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Thursday, 11 November 2021

On Phobias and Phobes

 


In the early 1960s, General Knowledge was a competitive sport - at least it was in my boys’ grammar school. Countries and capitals; tallest, longest, deepest …. In this world, phobias were things which lent themselves to alphabetical challenges: Name a phobia beginning with H! (Answer: Hydrophobia).

These phobias were, with one exception, names given to fears - very varied fears (arachnophobia, claustrophobia, nyctophobia …) but all deserving of sympathy, explanation, and - in some cases - treatment. The exception was xenophobia which hovered between a fear and a hatred, so that it was unclear whether it deserved sympathy or disapproval - none of us boys thought it could be a badge of honour. And though we probably used the word xenophobic to characterise attitudes, we were less likely to label people xenophobes; somehow we had got hold of the idea that you shouldn’t, in general, reduce a person to one of their aspects.

It's true, we did have hate figures, in the front line Henry Brooke, the UKs Conservative Home Secretary 1962-64 who the archives show to have been even worse than we believed him (see Richard Davemport-Hines, An English Affair (2012)). But we had no means of giving effect to our feelings other than by writing Letters to the Editor or taking part in demonstrations.  We had no social media.

Returning to our phobias, they  were normally characterised as “irrational” and though that is an imprecise and potentially contentious qualification it did roughly succeed in distinguishing between reasonable fears induced by the immediate presence of a highly poisonous species of spider and unreasonable fears attaching to the usual ones found in cupboards and gardens.

*

Things change. Modern phobias are names for alleged hatreds (homophobia, islamophobia, transphobia …) and the words are primarily used to point the finger at people, reduced  - essentialised - to one of their aspects: Homophobe! Islamophobe! Transphobe! They leave no room for sympathy, explanation, or treatment. A ‘phobe is a ‘phobe, through and through, best dealt with by denunciation and exclusion from the society of the elect. Thus the world of Twitter and university campuses.

What is most odd about this finger-pointing essentialism is that it is performed by people who are, for the most part, also committed to the idea that everything is a social construct which is to say that there are, in fact, no essences and no natures, only contingent and changeable social fabrications. If that doctrine is true, or even only partially true, homophobia, Islamophobia, transphobia are social constructs. I think that they are - and of very recent fabrication, too. They have been specifically designed for weaponised use as finger-pointing, denunciatory weapons which expose the dark hearts of the wicked and the witches.

Those last words are not hyperbolic. The social constructions which produce the - phobe targets of denunciation are the work of theologians - or, at least, Sunday school teachers - and fairly pitiless ones. The barbed arrows aimed so freely on Twitter and in university discourse carry within them no invitation to make amends, no offer of redemption, no suggestion that the phobias might be irrational fears or - God forbid! - even have some rational aspect. Any distinction between toxic spiders and harmless ones is unknown to the theologians. Their world is one which allows no room for uncertainty or reasonable disagreement, things which are central to the mind-set of democrats and humanists. I'll digress a bit to consider that by way of an example.

*

Secularists, who normally think of themselves as democrats and humanists, might be said to fear and even loathe organised religions; in consequence, they must surely be considered Islamophobic.

The secularist’s obvious first line of self-defence is to point out that they are also Christophobic so whatever their belief, it is  not discriminatory in the way that Islamophobe! supposes. Google barely recognises the term Christophobic, which is not in current Twitter use, but if they are Islamophobes secularists  must also be recognised as  Christophobes - though they would deny that they are irrationally so: the newspapers every day contain stories of clerical abuse and corruption which show that secularists have a lot of evidence on their side. It is no accident that our oh-so-liberal Christian bishops are happy to debate with and even cosy up to atheists (what’s a difference of belief between friends who dine at the same high table?), but extend no such affection to secularists who threaten their incomes and the worldly power which for centuries has allowed them to hide their crimes and avoid ordinary accountabilities.

A second line of defence for the secularist is to attempt a clear distinction between organisational religions and the religious beliefs of individuals. Unlike the atheist, the secularist has no quarrel with the latter as such and will agree that such beliefs are not in themselves a ground for any form of discrimination. They are not on their own toxic, indeed may be very far from it: the beliefs are compatible with being a very good person. But it's not always so simple: some religions are inseparable from their organisational form: there is no Roman Catholicism outside the Roman Catholic church, a position very clearly articulated in the Church’s own doctrines: Extra ecclesiam nulla salus (Outside the church there is no salvation). Well, of course, that is the most extravagant attempt at institutional self-preservation ever made and is open to a very simple objection, How do you know? But it remains true that there is no wriggle room for an individual Roman Catholic: either you are In or you are Out and if you are Out you are not a Roman Catholic. Roman Catholicism is not a personal belief; it is an attachment to an organisation. In contrast, many forms of Protestant belief do not require institutional adherence or any demand for secular power over such things as schools.

*

It would seem that those currently targeted as - phobes could either accept the scarlet letter and wear it proudly or seek to demonstrate that it does not apply and that the attitudes, arguments or beliefs they have articulated do not amount to proof of wickedness or witchcraft. But the latter response runs up against the problem that no one is listening. The students and faculty who recently drove Kathleeen Stock from the pleasant parkland campus of the University of Sussex (“No TERFS on our Turf” read one of the banners) have no intention of actually reading her book Material Girls (2021); she has been convicted by tweet and the sentence cannot be appealed.

This is why being accused of homophobia, islamophobia, transphobia - the list will no doubt grow longer - poses such a threat to those who may be picked out for denunciation. It is not only that the denunciations quickly replicate across a million screens - almost as if human intervention is not required - it is also that they contain within them prosecution case, verdict, and sentence. Once made, the accusations will never be withdrawn; no apologies ever made. And sentences are indeed carried out. Papal infallibility is a pale thing is comparison.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thursday, 21 October 2021

Gender Formerly Known as Sex

 This is a chapter from my 26-chapter paperback The Best I Can Do, published in 2016 and readily available from Blackwell online or Amazon. Trevor Pateman

Gender formerly known as Sex

I went online recently to check the status of my driving convictions. I was surprised to find at the head of the page which dealt with me the words   “Gender: Male”. Well, I have to say I never told them that. I am pretty sure that when I filled in their form however many decades ago I responded to a question which asked me for my “Sex” and that I answered  “Male”, which was truthful and true. If they had asked me for my “Gender”, I am not sure I would have known what it was. The idea hadn’t yet been imported. But why was it imported anyway? I have no real idea - I just guess that lots of people were reading the excellent, imported sociology textbook by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann The Social Construction of Reality (1966) and concluded that binary essentialist categories like Sex are Bad - because they imply that things exist which are not socially constructed - but binary non-essentialist, everything-is-a-social-construct categories like Gender are Good. Upper Seconds all round.

 

Gender is an adjectival rather than a nominal aspect of people’s selves and it is rarely uncomplicated. Few people are as straightforwardly gendered (what is now called “cis-gendered”) as is assumed by the bureaucrats whose imagination did not rise above deleting the word “Sex” and inserting the word “Gender”. But just as few people are completely cis-gendered, few people are completely “trans-gendered”. I doubt that there are many F people in transition to becoming M people who have Jeremy Clarkson as their target role model. As they start approaching that target, I feel they might decide to hang on to a bit of their F side.

 

We have always been taught that gender is distributed in a bi-polar way: plot people’s gender on a statistical curve and there are big clusters of M people and F people on either side with only a few people in the middle. Over time and in different cultures, this may change. For example,  I have read lots of Op Ed pieces telling me that over recent decades in my society boys have found it harder to develop (or been under pressure not to develop) + M masculine characteristics resulting in a “Crisis of Masculinity”. Statistically, that would come out as a change in the shape of the distribution curve, reducing the M cluster on one side and creating a new bulge nearer the middle. In addition, if girls are under less pressure to stick to + F characteristics, then that would also create a bulge nearer the middle and we could then be on the way to what is called a normal curve of distribution (a Bell Curve - it looks like a church bell), with most people being bits of F and bits of M, regardless of sex, and clustering in the middle of the curve. If anything like that does happen, then people will begin to object to the gender binary boxes M and F. Some are indeed beginning to do so.

 

But when big companies are castigated for not having a “Gender Balance” at top executive level no one would be amused if they adopted the following strategy:

 

Look, we’re all men I know but, hey, some of us are less masculine than others – more feminine. Yeah? So why don’t we start by scoring people for their masculinity and their femininity? Like, you know, everyone says I am a “Good Listener” which must knock 10 points off my 100% Masculinity index. So why not credit those 10 points to the Female side of our Balance Sheet? That way, we at least make a start on changing the Gender Balance here. Yes, guys?

 

No, guys. The truth is that your critics are talking anatomy. They don’t like to say so, may even deny it, but anatomy is what they are talking about.  Why should anatomy be so important? One reason is that it will remain an extremely powerful profiling tool for some basic things and quite powerful for other things until such time as we move to a normal curve of distribution for gender characteristics. You never need to be screened for prostate cancer if you tick the F box and you never need to be screened for ovarian cancer if you tick the M box. Athletic abilities also can be read off from your M or F profiling, which is why we have Men’s and Women’s events for most Olympic sports and tests to ensure people aren’t cheating ( which they do but that’s another story). And so on, with the usefulness of the profiling declining as we move away from obvious ones like those I have just instanced. But until such time as most people have a significant mix of gender characteristics, it will be possible to profile for lots of things from anatomy alone: having driving convictions for speeding or annual expenditure on clothing, for example. In 2002, 83% of speeding convictions in the UK were picked up by men. In 2011, the Office of National Statistics records women spending £588 on their wardrobe and men £322.

