Wednesday, December 02, 2015
UK: Where are the feminists on this?
Labour faced a sexism row today after men and women were segregated at an Asian [Muslim] party rally.
The meeting organised by the party's Friends of Bangladesh group was held ahead of Thursday's crucial by-election, which Labour is in danger of losing.
Photographs of the event in Oldham West and Royton, where one in five voters is from an ethnic minority, shows Asian men and women sitting in separate rows.
Critics said allowing the sexes to be split up at the party-run event was 'shameful' and accused Labour of 'putting political correctness ahead of equality' in order to win votes.
Before the May election Labour was rocked by a similar segregation scandal when men and women were split at an Islamic centre rally in Birmingham.
Labour won the Oldham West and Royton seat with a majority of 14,738 in May but Ukip has launched a strong challenge.
Labour insiders say support for the party is 'bad' in working class areas of Oldham, with voters furious at Mr Corbyn's opposition to police 'shot to kill' orders, the killing of ISIS murderer Jihadi John and his response to the Paris attacks.
But the party is pinning its hopes on securing support from the Asian community to hold the seat which was won in May with a 15,000 majority.
According to the 2011 census more than 50,000 of the 220,000 population in Oldham are from an ethnic minority.
There have been some reports that some Asian voters have lived in the area for more than a decade and do not speak English - but will vote Labour.
Yesterday's Friends of Bangladesh event was in support of Jim McMahon, who is the party's candidate in Oldham West on Thursday.
Photos of the event, organised by Labour Friends of Bangladesh and attended by the Labour candidate and several high profile MPs, shows men and women were almost entirely segregated. Only two women sat among the men and both were not Asian.
Labour has denied that people were forced to sit separately based on gender.
Pictures of the event yesterday were tweeted by Debbie Abrahams, MP for neighbouring Oldham East and Saddleworth, and shadow minister for disabled people whose role involves fighting inequality.
John Bickley the constituency's UKIP candidate said: 'Is this really Labour's modern Britain?Where a political event is segregated by gender? This was not a religious meeting where cultural traditions must be respected. But a political gathering.
For a party that claims to be progressive, Labour seems to accept some pretty funny ideas about gender equality if they think them electorally helpful. 'How can it be acceptable in modern Britain that a political party that wishes to represent all the people, and in particular the various communities of Oldham thinks that it's OK to segregate by gender'.
Labour today claimed that women were not forced to sit away from men.
A party spokesman said: 'The accusation of gender segregation is absolutely untrue. The Labour party's record on gender equality speaks for itself. Ukip are clutching at straws for something to say in this election because they have no answers to the real issues facing voters in Oldham'.
Internal polling is said to show that Labour could be in danger of losing the seat on Thursday after Michael Meacher's death.
Ukip is targeting the white working class in the town and hope to collect Asian voters who are unhappy with Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and also keen to leave the EU.
Mr Corbyn was due to visit Oldham on Friday but cancelled at the last minute to deal with the growing crisis in his party over whether to bomb Syria.
Before the May election Labour was rocked by a similar segregation scandal when men and women were split at an Islamic centre.
Senior party figures, including Liam Byrne, Tom Watson and Harriet Harman's husband Jack Dromey, spoke at the event in Birmingham where men sat on one side of the room and women on the other.
Labour has denied that people were forced to sit separately based on gender - even though photographs from the event show that the groups were clearly segregated.
Critics called the decision 'sickening' and claimed that the party was 'selling values for votes'.
Microaggression theory: an assault on everyday life
This crusade against unwitting racism is deeply divisive
Today, we are forever scrutinising our dialogue and conversation, looking out for offensive and insulting content. Of course, words, especially demeaning or degrading ones, have always had the capacity to hurt people’s feelings. But it’s different today. Words don’t just insult; no, today they inflict verbal violence, they traumatise.
While words are considered to be incredibly powerful today, it’s also true that people are deemed massively vulnerable, and unable to deal with hostile words. Even everyday verbal exchanges, no matter how casual, can be indicted for causing offence. This inquisitorial attitude towards everyday speech is perfectly captured by ‘Everyday Racism’, a video produced by BBC3.
