I've written before that the mark of a person is how they treat people they don't like, they aren't attracted to, and they don't agree with. It's rare to find the best sort of people in positions of power and influence, precisely because a rise to power and influence often necessitates the poor treatment of those around you in one way or another. In politics, just by way of an example, it doesn't play in the current climate to say of your opponent that she's got some great ideas, that she's working towards a noble and valuable goal or that she's offering a sound critique of your decision-making but that you still think, on balance, that your way of going about it is the right one. Much better to question her parentage, her intelligence, her principles and her behaviour in some other aspect of her life; much better to deflect criticism by pointing at some perceived (or even real) flaw in the other person, distracting and moving the conversation away from the very criticism that needed addressing.
So why am I writing about this again? I've made the mistake of using Twitter a bit recently, and checking what sorts of things people are writing on there as a sort of barometer of what's really going on in the country. Bereft of a long drive to and from work for the past year, my total 'Radio 4 time' has been much reduced this year anyway. And then in lockdown I haven't been able to muster the concentration required to listen to Today*, editing the programme in real time so the 8-year-old doesn't end up listening to the frequently heartbreaking news from around the world. She is an anxious worrier (I wonder where she gets it from), with a rampantly dark imagination at times, and a real difficulty in controlling the thoughts that flood her mind particularly after lights-out. Insulating her from the worst the world has to offer seems like the right approach at the moment, but there will be a time when that is no longer possible, and I dread it already.
After that diversion, returning to the hopeless pit of blunt assertion, flat denial and personal abuse that is Twitter, I note that even rather intelligent people with a developed sense of fairness and finesse in argument struggle to get their point across on the platform. Fair enough; I cannot say what I want to in 256 characters, but given that I don't really participate in that side of Twitter, I don't feel I need to. But the sad thing - the thing that perhaps highlights the same issue that afflicts any text-based 'conversation', the same issue that means people in cars (yes, including me) use language to describe other drivers that they would not dream of using in face-to-face conversation, the issue of distance - means that instead of spending effort on understanding the other person's point of view and offering a firmly critical but friendly response, most of the 'discussion' on Twitter is people calling each other 'twat' or some such variant thereof. Anger is rife; winning the argument by whatever means is the goal, even if it means reducing it to an extent that makes it not worth winning. Pointing out personality flaws is something of a sport. Anything with even the slightest potential to seem hypocritical is jumped on with relish. So, what? It's an extremely popular platform and it seems to have a real pull as the mechanism for political discourse at the moment. One could reason sensibly that the deterioration of the quality of political dialogue in the real world is life imitating the internet, although I would expect to hear from older generations that it really was always this bad. Who knows...? As such, though, decisions made by Twitter have an actual, material effect on the way things are discussed. All that JK Rowling business about trans women and feminism has played out on Twitter. It's a good example of the genre: Woman with large following makes statements that are intended at root to champion the cause of one oppressed group of people (what she would define as a woman, a biological female, tough to delineate clearly as she found...), but in doing so fails to catch the wind of opinion of a large group (roughly speaking, young people) who place the lines differently and champion the cause of a smaller, perhaps even more oppressed minority (namely trans women). We hear the line 'trans women are women' (notably from Stonewall), and that gives a clear enough definition. You are a woman if you identify as a woman. The line that the TERFs take (and let's acknowledge straight away that TERF has become a pejorative term, not just a description of a point of view) is that being a woman is at least in part a biological phenomenon, not purely an identity phenomenon, and you can't decide to be one, or to become one. From my limited experience, this last argument is the one that is in error, because trans women don't decide to become a woman. She was always a woman (girl?) even when she was being called 'he' and going to the boys' toilet. I suppose that is exactly the thing that is denied in the TERF view, but it seems to hold at arm's length the actual individuals for whom this situation obtains, instead seeing them as a sort of social phenomenon, a mob wanting to crash a party to which they were not invited. Can this argument be policed by a white bloke? Well, no. But as I have always tried to do in whatever context, creating understanding of the point of the participants in an argument is the key to fruitful discussion. Calling someone a knobhead doesn't have a practical de-knobbing effect, even if the person is a knobhead.
So, what of Twitter specifically? It has found itself in a double-bind, because its users express opinions that in some cases are abhorrent. But, because it is an American operation, it has a kind of spiritual commitment to freedom of speech. What about when people say things that are hateful? Tricky, because you can't have absolute freedom of speech at your core and then try to silence folk that you think are knobheads.