 

Nothing more needs to be true for such profiling to be possible than the fact that societies set out to gender their new members – children – differentially according to their sex and that to, some considerable degree, they usually succeed. Parents and teachers (not to mention makers of children’s toys and clothes) are huge enthusiasts for making sure that their M and F children are introduced to the right gender boxes – hundreds of them - from very early in their lives. In some respects, it was less oppressively so forty years ago than it is now when everything is Pink or Blue, Girl or Boy. It wasn’t quite so then. We can wish it otherwise and we can work to make it otherwise. That thought is only intelligible if you accept the basic distinction between Sex and Gender and don’t conflate the two as has now been done on my driving licence.

*

Of course, the distinction between Sex and Gender has been known about for a very, very long time though sometimes I read things which tell me that someone discovered it last week. In England, the most intellectually serious daily newspaper is The Financial Times. On 28 November 2015, India Ross interviewed Jill Soloway, creator of the American TV series Transparent which has a transgender theme (I haven’t seen it – no TV). They talk about gender issues and at the end Soloway says:

People will recognise that just because somebody is masculine, it doesn’t mean they have a penis. Just because somebody’s feminine, it doesn’t mean they have a vagina. That’s going to be the revolution over the next five years

India Ross adds:

I suggest that, even today, that’s a fairly radical thing to say. She agrees …

I paused. When, if ever, has this “radical thing” not been recognised as true – and even platitudinously true?

Think, for example, of “cissy” and “tomboy”. A cissy was a boy who displayed feminine tastes and traits, deemed unacceptable. A tomboy was a girl who displayed masculine tastes and traits, though sometimes these were treated more indulgently than cissy traits. To go back just sixty years, think of To Kill a Mockingbird which – among other things – belongs to a genre of tomboy novels. Go back a bit farther and you get to Jo March in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868 – 69).

Both ”cissy” and “tomboy” imply a fundamental distinction between sex and gender. Both recognise that sex and gender can be mismatched in a person. Neither supposes that cis-gendering (the neat matching of sex and gender) is inevitable, though as judgemental terms, they assume that cis-gendering is desirable. So maybe the revolution is simply to remove the judgemental aspect. No one will get called out as a cissy or laughed at as a tomboy. They will just be accepted. But didn’t that also happen in the past?

Caring has been marked + Feminine in my culture and for a very long time. Let’s go back a hundred years.  In wars, like the unbelievably stupid and destructive First World War, there were male officers who distinguished themselves by caring for their men in terrible circumstances. This was regarded as admirable, not cissy.

Bravery has been marked + Masculine in my culture, also for a very long time. But go back to 1838 and read the story of Grace Darling, a lighthouse keeper’s daughter who assisted her father in the rescue of nine survivors from a shipwrecked steamer. This 23 year-old woman got marked + for Bravery (in fact, + + +). But no one dismissed her as a tomboy and several men who had never met her wrote seeking her hand in marriage. No one called her out for rowing the boat.

It is simply not true that the sex / gender distinction has ever been unclear to anyone, except perhaps to those who have been made to read Judith Butler’s obscurantist Gender Trouble (1990). It is also - perhaps surprisingly - untrue that society has been consistently and remorselessly unwilling to recognise, accept, and even occasionally applaud, transgender characteristics as in the two examples instanced above.

Of course, its tolerance has never been whole-hearted and probably never consistent. But a flicker of tolerance can often be found. If we can nurture that flicker into something stronger, that will be a very good thing. But to do so it is both historically incorrect and politically unproductive to claim that we have just this last week invented something which will take us out of the Dark Ages once and for all. Lots of people like to be pioneers (maybe it’s a + M thing); but most of the time, someone else got there already.

Curiously, the only situation in which Jill Soloway’s claim makes sense is one where most people remain strongly cis-gendered, bunched at either end of the statistical curve but where a few (special?) people are allowed to jump over the binary divide and join the other camp. That doesn’t sound to me much like the social progress envisioned by mainstream feminists back in the 1970s who thought it was the fact of binary bunching itself which should be challenged. Feminists back then wanted  most women to be more assertive and most men more caring, so that gendering became less Either – Or, more bunched in the middle, less a war between the Pinks and the Blues.

Thursday, 14 October 2021

They/Them? A Very Critical Look at Self-Identifications

 


I’ve never liked being called by positional names or displaying symbols of such positions. So though married for a long time, I never wore a wedding ring. Nor did my wife who never changed her name, used “Ms”, and was irritated (as I was) by Christmas cards addressed to Mr and Mrs T. Pateman.  Our generation? Born in the 1940s. Outside of university settings, I never used my academic title.

I encouraged our children to use my first name and now do the same for my grandchildren. But the encouragement was never a demand and is now generally ignored, except by one grandchild. As a result, I now sign emails as Dad x but persist in signing birthday cards to grandchildren with a cartoon which has so far allowed me to completely avoid Grandad x

So I was not immediately unsympathetic to those who want to be called They/Them;  for many years in my writing I have used they as a generic, having tried the clumsy he or she and the stylistically disastrous App. which mechanically alternates he and she.

But something doesn’t seem quite right in what’s happening now. I accept that my own past preferences could be considered to some degree prissy or attention seeking or narcissistic. But what is happening now strikes me as massively - and not much more than - prissy, attention seeking, and narcissistic, with added readiness to affect offence or worse if not properly noticed. And it does seem all very much more about having a one-up Twitter identity rather than about relations with intimates.

To me it looks like this: middle-class young people,  burdened with names and expectations which they cannot always live up to, mostly at university or recently graduated, are making themselves appear special by turning themselves into They/Them on grounds that they are non-binary. The threshold for entry into this special class of people has not, to my knowledge, been disclosed unlike the titles which Debrett’s regulates. Is it enough to paint your finger nails in non-matching colours? No, but only because no more than self-identification is required, is that not so?

So it is irrelevant for me to muse whether in the past I was, unwittingly, non-binary because I changed nappies. Or because I entered my home-made jams into village horticultural shows. Or because even on the most charitable interpretation my sexual encounters never (sometimes to a partner’s disappointment) achieved the expected binary climax of Wham, Bam, Thank You, Ma’m? No, it’s not feminine or effeminate traits, nor the desire to avoid toxic forms of masculinity, which make you non-binary. It’s brass neck or, to put it in more modern terms, a sense of entitlement.

I look at the images on Google and think to myself, This is just fashion and will mostly be abandoned within a few years just as most of us gave up fairly rapidly on Carnaby Street and Flower Power. But while it lasts there is a big difference: current self-identifications are moralised and essentialised to the hilt. Hence, the offence if you don’t take them seriously enough. Rather like bearded young men in theological seminaries, our They/Them people are utterly convinced of their own self-righteousness - that their choice has real existential depth and the fires of Salem await those who can’t see it.

To be honest, I simply don’t believe many of the self-presentations, partly because the choice so obviously opens career opportunities in the crowded field of desirable, non-manual jobs - well, not just non-manual; preferably media-related. But non-manual is a good start; people on building sites tend to get on with the job; They/Them is not a priority which clearly rules out building sites as workplaces. But university seminars can grind to a halt over naming protocols. After all, seminars are not that important: if you pay your money, you’re going to get a two one anyway unless you make the mistake of studying a STEM subject.

I suspect too that They/Them is attractive to boys more than girls; the girls can always build online Presences by taking their clothes off and for some that earns daily mega-bucks; the boys remain in less overall demand with clothes off - girls remain obstinately more  interested in brains and personality - and so the boys have to find other ways of building a path to alienated Twitter success.

There is another dimension, that of the private and the public. At universities in the 1960s, people were lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, kinky (sometimes quite imaginatively so, given the absence of accessible porn and sex toys). They might let you know this or they might not. But it was not the primary way in which they defined themselves: like everyone else, they were studying Maths or History; they were Conservative or Labour or Revolutionary Socialist. That has now changed; it is “gender identity” (especially if you are white) or, more seriously and convincingly, ethnic identity or religious identity which trumps everything else. And “trumps” is not a bad word here because very little of it seems to have anything to do with progressive politics in its usual sense; some of it seems to me frankly far to the right, in the hunting grounds of those who bully and intimidate TERFS, people who to me are simply the feminists - or descendants thereof - from whom I learnt my feminism back in the 1970s. They had and have a coherent set of critiques of patriarchal societies; our modern gender theorists - if "theorists" is the right word - have so far done no more than replace argument with intolerant, incoherent mystifications. There is no coherent argument or theory which supports the (bourgeois? neo-fascist? entitled?) ideology of self-identification. Hence the immediate recourse to outrage and witch-hunting.

Donald Trump self-identifies as the true  President of the United States and about forty million American adults accept the self-identification, based on no evidence at all. It must be something in the drinking water.

Friday, 8 October 2021

Keir Starmer and the Contribution Society

 What follows is the second chapter (of 26) in Trevor Pateman,  The Best I Can Do (2016) available from Amazon or Blackwell.co.uk. It has not been updated



Bus Passes and Benefits


I’ve never claimed my Free Bus Pass. I would be ashamed to wave it while paying passengers watch. Imagine that it was Coloreds who paid and Whites who didn’t .Where I live, looking at workers boarding the bus and paying their fares on the way to low-paid jobs, that’s not far from the reality. Nor is it far from the reality that poor people pay and better-off Over Sixties don’t. Yet the Over Sixties, quite solidly and sometimes fiercely, now seem to believe that they have a Human Right to bus travel paid for by others – even though Bus Passes are a very recent invention. How did this come about? The fault lies with our political parties, always looking for cheap ways to gain the favour of those most likely to vote. Any party now proposing to withdraw the passes would face a backlash of unreasoned wrath. My Benefits, right or wrong!

Bus Passes are not Pensioner Passes. You qualify by virtue of reaching your 60th birthday, well below the ages at which most people qualify for state pensions. At sixty, many people are still working, their children are gone, and they have paid off mortgages. They are better off than at any time before. Many of those waving Bus Passes – of course, not all – are better dressed than they have ever been. They can afford to be. Eventually, they will become old and even frail. It’s always stressful to watch a frail elderly person board a bus, struggling with shopping bags and sticks. They don’t need a Bus Pass any more. They need a once-a-week Taxi Pass. Or, rather, they need adequate pensions. Free bus passes are not only electoral bribes; they are also one of the cosmetic means by which feckless governments have sought to disguise the inadequacy of State Pension provision in the UK.

In relation to former earnings, that pension is much lower than the European average: about one third against an average of a half across twenty-seven other European nations. Our governments have been too fearful to force people to pay enough into retirement income schemes to fund adequate pensions and reluctant - until absolutely forced by a huge rise in life expectancy- to raise the pensionable age. Until very recently in the UK, the State Pension age for women was set at sixty. Men at sixty-five. No one challenged that extraordinary bit of entrenched sex discrimination. It had its origins in discriminatory thinking: women filled up the workforce during two world wars and thus qualified for pensions. But allowing them to take their pensions at sixty was also meant to ease them out of the workforce, leaving more room for men who had fought. Over time, the discrimination transformed from discrimination against women to discrimination in their favour. But for decades no one challenged it.

Self-respect is very much connected to the ability to make your own choices. Older people generally benefit from walking or even cycling but politicians want you to take the bus. The bus companies are happy enough; they get paid. The Bus Pass is a clunking decision by politicians to make choices for you: Here, my good woman, take this Pass and use that bus over there! And show some gratitude!

In a better world, older people would dispose of enough income to make their own choices and thus maintain an important aspect of personal dignity. It would be acceptable to withdraw the Bus Passes and add to the State Pension the equivalent of the money saved. All that you lose is the self-satisfied smile of the politician who wants you to doff your cap and thank him (Gordon Brown, Ken Livingstone).

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The Bus Pass is a symptom of a deeper problem which resides at the core of the British Treasury and the way it relates to British governments. The Treasury hates two things above all: ring fenced money and entitlements. It is committed to the ideas that all revenues should go into a single big undifferentiated Pot under its own control and that all outgoings, whether to government departments or citizens, are a matter of discretion. That is, of course, an understandable way for a Treasury to think. It gives you the maximum of flexibility in what is often – thanks to politicians – a struggle to make the books balance. But it is also completely symbiotic with the interest of party politicians. They too want maximum discretion.

Let me give one example. British prime ministers now normally want to pick at least one war to fight during their time in office. These wars of choice can be vote-winners. They allow the prime minister to walk tall. Mr Cameron was deeply disappointed in 2013 when he was not able to get his war in Syria, supporting Syrian jihadis. He had better luck in 2015 when  Parliament agreed to his new plan to attack jihadis in Syria. It put him up there with the Big Boys. But equally a government going to war does not want voters to think about the financial costs. The last thing it wants is being forced to impose a War Tax. That would make voters think twice about their gung-ho enthusiasms for bombing far away countries. Fortunately, the Treasury pot is usually big enough to absorb the costs of a small war, one which sticks to the cheap route to failure, that of bombing civilians. Money can be shifted between notional budgets and, if not, borrowing can be discreetly increased. But when monies are ring-fenced and there are entitlements, it becomes more difficult. As a result of this way of thinking, both Treasury and politicians are committed to the ideas (though they would never admit it) that All Benefits are Voluntary Hand Outs and No Benefits are Entitlements. In other words, citizens have no rights.

The obvious way to create entitlement to benefits is through insurance schemes. People pay into the scheme and, at the same time, they are informed of their entitlements under the scheme. That is what Britain’s National Insurance system was once supposed to be about. But now it isn’t. No one pays in anywhere near enough to accumulate entitlement to the benefits they can claim. Nowadays, it is merely a concession to the idea that there can be benefits to which you are entitled because you have insured for them. If the Treasury had its way, even that concession would be abolished. The Treasury loathes the idea of insurance. It gets in the way of tax and spend. The Treasury has almost a winning hand in one simple fact about our psychology. We hate it when we see money removed from our pay packet before we even get it: Pay as You Earn taxes, National Insurance. If National Insurance was for realistic sums of money we would hate it even more. But when it comes to paying 20% Value Added Tax on virtually everything we buy – well, we don’t even notice it (often we don’t see it separately itemised). This is the Treasury’s winning hand – taxes we don’t notice. Not only that, such invisible taxes are not linked to any specific government expenditures. The Treasury gets just the kind of money it wants, money it can use as it (or its political masters) please. In addition, VAT quietly and effectively reverses the progressive character of Income Tax and produces the desired overall result that the poor pay a higher percentage of their income in tax than the rich.

The symbiotic Treasury - Politician commitment to avoiding entitlements and favouring handouts immediately opens the door to the parlour game known as Benefits Scrounging, in which the winners are those who work out every handout for which they can make themselves eligible and promptly claim them all. Those who celebrate their 60th birthday by claiming their Free Bus Pass are benefits scroungers. They have no entitlement to the pass, they have done nothing to deserve it, they often don’t need it – but it’s there, a handout, yours for the asking.

 *

 

We have an increasingly shaky idea of what it means to be a citizen. The benefits culture, created by politicians and sustained until very recently by an all-party consensus, has been disempowering. It encourages childishness at election times as voters shop around looking for the party which offers three for the price of two. No more than that. No expectation that you think about the future, about your children and grandchildren; certainly no expectation that you think about right and wrong, justice and fairness. An obvious route towards re-building ideas of citizenship involves, among much else, dismantling the Handouts culture and re-instating the idea of a contributory system: you pay in for health care, unemployment benefit, and pensions. That must be the expectation for nearly everyone, with a non-contributory but generous social safety net principally for those who are born disabled or become so. It also involves challenging the Treasury - Politician collusion. There is no reason why money should not be ring-fenced, why taxes on X should not go towards paying for Y and only for Y. If politicians want a war, then they must use a War Tax to pay for it. If voters want a war, then they should be obliged to put their money where their flags wave.

Probably the only interesting alternative to this approach is the idea of a universal Citizen Entitlement to a flat monthly income about big enough to live on. Everyone would get it, regardless of income or age. For those in work, for example, it would simply lower their tax bill. For those not earning, for whatever reason, it would be a handout but without the disfiguring features of the electoral bribes currently on offer to selected groups, most obviously and repeatedly in the UK, the voting over 60s. The idea has the merit of threatening the destruction of a thousand benefits bureaucracies, most of which end up in the newspapers for incompetence of one kind or another. So it is a sleek proposal. It has the de-merits that it hands money to people who don’t need it and, in practice, will still have to include small print provisions for special cases like those of people whose disabilities oblige them to make use of expensive equipment or carers. From where I am coming from, universal citizen entitlement has the demerit that it puts all citizens in the position of state dependents. I have yet to read an argument that persuades me that is not the case.

Thursday, 7 October 2021

Defending Dogs from Humans: a Case against Pet Ownership

 

Defending Dogs from Humans

 

[Dogs]… are the ultimate reminder that there is more to life than a smartphone

 

Gillian Tett, FT Weekend Magazine, April 13/14 2019


It being the opinion of some philosophers that the absence of an alternative has a great deal to do with the faithfulness of spaniels.


George Eliot, deleted sentence from Silas Marner.


*

 

In many - maybe most - countries, dogs are bred to satisfy the needs of humans. Some of those needs seem to me strong enough to justify the breeding; in this category I place sheep dogs, sniffer dogs, guide dogs. Those dogs are usually well-cared for. Other human needs I am doubtful about, including those identified by Gillian Tett in her “The Truth about Cat and Dog Owners”

 

At the top end, exotic dog brands are created to satisfy a demand for status symbols which fit into a designer handbag. Some of those exotic dogs suffer from chronic health problems which are reckoned a small price to pay for the exoticism. Far from providing a status symbol, ownership of such dogs ought to downgrade the owner’s status as it would if the symbol was a dwarf or a black slave. Likewise, some dog breeds are engineered to create attack animals, and that should also be  cause for concern.

 

But the vast majority of dogs are bred to satisfy ordinary human needs for companionship or to compensate for chronic emotional problems. It’s not that easy to find a dog owner who does not have fairly obvious emotional needs or problems to assuage for which a dog has been selected as the drug of choice. Those problems are evident in the way dog owners address their dogs and talk about them to others. The stand-out literary representation of the situation is to be found in J R Ackerley's My Dog Tulip.

 

From the perspective of the owners, the wonderful thing about dogs is that they are liable to Stockholm Syndrome; they adopt the values of those who have taken them hostage. Occasionally, a dog will go on the attack, but not against its controller; the victim is either a complete stranger or else a child in the same house. But most of the time, dogs are compliant in a way that other human beings aren’t. Part of being mentally healthy is being able to accept that other people don’t always want to run fetch or sit up and beg. Some people can’t come to terms with that and that’s probably a mental health problem in itself, or a sign of one.

 

The dependence of owners on their dogs is not just a worrying psychological fact; it is also a significant social problem - and a growing one, since dog ownership is ever-increasing partly due to the advertising efforts of very large pet food corporations. They encourage the dependency in exactly the same way as the purveyors of alcohol and tobacco. Their advertising is long overdue for the same kind of regulation as applies to the promotion of other drugs, though I am not sure how you regulate sentimentality. You can’t just proscribe doe-eyed, floppy-eared doggies; maybe you just have to ban all pictures of dogs in dog food advertisements.  They are exploitative of canines who have not signed consent forms and do not get paid. They feed the traffic in dogs.

 

The dependency would not matter so much were it not for the fact that it spills over into a variety of social nuisances. Rather like street drinkers who scatter cans and piss on the pavement, dog owners think that public space exists for the benefit of their pets, that the main function of public space is to provide convenient pit stops for dogs. If dogs did not shit and piss, you can be absolutely certain that very few of them would be taken for such regular walkies.

 

Though in my country (Great Britain) it has now become more common for dog owners to Pick Up - and what does that tell us about their state of mind, for goodness sake? - they have at the same time become more grandiose about their own entitlements. A few decades ago, it was unusual for dogs to be allowed into shops, restaurants, offices, schools, hospitals, trains, buses …. Now they are everywhere and there are moves afoot to get them into the last hold-out against their presence, rented homes. So if you live in a converted Victorian terrace house with no sound-proofing and grubby public areas, prepare for the next deterioration in your quality of life. The dogs are coming.

 

Ultimately, we should consider a ban on the breeding of dogs as pets. That would be in defence of the dogs against humans. Such a world is a long way off. Right now, one public policy aim should be to marginalise dog owners in the same way that smokers have been marginalised. Huddled in doorways for a fag break, there is now no disguising the fact that theirs is an addiction which other people, who were once forced into the role of passive smokers, now refuse to share. It took a long time to reverse the grip of Big Tobacco over our lives.

 

In relation to dogs, the place to begin is reversion to how things were before. Dog ownership should be taxed as it once was, very much for the same reason that alcohol and tobacco are taxed. The taxes discourage use but also pay for the clean-up costs of other people's addictions: the street mess, the hospital admissions. Second, we should re-introduce the old policy of Dogs not admitted. Hospitals, chemists’ shops, schools, anywhere that serves food and drink - these are obvious No Go areas. In relation to public recreational space, a good starting point would be to exclude dogs from half of them. Parents of young children, especially, would welcome this. Weekend football and cricket players would also welcome playing fields which do not do double duty as dog shitteries.

 

I like animals. I am uncomfortable with human dog-dependence, so obviously a symptom of emotional and psychological difficulty; but more to the point, I am tired of dog owners’ sense of entitlement, their sense of privilege in which their rights trump those of dog-free people. It should be possible to enjoy a meal in a restaurant without someone else’s dog under your feet and go for a walk admiring the scene, rather than keeping your eyes down for the dog shit.



Written 2019 in response to Gillian Tett's article

 

Tuesday, 28 September 2021

Keir Starmer, Rosie Duffield, Sajid Javid and trans people's rights: pausing for thought.

 

This seems likely to remain a hot button topic for the foreseeable future, capable of acting as a wedge issue in the United Kingdoms' next General Election. Below is a 2016 essay in which I tried to set some of the controversies into a broader context; it appears in my book The Best I Can Do (2016). In a re-write I would want to include separate consideration of the position of intersex (hermaphrodite) individuals who are marginalised in the current debate and only mentioned here. 

The book (paperback) is available on Amazon and at Blackwell at a discounted price.


 

Passing for Female?

To my knowledge, no single or unified account of the limits and limitations of self-identification exists. Different practices prevail in different domains and reflect both fairly constant and sometimes rapidly changing perceptions of what is legitimate, what is safe, what is fair, and so on. The practices vary from one society to another, of course. The issue those practices address might be put like this: When can and should we accept someone’s own word that they are who they say they are? When can and should we accept that they are what they say they are? 

I began to think about identity and self-identification partly because of a well-publicised spat at Cardiff  University. In 2015, Germaine Greer, writer and celebrity, author of The Female Eunuch and other works, was invited to lecture at Cardiff. It nearly didn’t happen because the women’s officer of the Student Union there, Rachael Melhuish, got up a petition to No Platform her: Greer has demonstrated time and time again her misogynistic views towards trans women, including continually misgendering transwomen and denying the existence of transphobia altogether. Trans-exclusionary views should have no place in feminism or society. As an example of her “transphobia”, Greer was notably called out for the use of the expression “ghastly parodies” to describe those whose birth sex was Male but who subsequently choose to present in society as women, either with or without surgery. Greer refuses to accept the self-presentation or, at least, some of those presentations. In contrast, Melhuish aligns herself with those who think that people should be allowed to self-identify their gender and be treated accordingly. That is in line with the policy of the National Union of Students. How plausible is that position? It seems to me that it helps if we consider the argument in the context of other cases where identity questions arise.

Banks no longer accept that you are who you say you are or that you live where you say you live. You have to provide proof in both cases – and the banks spell out to you what kind of proof they will accept (your passport, a recent utility bill, and so on). This is justified as an anti-fraud / anti-money laundering / anti-tax evasion measure. We are not supposed to get indignant when asked to prove that we are who we say we are, though I imagine that there was a time when people (especially those in higher social classes) would indeed have become indignant: “How dare you!”