‘Everyday Racism’ offers numerous examples of so-called microaggressions. Its message is that racism is so banal that just about anything a white person says is likely to contain traces of prejudice. A typical example of an everyday, racist microaggression is the question, ‘where are you from?’. According to microaggression experts, this question is a covert way of saying ‘you don’t belong here’.
Watching this inane video, which the Daily Mirror described as a ‘shocking’ expose of the ‘unbelievable racial stereotypes ethnic minorities face’, I was reminded of the first time I encountered the conceit of microaggression. Ever since I’ve been able to afford taxis, I have always asked cabbies with unusual surnames, ‘where are you from?’. I’m fascinated by people’s names and origins, and enjoy discussing cabbies’ personal stories with them. But it wasn’t until last November that I discovered my curiosity regarding people’s origins can now be condemned as an act of microaggression. I was in New York and, after a five-minute exchange with an Ethiopian taxi about our mutual origins, a Boston-based academic told me my questions could be perceived as microaggressions.
Until then, I had always dismissed microaggressions as too silly to take seriously. But these are strange times. Microaggression refers to the allegedly subconscious offence that your words cause to individuals and cultural groups. According to ‘Tool: Recognising Microaggressions and the Messages They Send’, the Orwellian-sounding guidelines circulated by the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA), I was indeed guilty as charged. Apparently, asking ‘Where are you from or where were you born?’ conveys the message that ‘you are not a true American’. Presumably, if I repeat this question in London I am saying, ‘you are not a true Brit’.
What’s fascinating about the UCLA guidelines is that anything that is said to someone from a different cultural group may constitute a microaggression. So, declaring that ‘America is the land of opportunity’ could be construed as a microaggression because it implies that ‘race or gender does not play a role in life successes’. There seems to be a veritable industry producing guidelines, running sensitivity seminars and creating microaggression-awareness websites.
At the same time, the number and variety of words and expressions castigated as aggressive and threatening are constantly expanding. The Inclusive Excellence Center at the University of Wisconsin declared that the latest addition to its list of censored terms is ‘politically correct’. Without a hint of irony, it said that PC has become a ‘dismissive term’, used to suggest that ‘people are being too “sensitive”, and police language’. By attempting to censor the phrase ‘politically correct’, microaggression-watchers proved they were indeed in the business of policing language.
Campaigns designed to tackle microaggressions have spread far beyond American campuses. In the UK, the denunciation of microaggressions has seamlessly meshed with the obsessive search for harmful gestures and words associated with everyday sexism and everyday racism. It is only a matter of time before the ‘everyday outrage’ movement is launched to cover the entirety of everyday life.
The performance of outrage is a central feature of the moral crusade against microaggression. There is a mushrooming of microaggression websites where likeminded victims are encouraged to air their grievances and broadcast their concerns in order to raise the awareness of those who are blind to the pandemic of microaggression enveloping the world. Typically these websites feature individuals holding signs with a message of studied defiance directed against the microaggressor. So, students from Oxford have copied the I, Too, Am Harvard campaign, which highlights the unintended slights and insults suffered by black students. On the I, Too, Am Oxford website, individuals post pictures of themselves holding signs advertising perceived insults addressed to them. One sign reads, ‘“Wow your English is great.” “Thanks, I was born in London.”’
Some of these scenarios are likely to have been made up for effect. One young woman holds a placard stating, ‘“I’m really happy I’m going out with you and you’re brown… it proves I’m not racist.” Ummm.’ Did her partner really say that? What the pictures on the I, Too, Am Oxford website offer is not so much outrage but the performance of outrage.
Yet, despite its incoherence, the publicity campaign against microaggressions has had remarkable success. Val Rust, a professor of education at UCLA, was humiliated and disciplined by his administrators for his alleged ‘racial microaggression’. His crime? Changing a student’s capitalisation of the word ‘indigenous’ to lowercase. Rust was found guilty by UCLA of disrespecting his student’s ideological point of view. Given this climate, it was unsurprising to hear from numerous academics that they now practise self-censorship for fear of being accused of uttering a microaggression.
Such accusations are no longer confined to university campuses. Recently an American television interviewer, Melissa Harris-Perry, scolded one of her guests for describing Paul Ryan, the recently elected speaker of the House of Representatives, as a ‘hard worker’. She claimed that calling Ryan a ‘hard worker’ demeaned slaves and working mothers ‘in the context of relative privilege’. Typically, those individuals accused of uttering a microaggression backtrack, and implicitly accept the moral authority of their accusers.