Twitter has become a big player in the current debate, because as a platform it is seen to have a responsibility for policing what people say, but it does not accept that as a platform it endorses the views of those people who use it. It has removed Wiley for saying stuff that was, frankly, racist. All well and good, if it takes that line that it will limit people's freedom to say bad stuff. It occasionally censors the likes of Donald Trump for factual inaccuracy. It doesn't seem to take an active role in policing the small-time racists, though... In any case, Wiley said some stuff that was actually antisemitic, and if Twitter takes the view that racism is unacceptable, they were right to ban him. Even here there's a context, a discussion that seeks to shift the battleground, though: what one person says is legitimate criticism of Israel's government is, for another person, antisemitic. Wiley's tweets, as far as I can tell, fell very far on the side of pernicious racism and didn't even pretend to be aimed at a state rather than a race of people. On a personal note, I spent some time playing in a band with an Israeli bloke, and it would be fair to say our experiences of the world were radically different. Some of the stuff he said (about national service and about the conflict between Israel and Palestine) was so difficult to understand from my perspective that, at the time, I chalked it up to his own blinkered racism. Probably it was more subtle than that, and if I had the chance again, I would ask the better questions that I now know how to ask, and I would probably mount a better challenge to the bits of what he said that actually were rooted in racism, if indeed there were any. My memory of it is cloudy and indistinct, but I remember having the reaction that he just didn't see Palestinians as fully human, although I couldn't articulate that thought at the time. Now, I might have a bit more to contribute, certainly in terms of establishing whether this was in fact true, and getting to the bottom of how he came to hold it as a belief.
What next? The best thing for me is to ignore Twitter altogether, but there is a certain entertainment value in seeing people trade insults. The problem as far as I can tell is that honesty and integrity are almost valueless in the media and politics. For reasons best known only to itself, my phone has adopted the rather strange habit of linking me in my news feed to stories from the Daily Express, particularly ones where the SNP are handed their own arse in Westminster debates. Except that the rest of the coverage doesn't seem to reflect the same outcome. Indeed, more neutral sources suggest there was a debate and the SNP had a point. So the Express is playing to its gallery, presumably English folk who view the SNP as dangerous revolutionaries or shrieking lunatics. Now, once again I am loath to enter into a debate as some sort of font of knowledge and wisdom, but I note that the newspapers of the left seem to have headline writers at least who are shy of proclaiming outright victory for their team, or calling the other lot a pack of corrupt bastards. The newspapers of the right strike me as not having the same compunction for writing it how they wish it was rather than wie es eigentlich gewesen. It's a very tricky ground to navigate, especially when educating young people about the subject, because I can't be seen to be biased. Freeing oneself of bias is a huge challenge. A good example of this is the pitiful exchange of slanging that goes on around the BBC. Both the left and the right seem to view it as an organ of the other side, which means it is probably not doing too bad a job of being neutral.
You might have read all of this and found me to be slippery and elusive, just like the politicians I criticise. Well, perhaps in a different context I would more obviously take a side. But the thing that I'm trying to get out across the fifteen-hundred or so words of this ramble is that taking a side is in itself the wrong thing to do. I don't wade in to tell women that they're wrong about trans women, or to tell trans women that they can never be a 'proper woman', because - possibly despite appearances - I'd rather listen and understand both views than proclaim my own (and probably be wrong).
There are only a few things on which I'm fairly certain. Be kind to your fellow person, and hold on to hope. Listen, even to the ones whose views are abhorrent. Challenge, question, think.
And, lastly, England shouldn't have dropped Stuart Broad for the first test.
*My first effort at typing that came out as Toady, which is a rather different take on the morning's news; or, if you subscribe to the idea that Nick Robinson and Laura Kuenssberg are Tory Party propagandists, perhaps not.
So he signed the letter alongside the current lightning rod of Twitter abuse that is J K Rowling. Does that make him anti-trans? Well, no. Chomsky is, as far as I can tell, a fairly disciplined and unhypocritical thinker, with one key corollary to that lack of hypocrisy being that you can't advocate freedom of speech for people you agree with and then shut down and censor people you don't agree with.
As in, Holocaust deniers. As in, racists. Homophobes. Xenophobes. Sexists. Whatever the view, the view itself cannot be such that it must be censored. It's a level of consistency rarely seen in anything more mainstream: things that get on the news each day, such as politics, cannot afford to have so much principle attached to them because someone would be bound by their principles to say something unpalatable, and as far as I can tell, that is anathema to modern politics. Do I agree? This is a tricky one, because freedom of speech and thought is one of those areas where introducing any kind of restriction is a slippery slope, both in reality and in arguments about it. Prevent people airing racist views by criminalising it? It's not that this is a bad thing in itself, but the argument is that once a government has the power to limit the ability of someone to say something, it's a simple matter to extend that to, for example, criticising the government being made illegal. As it happens, I neither support full freedom of speech or full freedom of the press, for a number of reasons that really centre around the way that the power of those who possess it can be used to influence people who do not possess power. But I suppose, at the core, that reveals me to be a kind of left-biased liberal who thinks that by-and-large it is the right, the moneyed, the haves, who then use that very freedom to deny a certain level of freedom, not so much of speech but of choice, to those who are the have nots.
