The Bluestocking, vol 141

Culture War-ning: It's about JK Rowling.

It’s Friday.

This week I have been watching Dave, listening to the Blocked And Reported podcast, and anticipating the end of journalism. On Sunday night, I am doing Book Club Live at Salon (online) which is free with a purchase of the book.


My latest story for the Atlantic looks a phenomenon I’m calling “Potemkin Journalism” (yeah, I’ve got really into coining phrases, what can I say?). In this case, the hollow facade belongs to Nigel Farage, who has found a new culture war meme, “migrant boats in the Channel”. He’s been doing something that looks like investigative journalism, but has none of the safeguards designed to ensure that reports are fair: contextual information, for example, and nuance. If I tell you that a man shoved a pensioner, you think, how awful. If I don’t add “to push him out of the path of an oncoming truck”, then I’ve failed you as a journalist.

There a couple of other things in the story that I’ve been wanting to look into for a while, such as the “just asking questions” style of conspiracy theorism (again, a stylistic form which is stealing the clothes of journalism) and the absolutely exquisite culturejacking that is “publish some absolute garbage, and then insist there’s a sinister conspiracy by the MSM not to follow it up”. Read the full piece here.

I had vowed to myself that I would not comment on JK Rowling’s tweets, because my views on the whole subject are well-known - though often misrepresented - and because I wish she had picked her moment better.

But a) everyone seems to be arguing about Fawlty Towers now, and b) I woke up to something which changed my mind, and c) this is not Twitter. If you think the conversation right now should be focused on BLM, please skip this section and read one of the two very good pieces I’ve linked to below.

When JK Rowling published her long, thoughtful post following her initial tweets, it contained a disclosure of sexual and domestic violence.

“I managed to escape my first violent marriage with some difficulty, but I’m now married to a truly good and principled man, safe and secure in ways I never in a million years expected to be. However, the scars left by violence and sexual assault don’t disappear, no matter how loved you are, and no matter how much money you’ve made. My perennial jumpiness is a family joke – and even I know it’s funny – but I pray my daughters never have the same reasons I do for hating sudden loud noises, or finding people behind me when I haven’t heard them approaching.

If you could come inside my head and understand what I feel when I read about a trans woman dying at the hands of a violent man, you’d find solidarity and kinship. I have a visceral sense of the terror in which those trans women will have spent their last seconds on earth, because I too have known moments of blind fear when I realised that the only thing keeping me alive was the shaky self-restraint of my attacker.”

My first, unworthy thought was: well, I hope this makes Daniel Radcliffe feel very bad about himself. That’s not the way to think about this story, of course, as a petty personality battle - but it did unlock for me why I’ve found the whole news cycle around this so depressing.

“Gaslighting” is a wildly overused term, but it’s one with a specific application in regards to male violence against women. Why have the police, and the courts, treated domestic violence so differently to an assault in the street? Because of the legacy of laws which said that a man had the right to “discipline” his wife. That has had all kinds of legal ramifications - the use of a “nagging and shagging” defence for men who kill their partners, for example - but it has also had personal ones. We can’t accept that an otherwise “nice guy” might be a monster to the other people in his home. We still shy away from confronting “a domestic”. People are embarrassed when women disclose that they’ve been victims of violence, particularly men. It makes them feel bad. Is she tarring us all with the same brush? Should I feel guilty on behalf of men?

Ultimately, I’ve come to feel, we don’t want to confront the staggering ubiquity of intimate partner violence (including its male victims, and the children who grow up in homes where they feel unsafe) because it would simply be too awful. It is a scar across society as big, and as ugly, and as hard to look in the face as racism.

This compounds the suffering of survivors: the knowledge that they are inconvenient. Everyone wants to be against domestic violence in principle, but do they want to tell off their mate about the way he checks his partner’s phone without her knowledge? About the way he gets drunk and goes home like a tornado? (“Oh, but he’d never hurt her or the kids.”) Do we want to confront the sleeping bear, draw his rage towards us? Do we want to confront the fact that we live alongside the bear, seeing it on the edge of our vision, but defiantly ignoring it?

All this washed over me when I watched the response to Rowling’s blog post. Because I expected there to be, at least, a brief - admittedly, probably insincere, probably self-serving - acknowledgement of her experience, before the inevitable addendum that she was literally killing people with her views.

Ha. Instead, the Body Shop’s social media manager decided this was an opportunity to do a little light brand-based dunking, like everyone enjoys when tea does it.

“Sorry about your experience of domestic violence, have some soap and a lecture! Bad luck you didn’t get murdered, or we might have stretched to some vegan hand cream, too”

The abuse she received from anonymous accounts was indescribable. Look at it instead.

And it wasn’t all randoms. The climate of abuse was encouraged by people such as this man, who worked for Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign. (He was responding to her original tweets, not the blogpost.)

(In case you think he’s changed his mind in light of her blog, his last tweet on the subject is peddling a fake conspiracy theory that Rowling took the pen-name Robert Galbraith from a champion of gay conversion therapy. He also retweeted a thread by Charlotte Clymer, now a high profile trans activist, who pre-transition had an article removed from Bitch Media because of a “history of lashing out against feminist critics”. Mm hmm.)

Through all this, the unwillingness to mention Rowling’s disclosure was striking. And it reminded me of three things.

First, that many people on Twitter are now as deep in the culture war trenches as Nigel Farage, a place where context and nuance and, yes, difficulty are unwelcome. Acknowledging that Rowling’s experience of sexual assault in a confined space might inform her views on single-sex provision of women’s shelters, prisons and so on would be, simply, too hard. It doesn’t fit the easy schema. (I see you, prominent men who only acknowledged the violence when it became a useful weapon to bash the Sun.)

Second, much of today’s social justice activism doesn’t believe women can be oppressed as women. But being a billionaire (not that she was at the time) doesn’t protect you from a partner who slaps you, and then boasts about it. Dean Baquet of the New York Times made a related point in a newsroom discussion of police racism: in the Times building, he’s one of the most powerful men in journalism. Walking down the wrong street at the wrong time, he could be the next man pinned to the ground while he says he can’t breathe. For women, yes, money and privilege shield you from many injustices, but they don’t make you immune to sexual assault, or intimate partner violence, or the trauma that comes from living with the consequences of those experiences.

Third, the reaction reminded why so many women have been radicalised - yes, I’m OK with using that word - by the trend line of the modern trans movement away from advocating for decent treatment and towards a highly contentious and theoretical view of gender as a spiritual essence. I reckon most people come to the subject with an open mind, believing that transgender people have unique challenges, need timely access to medical care, and should be protected from discrimination, violence and harassment. But then they run into one of the numerous conflicts between gender and sex: can someone who has taken no hormones and had no surgery compete against biological females in the Olympics? Can a rapist be moved to a women’s prison? Perhaps they get told they shouldn’t use the word “biological sex” by George Takei, who has three million followers:

… and then get told that “come on, no one is denying the existence of biological sex”. They feel gaslit. Perhaps they try to talk about their own experiences, which have led them to value single-sex spaces. And no one wants to hear it. There’s just silence, the silence of a million people Not Getting Involved.

I have sympathy with trans activists who worry that talking about the hard cases - prisons in particular - risks feeding a false narrative that all transgender people are predators. But there should also be sympathy for women who talk about their experience of living in a female body - whether it’s having a baby, needing an abortion, being raped, or being passed over for promotion because they’re 30 and they just got married - and then get the message that no one wants to know about those experiences, because they are inconvenient.

It troubles me that Daniel Radcliffe, Eddie Redmayne and Emma Watson have not (so far as I’ve seen) expressed sympathy for Rowling. Again, you suspect that doing so would be inconvenient. (Another Potter actor, Evanna Lynch, did so and the response on Twitter was . . . lively. She now appears to have deleted her account.)

And that’s how you know this is a culture war, as sure as Nigel Farage and the migrant boats. Because it’s not about finding solutions, it’s about taking a side.

More and more, we are coming to understand the idea that denying that someone has experienced trauma is, itself, traumatising. Think of Liverpool after Hillsborough. We can’t do that to women in the conversation around gender because we worry that acknowledging their pain disrupts the easy categories of victim and villain, oppressor and oppressed. We don’t have pick a side.

Trans people have legitimate grievances. Waits for healthcare are long (and in the US and elsewhere, treatment is unaffordable, causing misery, debt and hardship); there isn’t enough research into the longterm effects of many of the drugs used, particularly puberty blockers; in Brazil, among other countries, trans women often have to make a living through selling sex, which exposes them to huge dangers.

But so do those of us living in, and with, a female body.

I’m sorry that our problems complicate everything, that they are so . . . boring, being so old and so ubiquitous. That the difficulty we present is inconvenient.

I guess if I want to say anything, it’s this. The only way to win the culture war is not to play. But even saying that it’s complicated will get you abuse. No wonder so many people stay silent. Don’t be one of them.

When The Police Abuse Their Powers, It’s Different

[Andrew] Mitchell admitted that he had rowed with police while taking his bicycle into Downing Street, but denied using the “P” word. Then a tourist, who had been walking past, emailed another government minister with testimony that appeared to confirm he had. So Mitchell was out. But that wasn’t the end of the story. It turned out two months later that camera footage showed there were no tourists outside to overhear. The emailer was only pretending to have been a passing tourist. They were an off-duty police officer, and they were nowhere near the scene of the crime. At best, the police had manufactured evidence – at worst, they had invented the story from whole cloth, with the word “pleb” – which Mitchell still denies using – chosen to do maximum damage to a Conservative party that was, at the time, almost neurotically obsessed with playing down its poshness.

One of the remarkable things about the Mitchell affair is not that the public has largely forgotten it – with a few exceptions, most ministerial resignations are old news minutes after they have happened – but that Conservative politicians did, too.

This is a great piece from my former podcast partner SKB. If the police can do this to a cabinet minister, why the hell wouldn’t we expect it to happen to the less powerful and sharp-elbowed?

White Signs At Black Protests (Vanity Fair)

The first sign was held by a white man standing next to his young white daughter. It read “White Parents for the Prevention of Karens.” When I asked to take a picture, he happily agreed and adjusted his sign for my benefit, thinking that I approved of his statement. I do not. While his heart might be in the right place, and his protest in solidarity, I found myself at best confused, and at worst angered, by a frivolous message that indicates either lack of ability to see what is truly at stake—or a willful mockery of it. I wondered whether this white man standing next to his white daughter had thought through what it means to hold a witty meme-inspired sign that vaguely denigrates white women at a protest supposedly in support of Black lives. I questioned if he really believes that deflecting blame onto white women, his young daughter included, supports the reasons why I and other Black people across America protest.

I saw some jaw-dropping signs at the BLM protests over the weekend, suggesting that the white people holding them either thought this was a time for pun-based meme-able content, or that it’s the 90s again and ironic sexism is back in fashion***.


Quick Links

  1. “As for the woman who shared his home address: She deleted it and posted an apology, writing that in all of her eagerness to see justice served, she was swept up in the mob that so gleefully shared misinformation, depriving someone of their own right to justice. Her correction was shared by fewer than a dozen people.” Someone turn off Twitter already.

  2. Me: “Hmm, Defund The Police feels like an overwrought slogan, surely Americans should ask for Reform The Police instead?” Also me: “THE NYPD BUDGET IS SIX BILLION DOLLARS WHAT THE ACTUAL FUUUU”. (The Met’s annual budget is half that.)

  3. This how I plan to serve all my cheese from now on.

  4. No shit.

  5. So happy to see “Tommy Robinson” getting the treatment he deserves: mockery.

  6. “If Johnson is going to be presidential he needs something that is a lot more like a White House than Dom’s frat house, starring Caino, Roxstar, Sonic and other playground names.” Tim Montgomerie (Twitter handle: @montie) on the atmosphere inside Johnson’s Downing Street.

    *** Judging by the rest of the internet this week, sexism is definitely back in fashion.

    Sorry to hear that. Have you thought about taking it out on some women?