What’s significant about the concept of microaggression is that it targets not just words, but the imputed meaning behind words. The question ‘where are you from?’ is denounced not because the words are offensive in themselves, but because the words’ implication is offensive. Microaggressors are being denounced for what they allegedly think, not necessarily for what they say. This is an open invitation to police our thoughts.
In the end, what matters is not the significance of the words exchanged but whether the individual claims to be offended by them. Neither the content of the words nor the intention behind them is important. All that matters is whether the alleged victim feels that the words disrespected his or her identity. Here, the meaning and status of a statement is defined by the victim. To ignore or question someone’s claim that they have been offended is to indulge in the unforgivable crime of ‘victim-blaming’.
Underpinning the microaggression-hunters’ crusade is the conviction that the victim is always right. The American comedian Louis CK has clearly internalised this ‘watch your language’ etiquette. ‘When a person tells you that you hurt them’, he said recently, ‘you don’t get to decide that you didn’t’. The arrogant intolerance of Louis CK’s position is striking. He is saying that individuals do not get to decide the meaning of their words or actions.
So what are microaggressions?
The term microaggression was defined by Derald Wing Sue, professor of counseling psychology at Columbia University, as ‘the brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioural and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial, gender, and sexual orientation, and religious slights and insults to the target person or group’. What’s important about Sue’s definition is that these indignities need not be the outcome of intentional behaviour. He argues that ‘perpetrators of microaggressions are often unaware’ of the indignities that they inflict on others.
The focus on the unconscious or unwitting dimension of microaggressions is crucial. People accused of committing microaggressions are not indicted for what they have done or or said, or even for what they consciously think; they are indicted for their unconscious thoughts.
According to Sue, ‘microaggressions are often unconsciously delivered in the form of subtle snubs or dismissive looks, gestures, and tones’. But how does one prove an act of microaggression? After all, if these are sentiments buried deep in the psyche of the microaggressor, how can their existence be verified? As far Sue and his collaborators are concerned, there is no need for a complex psychoanalysis of the perpetrator. Why? Because, according to Sue, ‘nearly all interracial encounters are prone to the manifestation of racial microaggression’. In other words, there is little to prove. The same holds for encounters involving women, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals, and disability groups. In every case, microaggressions are all but inevitable.
In all these cases, the presumption of guilt precedes the words or gestures of the unconscious aggressor. This is a secular theory of original sin from which no white, heterosexual man can possibly escape. According to Sue, even ‘well-intentioned whites’ suffer from ‘unconscious racial biases’.
The crusade against microaggressions plays a central role in the elaboration of Western identity politics. The performance of outrage featured on microaggression websites, complete with numerous photos of placard-holding individuals, transforms the ‘micro’, banal insults and misunderstandings of everyday life into examples of major social injustice. The sign-holders’ outrage is inversely proportional to the scale of the slight suffered. Hence a poorly phrased compliment can incite the angriest of reactions, followed by a complaint to the relevant authorities.
The concept of microaggressions resonates with a wider mood of distrust among and between adults. Over recent decades, society has increasingly felt uncomfortable with leaving people to manage their own personal interactions. As a result, rules and codes of conduct covering bullying, harassment and conflict have proliferated, and interpersonal tensions and misunderstandings are now often managed by professionals.
Now, a whole new dimension – unconscious behaviour and its unintended consequences – has been brought to the attention of rulemakers and lawyers. Human communication has always been a complicated business. The reading of body language and the interpretation of words and gestures have always involved misunderstandings. In an enlightened environment, it has been recognised that it is difficult, if not impossible, to hold people responsible for the unintended consequences of their actions and words. If people are held to account not for what they do or say, but for what they unconsciously think, then the idea of moral responsibility becomes incoherent. What is truly tragic about the myth of microaggressions is that it makes genuine dialogue impossible. The micro-policing of human relations is the inexorable consequence of the project of criminalising unconscious thought and behaviour.
One of the achievements of modern, open societies is that people are free to make choices about how they express themselves, the language they use and the attitudes they exhibit in public. Unlike in pre-modern communities, people do not have to watch their language or conform to the prescribed language of traditional culture. But anti-microaggression crusaders want to turn back the clock. They loathe tolerance and seek to impose a new regime of conformity on contemporary public life.
The policing of statements and words is deeply intolerant. The statement ‘watch your words’, which is so casually used in the crusade against microaggression, is a call to close down discussion. So ignore the likes of Louis CK – we all should be free to decide the meanings of our words.
The mental obsession with offence-taking
Ken Livingstone has become the latest victim of these over-sensitive times
After the horrors of the recent terrorist attacks in France, it is clear that a governmental review of Britain’s defence strategy is required. This is also a priority for the Labour opposition, which announced that Ken Livingstone would co-convene its defence review alongside fellow MP Maria Eagle. This drew criticism from Eagle who had been led to believe that she alone would lead the review. Many of her supporters also decried Livingstone’s appointment, with Kevan Jones, the shadow defence minister, objecting due to Livingstone’s opposition to the Trident missile defence system. But it was Livingstone’s response to Jones that has caused the most outrage.
Livingstone told the Daily Mirror that he thought that Jones ‘might need some psychiatric help. He’s obviously very depressed and disturbed. He should pop off and see his GP before he makes these offensive comments.’ It is a crude tactic to label your opponents as mentally unstable and irrational, the implication being that their views need not be taken seriously. However, what made these remarks personal was that Jones has suffered from depression in the past and still has some difficulties in the present.
Livingstone’s remarks provoked much criticism. Jones himself said, ‘I find these comments gravely offensive not just personally, but also to the many thousands who suffer from mental illness. This is why Ken Livingstone can’t be taken seriously in defence or any other policy issues.’ Jones urged Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to ‘seriously consider whether Ken Livingstone is fit to represent the party if he’s prepared to insult tens of thousands of the electorate who suffer from mental illness’. Luciana Berger, the shadow mental health minister, said the comments were unacceptable, appalling and ‘should be treated as seriously as racism or sexism’.
Livingstone’s comments were indeed insensitive – but, then again, politics has never been about sensitivity. Instead, it was the response to his comments that was far more concerning; such a shrill overreaction casts a light on the sad state of political and public life today. While there was undoubtedly a political motive behind the attacks on Livingstone, with Jones and others hoping he would be removed from the defence review, the developments also followed a wearily familiar path.
First, there is the pronouncement of ‘offence’. This works as a silencer, a rebuke, a moral claim similar to that of accusing someone of being ‘mentally ill’. In the latter, my opponent is mentally suspect, in the former, they are morally questionable. In both cases, the implication is that we should treat their views with suspicion.
Second, there is the spectacle of public humiliation, with atonement, by public apology rather than confession, offering the only hope of absolution. Everyone knows the apology is insincere, but the symbolic value lies in the exhibition of someone to whom we can feel morally superior, and, in the process, have our own viewpoints publicly endorsed. What’s more, the errant individual may then need to be re-educated, or, in contemporary parlance, have their ‘awareness raised’.
For me, it is particularly galling to hear MPs harp on about mental health and stigma given that many of them will have backed the introduction of community-treatment orders (CTOs), which mandate extra supervision after mentally ill patients leave hospital. Introduced in 2008, CTOs effectively reduce many patients’ social standing. They become neither hospital patient nor member of the community, but a diminished hybrid of the two: the ‘community patient’. That MPs can berate the public for their attitudes, slam supermarkets for ‘inappropriate’ Halloween costumes and criticise each other for using ‘offensive’ terminology, all the while supporting CTOs, is remarkable.
There is also a certain irony in seeing Ken Livingstone brought to book for causing offence, given that he was one of the architects of today’s offence-seeking climate. In the 1980s, he was hugely influential in the expansion of race, gender and sexuality training within local government – processes that depoliticised such issues by reducing them to interpersonal conflicts, and focusing on the harm and offence caused by certain words and terms. Codes of conduct and speech proliferated, with any breach leading to censure and/or public opprobrium. At the time, many activists pointed out the dangers of this process; race-awareness training was seen as representing the degradation of the black struggle.
Fast forward 30 years and the politics of identity and offence are ubiquitous, seen in the demand for Safe Spaces and the banning of any speakers, singers, comedians or newspapers whose ideas are offensive to an individual or group. Many of today’s activists and academics are children of the 1980s and 1990s – people for whom being protected from offence is all important. Far from seeing such developments as the degradation of political struggle, many see them as progressive. In response, they begin to proclaim their own vulnerability. And, as many have found out recently, criticising them is held to be a manifestation of social advantage.