The UK government finds itself in a bind. It has to take a position on whether or not trans women are women. It has to come down on some side of the debate, because whatever the legislation ends up being, it will make a difference to people's lives. Today, I saw the hashtag onlyfemalesgetcervicalcancer trending on Twitter. The adversarial nature of the debate is now such that no reconciliation seems in sight, whether that be a recognition that biological womanhood is not the same as gender femininity, or that there is a way for the word 'woman' to encompass trans women, or that trans women are welcome to join the community of women but in doing so they do not instantly become all that women are and have experienced. As is so often the case with a delicate and nuanced set of considerations that run deeply in individuals' lives, the slogans and the name-calling have reduced any discussion to a slanging match. It's what happened with Brexit, certainly. Jeremy Corbyn gave a balanced view on the EU, saying he was seven-out-of-ten in favour of remaining, and he got torn a new one for equivocating. Oddly, this was not deemed an appropriate line to take with Boris Johnson, who in fact did hedge his bets, preparing to pick a side that was the most advantageous to him at the time. When the bloke in Pirates asks if he plans it all out, or just makes it up as he goes along, that would be a great question for Boris.
So, what? I don't have a dog in the fight when it comes to the trans / TERF debate. I don't think seeing two sides as lining up against each other does either side any good. Being kind - loving - is a good guiding principle, but it doesn't always make it clear what the best thing to do is. I did have a fascinating exchange with a colleague who praised another colleague by saying 'he thinks like a grown-up; he's not woke.' Which is an odd thing to praise, in itself, and I suspect a two-fold misreading of the situation. A deep sympathy with the children he cares for, together with a very clear guiding principle of love, the first a personal and the second an institutional quality, strike me as both entirely grown-up and woke.
Here's a question for you: if you read Peepo by the Ahlbergs, do you notice the baby, the sisters, the park? or do you notice the military uniform, the barrage balloon, the fighter aircraft? Are the smiles on the faces of the parents pure happiness at the baby they have brought into the world, or are they of the kind of desperate sadness caused by fear on behalf of something - someone - else innocent and beautiful? Do you read about Bear Hunts and find yourself lamenting the lost innocence that can imagine a bear in a cave, and the entertainment that can bring to a whole family? Or is it just a good adventure? I watched the animation of it today with the little man, and that's got that same bitter-sweet sadness thing to it. The girl who makes friends with the bear can't find him in the end, but that doesn't diminish the time she spent with him. Our lockdown may be the strangest thing that will happen to most of us over the course of our lives, the moment when the world was different. But the things that happened to us in lockdown were probably not, for the most part, the ones we would have otherwise remembered. I doubt many people have experienced falling in love with someone over the course of lockdown, for example. A large number of people will have experienced the grief of the loss of a loved one, but that large number is still quite a small proportion of all the people out there.
Do I mean by this that I advocate coming out of lockdown as soon as we can? No, definitely not. I don't think the people making the decisions take remotely enough care over those decisions to be trusted, and I think erring on the side of caution would have been the better approach. I also think that the high-handed manner of those decisions, taking very little account of the scientific advice and, seemingly, none whatsoever of the advice of professionals from within sectors that are affected by the easing of lockdown, the way that these decisions are presented to the public and the professionals at the same time at press briefings, all rolled together these factors suggest that the people in charge don't really know what they're doing.
And in a way, that's fair enough. If they came out and said 'well, we're not quite sure whether to open up pubs, so we'll do it slowly, on a Tuesday, and then for a couple of hours only', you'd think they were serious about figuring it out, particularly if they added 'and then we'll survey a bunch of publicans and patrons to see what it was like, and make some subsequent decisions on that basis.' But they don't. Heaven only knows what the Northern General will be like at midnight. If it even takes that long...
Anyway, I digress. I have always been susceptible to sentimentality, I suppose. I wrote some time ago about how Christmas adverts, which at one stage of my development would have washed over me without me engaging in the slightest, had gripped me and made me feel that happy-crying thing that's so unhelpful when you're trying to navigate the world with a stiff upper lip. The sad-smiling thing is of a piece with it, I think. I'm not old enough (yet) that all my choices are behind me, but sometimes life just brings up one of those things where I felt it right in the core of my being, whether that be loss, or making a terrible decision, or making the right decision but at great cost. Those things - which I understand young people have taken to referring to as 'the feels' - can be absolutely crippling at the wrong time. But the flutter, as George Ezra describes it, the shine whenever I remember your sweet smile... I wouldn't choose to lose the bad bits at the expense of the good.
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought