. I don’t define my experience of gender solely in relation to people who experience it differently. I don’t see it as a partial, broken-off narrative, useful only if it will earn me the right to take part in a conversation that belongs to someone else. This is my story. Mine. I own it. It is every bit as complete and real as yours, and this is true of every single woman on Earth, cis or trans. This will make you uncomfortable. It makes me uncomfortable, too, but there we are. That’s empathy for you.

This doesn’t mean gender is arbitrary and meaningless, floating in the ether. It is embedded in all of our lives. We each make our own definitions, form our own versions. That doesn’t mean the totality of these versions is harmless. We can still read its impact. It’s not the case that when beliefs about gender kill women – or cause them not to be born at all – these women don’t really die because hey, that’s not how you see gender operating. This is no more valid than suggesting that racism isn’t that bad, really, because you recognise people of colour are equal to white people. You don’t get to deny the reality of structural inequality just because you simply don’t feel it deep within yourself.

Kaveney writes that “the range of meanings attached to the word gender are attached to a range of actual lived experiences – that is how a living language about sex and equality develops”. I am a linguist. I have PhD in languages. I might not be quoting Butler but I am not a child who needs words explaining to me. I also know that it is naïve in the extreme to pretend that language necessarily develops in a positive direction, becoming more progressive and inclusive. Any development which takes from females the means to articulate the relationship between gender, biology and oppression – and does so at a time of massive structural inequality – is not a positive one. It is, on the contrary, erasing and dangerous. Kaveney would like to suggest that any articulation of the misogyny inherent in reproductive oppression means giving in to “the people who want to abolish women’s reproductive freedom” since they are also erasing trans men. This is disingenuous beyond belief. A denial of the structural roots of oppression is not a move for inclusivity. Misogyny is real. It is no less real when it has an impact on those who do not identify as women.

Of course, like all women, I am used to people talking down to me and feeling, not angry, but disappointed. Often they sound like this:

Some of the time Glosswitch really doesn’t get it – empathy fails all together.

Oh dear :(. The trouble is, empathy isn’t saying what people would like you to say. It is about trying to understand. Kaveney doesn’t like this. You are, it appears, either right or wrong:

What’s also politically dangerous is [Glosswitch’s] assumption that there’s a possible, desirable truce between trans people and those feminists who are trans-exclusionary, or more accurately trans-eliminationist.

God forbid that anyone should operate on the assumption that, in a world in which beliefs about sex and gender oppress us all, we’re most of us trying to do our best. God forbid anyone should try to act in a way that identifies humanity and good faith even in those we disagree with. God forbid that we should hesitate before daring to look at anyone – anyone at all—and say that they are, to quote Lees, “fake. Inauthentic. Not who you say you are.” God forbid that I should believe my reality can stand toe to toe with yours.

I haven’t written this for the benefit of Roz Kaveney, or indeed anyone else. I’ve written it for me, because it makes me feel better to restate that my reality is mine. It’s important to be able to reclaim these things. You can take something from deep within yourself and lay it out for public consumption and it will be there for others to take and put into whatever context they wish. Nonetheless, it’s still yours, whoever you are. It can’t be distorted and shoved back inside you as something else, something you neither knew nor felt.  Anyone at all should be able to empathise with that, at least if they were to try.


Womanhood, girlhood and shared exclusion

Over the past couple of days I have been half-following the #sharedgirlhood hashtag on twitter and the surrounding controversy over cissexism and exclusion. I don’t wish to comment on that directly, not least because it feels like being asked to choose which women have the most authentic lived experience (and all women get quite enough of these arbitrary judgments already).*

One thing that has interested me, however, has been seeing the suggestion that the idea of “shared experience” has no value anyhow. I’ve seen several feminists suggest that because women’s experiences are so disparate and dependent on other inequalities, the idea of a shared experience (whether or not we call it shared girlhood) is at best pointless, at worst a sop for the privileged. I don’t think this has to be true. If women’s oppression is not understood collectively – if sex discrimination is regarded as something that has no internal coherence in and of itself – how can feminism have meaning as a project for women’s liberation?

Continue reading

Why this mum’s not saluting Lily Allen’s baggy pussy

I realise I’m late to the party when it comes to discussing Lily Allen’s new video, or even discussing how I’m not going to discuss it. Therefore I’m going to discuss it a bit, then discuss people discussing it, and then not discuss it any more. I reckon overall that should do.

Like many people, I liked the balloon bit in Allen’s video but thought the rest was rather like punching someone in the face while telling them you were only offering an ironic commentary on face-punching. I’d like to think it’s possible to encourage people to be critical of sexist, racist culture without simply re-creating it in order to say “LOOK! LOOK HOW BAD THIS IS!” Continue reading

Pissers vs Wankers: The state of left-wing feminist debate?

Are you a pisser or a wanker? When it comes to the latest lefty spat, are you part of the privileged journalist circle-jerk or the intersectional pissing contest? Are you more clever than thou or more righteous? Let’s be clear – I’m not interested in what you actually think. I just want to second-guess your motivations in the least charitable way possible.

Today I tweeted a link to a post that I thought was really, really good, but then I worried that in doing so, I’d look really, really bad. It was about how white feminists behave around black feminists, and I couldn’t help thinking that since I’m a white feminist, it might have looked like I was saying “look at me, everyone! I’m totally not racist – but you might be!” I don’t want people to think this. I care about these issues, but I also care about being liked. I don’t want to be seen as a pissing contest lefty. I thought it was a great post (read it!) but alas, I can’t really say that without being viewed as having an ostentatious intersectional moment. Ho-hum. Continue reading

Blogging and anonymity: Can you say what you like when you’re not being you?

Having always been an opinionated sod, I used to spend a lot of time writing to newspapers. This was back in the days when I’d read them in hard copy and didn’t have forums or comment streams to respond to. I’d always sign off using my real name, because that’s just what you do with letters. Usually my letters would get published and it would freak me out, a bit, but not too much. After all, my parents would usually hear “your daughter had something controversial to say about abortion in the Guardian” second-hand from someone they met in town and they’d never look into it further (since that would have involved actually buying the Guardian).

When reading online and adding comments became more popular, I carried on using my real name for a while, because it never crossed my mind not to. It was only when I became aware that complete strangers ended up having vicious verbal fights that I began to think twice. Still, I felt there was something quite noble about refusing to resort to a pseudonym. It meant you were standing by your ideas and taking responsibility for yourself in every medium.

One thing I ought to mention at this point is that in real life I have an unusual name. It’s not a particularly interesting one, but it’s one that I don’t think anyone else has. It’s the kind of name where, if you met me briefly and then heard my name mentioned again in a completely unexpected context, you wouldn’t think “oh, that’ll be a different [my name]”. You’d think “crikey, I’d never have thought [my name] would be into that, but it’s gotta be the same person” (i.e. Dave Gorman I’m not).

Several years ago I had a letter published in a national newspaper, alongside several others by different authors. They were all on the same controversial issue, taking broadly the same position, but each making different individual points. A blogger took exception to this, and decided to “take on” the correspondents in a post of his own. Alas, he found it impossible to google the others and get the dirt, since they all had nondescript names and he might have ended up accusing the wrong people. The only person upon whom you could launch a vaguely reliable attack was me – he actually admitted this in his post. Thus the whole thing ended up being about me alone, via a highly selective trawl through everything I’d ever written over the previous ten years (including things which, if he’d asked me, I wouldn’t even stand by myself – I’m happy to ‘fess up when I’ve been a twat. But he didn’t ask). There were things which disproved certain of the wilder claims he made about my political beliefs, but he missed those out. He included other stuff, though, such as the title of the thesis I was writing and why it was a shit title and musings as to why universities let tossers like me in anyhow. Those adding comments to his blog agreed: what a terrible student I must be! (the original letter had bugger all to do with any of this). Anyhow, I discovered the whole thing one evening, alone, drunk and idly seeing what would happen if I googled myself. See? That’s where off-your-face vanity gets you.

If he’d just criticised my letter – that one letter – that would have been fine. I already knew some people didn’t agree with it anyhow, since I’d written it in response to one such person. He could even have said I was a bigoted moron for thinking the way I did, because yes, I knew that would be some people’s interpretation. But that’s not what he did. He suggested my entire life was a total joke and he did it a) because he’s mean and b) because he could since I have a stupid name.

I don’t know if that post is still there. If I were to google myself again, I’d imagine it’d be many pages further along the search results than it used to be, what with me having done stuff myself and not being that interesting a target in the grand scheme of things. My partner found the post before me. He wrote a comment, but the blogger never responded. I considered responding myself, but the sniping about my thesis had upset me more than anything (it was back when I’d failed the first time around, although thankfully, the blogger was not aware of that. A tiny part of me was terrified he was right). I thought about returning to the blog once I had passed and once my book was published, just to go “ner! Where’s your book, sucker?” In the end I never did, because once I had achieved these things it seemed unimportant and petty. I didn’t want to look like I cared and, largely, I didn’t. But by god, if that experience taught me one thing, it was of the value of pseudonyms if you want to maintain some kind of life in online debating circles and you happen to have a name like mine.

The thing I wonder now, though, is whether using a pseudonym means you should restrict what you say about those who are still using their real names. I worry it creates an imbalance; you are hiding and they are not. I mean, if you are responding to them on a single topic and not googling their whole life stories to use as “evidence” against them, it’s probably okay, right? It still leaves me with a sense of unease.

I suppose on one level you could say that people who make money by putting their names to opinions are already advantaged compared to those of us who make money from other things. For instance, if I were to put my name to opinions akin to those of Richard Littlejohn, Carole Malone or Melanie Phillips, it would seriously affect my professional standing. But these people get paid thousands to write these things; being controversial enhances their professional status. It wouldn’t enhance mine (not that I dream of saying the things Richard Littlejohn comes out with; but even the things I say wouldn’t play well with everyone, and I know that). I don’t feel guilty about criticising these people; to me they’re fair game. It’s more problematic when it’s not the big fish. What do you do in a situation such as that? Where does the power lie?