The verbal gymnastics of it all is something to behold. If you complain about being No Platformed you are told that, as you are criticising being censored, you are not being censored at all. To argue against Safe Spaces leads to the charge that you, as a ‘privileged’ individual, occupy one. Sooner or later you will be met with the exhortation to ‘check your privilege’, this being the contemporary version of the attempt to undermine an argument by labelling your opponent mentally ill or offensive. Like them, it is meant to give the speaker the moral highground not through having the better argument, but by virtue of claiming to be the most vulnerable and offended.
The real problem, then, is not with what Ken Livingstone said, but with the cultural climate in which he said it. However, he cannot complain too loudly – he was hoist by his own petard.
Cultural appropriation will eat itself
That yoga ban showed just how ludicrous it is to ghettoise culture.
The latest target in the war on ‘cultural appropriation’ has been yoga, a class on which has been suspended by the University of Ottawa in Canada. ‘While yoga is a really great idea’, explained a staff email, ‘there are cultural issues of implication involved in the practice’, and which cultures these practices ‘are being taken from’.
Let’s be clear: there is no such thing as cultural appropriation. Why? Because ‘culture’ itself is the product of appropriation from the very start. Every aspect of culture comes from elsewhere. ‘Your’ culture isn’t yours, it is the culture of your ancestors and your peers.
Cultures aren’t coherent entities with solid boundaries. Like organised religions or languages, which have neither ‘true’ nor ‘false’ versions, they’re organic and fluid, they mutate over space and time, like people’s personalities, the shape of clouds, or the contours of our coasts. For instance, the question ‘what is Britishness?’ is fundamentally meaningless. What is British today wasn’t what it was 100 years ago, 10 years ago or five minutes ago. It’s different for every single one of us and every day. You might as well ask: ‘What is the English language?’
Consider popular foods, music and entertainment. Rock’n’roll emerged from English folk music, which can be heard in The Beach Boys, Simon and Garfunkel and in songs such ‘Yesterday’ and ‘Waterloo Sunset’. In America, these elements were fused with more rhythmic exported African music. (This is why England, unlike Ireland, has no evident, popular folk music – its music went global.) Hip-hop in America has its roots in German techo music of the 1970s. Were Public Enemy, formed by a group of middle-class black men, culturally appropriating German culture? Not at all: rap music openly flaunts its magpie nature with its samples of old rock classics.
Which culture are Germans appropriating when they eat the popular currywurst sausage: Asian culture or British culture that emerged from India? Have we, in turn, appropriated the doner kebab from its birth place, Germany, or from the Turkish immigrants who invented it there? Pizza is regarded as inherently Italian, yet tomatoes are a New World fruit. Pasta was brought to the country from China after Marco Polo.
But what of the issue of ‘power’ – the idea that by eating Indian food we behave like our colonial forebears? That’s merely a superfluous coincidence. There’s nothing remotely imperialist about a working-class Englishman eating curry made by a company owned by second-generation Indian millionaires, nor ordinary students doing yoga in that painfully polite and right-on country, Canada. As for historical ‘blacking-up’, that comes under the category of ‘mockery’.
Like languages, cultures have no ultimate, tangible origins. They just emerge. Taken to its logical conclusion, ‘cultural appropriation’ is self-destroying. If everything is ‘appropriated’, then the term means nothing.
Political correctness is most pervasive in universities and colleges but I rarely report the incidents concerned here as I have a separate blog for educational matters.
American "liberals" often deny being Leftists and say that they are very different from the Communist rulers of other countries. The only real difference, however, is how much power they have. In America, their power is limited by democracy. To see what they WOULD be like with more power, look at where they ARE already very powerful: in America's educational system -- particularly in the universities and colleges. They show there the same respect for free-speech and political diversity that Stalin did: None. So look to the colleges to see what the whole country would be like if "liberals" had their way. It would be a dictatorship.
For more postings from me, see TONGUE-TIED, GREENIE WATCH, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS and DISSECTING LEFTISM. My Home Pages are here or here or here. Email me (John Ray) here.