Right now, I appear to have had something of a succès de scandale by attacking a book written by one of the smaller fish. As successes go, it’s very, very minor; daily hits on this blog are modest and this particular post seems to have gained more hits after the main body of the offending text was removed than before. Added to that people have been genuinely upset and it’s all way too much hassle. If this is success, I’d rather have failure (or, ideally, proper success, which would involve no one being upset and, as a bonus, me getting some money). But hey, to be fair to myself, I have at no point googled anyone and attempted to find out “the truth” about anything. I like to think it’s because I’m not a total cow, but perhaps I’m just not arsed enough to be that mean. And anyhow, no one involved has as stupid a name as me.

But that, anyhow, is the reason why I’m Glosswitch. Which again is a stupid name. So I’ve fucked up once more. Should’ve gone for yummymummy27890 or something similar. Ah well. Perhaps that’ll be the next me.

Your blogger persona: Is he or she, like, a complete bitch?

Anyone remember Meredith Brooks? She had a solitary hit in the late 90s with the song “Bitch”. In case your memory needs jogging further, this is the chorus, rendered phonetically to provide some extra help:

Ahm a bitch, ahm a lover
Ahm a child, ahm a mother
Ahm a sinner, ahm a saint
Ah do not feel ashamed
Ahm your hell, ahm your dream
Ahm nothin’ in between
You know you wouldn’t want it any other way

For those of you who don’t have a masters in literature, I think what Meredith’s saying is that a woman is not a mere cardboard cut-out stereotype; she’s lots of cardboard cut-out stereotypes. And men, apparently, “wouldn’t want it any other way”.

I am pondering this as I start to examine which stereotypes I exemplify in this blog (yeah, it’s one of those up-its-own-arse posts. You’re welcome to look away now). The fact is, a few days ago I mentioned the sex positive parenting blog to some friends I know from “real life”, and I’m now freaked out they may have looked at some of my blog posts there or, worse, here, and be thinking “what the fuck? She’s nothing like that!” (btw, if you are one of my “real life” friends reading this, you’re confused and this is written by someone else. If you’re not, well I am like that in real life. Don’t believe my so-called friends; as noted above, they’re confusing me with someone else).

To be honest, I am terrified that the disjuncture between who I am in “real life” and who I am on this blog will be exposed in a way that makes me look like a complete and utter twat. It won’t be like with Brooke Magnanti/Belle de Jour, with everyone going “wow! She’s a prostitute and a scientist! That makes her a nice prostitute! And a sexy scientist!”. It’ll be more “she doesn’t even wear that much makeup and her tits aren’t even that big. What kind of tell-it-like-it-is blogger is she?” (although I’m not even sure I’d fall into the category of “tell-it-like-it-is blogger”. Probably more “tell-it-like-her-bizarre-imagination-says-it-is”, but I suppose at least no one can challenge me on that).

In addition to this, though, I’m also terrified that my blogger persona will infiltrate my “real life” self and start taking over, making me rather like Anakin Skywalker going over to the Dark Side (with both of us doing it for much the same reason: it’s just way cooler). Obviously on a blog I’m much more uninhibited; I write what pops into my head (I say “obviously”; I am aware other bloggers value and use a thing called restraint, in order to make their blogs more meaningful and readable. I am a bit lazy on that score. And my head is very persistent with its “poppings”). I now worry that since I started blogging I’m more uninhibited at work, but not in a good way. A good way would be if I were more confident in telling others what to do. My not-good way involves making more puns and innuendos than are strictly necessary when updating the asset management system (ooh, assets!). And sadly, it gets worse.

This week I bought a tub of M&S mini teacakes to share with my colleagues. Once a sufficient number of people (i.e. one) had toddled over to get theirs, I went to get my share, taking two because hey, they’re only little. As I walked back to my desk, I was taken by the powerful urge to place a mini teacake on each tit, like a chocolatey nipple tassle, and do a comedy “sexy” dance. I fought this urge, and thank god, I won, but man, it was powerful. And I totally blame the Glosswitch persona for this. That, and the Good Men Project small-breasts article. I mean, I’d like to think this blog isn’t just the verbal equivalent of me dancing with teacakes on my tits but let’s face it, I’m too close to the whole thing to know.

I imagine lots of bloggers are tormented by the thought “shit! What if my colleagues found out?”. Because we’re not sure quite who we are on the blog, and we’re not quite sure who we are in “real life” either. Probably, in some metaphorical way, as Brooks observes, we’re each and every one of us a bitch, a lover, a child, a mother, a sinner and a saint. And we’re probably all those identities listed at the end of The Breakfast Club as well (the jock, the princess, the basket case, the criminal, and the one who made something in technology class that didn’t work and had a cry about it but he came in useful in the end because they got him to do all the written work). That’s us, in both environments, real and virtual, but in different ways. How do we manage it? Well, here’s my first top tip: don’t, whatever you do, do the “teacake dance”.*

* Unless you work at a fetish club and are paid to do this. Or it’s something your partner really likes. Then go ahead and do it. I recommend also branching out into Jammie Dodgers – they give good strawberry-flavoured nipple.