Compare situations in which you are simply asked to declare something and that’s it. When you go into hospital you are asked to declare your religion and they just write down what you say. This will affect how your body will be handled if you die there and who will seek to visit you if you are dying. And so on. You declare and no one queries it. Thus it is that in the United Kingdom there are very many more self-declared Christians than enter Christian churches. The self-ascription “Christian” on a hospital form is for all practical purposes a negative characterisation: Well, I’m  certainly not a Jew or a Muslim and I don’t want to answer “None” just in case …

But in other contexts, this casual attitude to religious self-ascription would not be tolerated. In England, school admissions provide a good example. Since the 1990s, successive governments have encouraged a greater degree of social segregation through the mechanism of “Faith Schools” which are allowed to select their pupils by the religious affiliation of their parents. However, realising that parents are only too willing to perjure themselves to get their kids into nice middle class schools, our more popular faith schools now look for proof that you are indeed of the religious persuasion that you claim. They impose religious tests. Indignation? Not at all. Our modern parents (sociologists tell us) are more than happy to present themselves in the pews of the local Church of England or Roman Catholic church where for as long as it takes they sit smugly, ghastly parodies of religious belief.

In the UK, there are few contexts in which self-identification by race or ethnicity is asked for other than for statistical purposes – the Census, notably. We don’t have Quotas and we don’t have Exclusions. In some contexts, notably medical, the accuracy of self-identification is important: there are some genetic disorders and diseases which discriminate by race and it can be important for a doctor to know whether or not you are in a high risk group. In this case, people have a  self-interest in making accurate self-identifications.

But in other societies, self-identification by race or ethnicity or their official ascription have long and complex histories and important consequences. Everyone is familiar with the idea of “Passing for White” which in the United States was – and maybe still is – a rational strategy for improving your life chances. If your skin is pale enough, then that opens up the possibility of passing for white and, if you decide to do that even in the knowledge that your ancestry is at least partly non-white, then you acquire immediate social advantages - but at the same time usually have to live with inner conflict and the anxiety that you may be found out. On the other side from "Passing for White", when forms of positive discrimination are introduced designed to favour disadvantaged groups then there are also possibilities of abuse and once again Tests have to be introduced to verify that you are who you say you are or what you say you are. It is not unknown for people to choose to “Pass for Black”.

But most of the time in daily life, people don't encounter many occasions when their self-identifications are challenged. Being asked for your age ID when trying to enter a club or pub is as bad as it gets and that problem, unfortunately, goes away naturally.

 *

Now let’s go back to the Melhuish – Greer conflict. I have always understood that a man who dresses as a woman is correctly described as a transvestite and that a man who in addition has undergone hormonal treatment or surgery is usually described as a transsexual. More or less the same categorisation can be made in relation to women who present themselves as men. Neither category tells us anything about a trans person’s sexual orientation. Nor does it actually tell us much about their gender since it is not spelled out what it is to present oneself as a woman (or when  the transition is made in the other direction, a man). The National Union of Students wants us to treat the presentation of self as unproblematic (“My Identity Is Not Your Business”, Resolution 106, December 2015) whereas I thought that a great deal of social theory and most feminisms from Simone de Beauvoir (at the latest) onwards were about it being extremely problematic.

Does it mean in the M to F case presenting oneself according to the local gender stereotypes of what it is to be a woman? Does it mean presenting oneself as a woman in one’s dress and the public toilets you enter? Does it mean signalling to men that they should treat you (according to the conventions in place) as a woman? And likewise, signalling the same to women – so that, for example, you can claim admission to “Women Only” meetings? Does it mean signalling to others that you feel more comfortable presenting yourself and being treated as a woman (whatever that happens to mean), pretty much regardless of how you dress, what toilets you use, what personality traits you display, and so on?

The basis of a 2015 film, David Ebershoff’s novel The Danish Girl, originally published in 2000, offers - perhaps unwittingly - answers to some of these questions. It does not stay close to the true story which inspired it, but nonetheless it allows us to see what some of the real-world issues are. A large part of the narrative is about a man, Einar, passing as a woman, Lili, in various ways, some of them morally dubious: for example, when through your dress, you misrepresent your sexual identity to someone you want to seduce or be seduced by.

Whereas feminism since the 1960s has most often been about challenging conventional gendering, urging women to be more assertive and men less macho, women to be less obsessed with their appearance and men less demanding in that regard, Eberhsoff’s transgender character embraces wholly conventional gendering but simply switches sides. That appears to be the case for some contemporary real-life switchers: they accept the existing conventions on both sides, but switch allegiances.

Passing as a woman normally involves more than asking to be labelled a certain way. The exceptions are provided, notably, by cases – largely in the past - where birth-sex women cross-dressed as men in order to gain admission to armies, medical schools, and so on, but who did not in any way feel that they were something other than women. There were also cases where men cross-dressed as women, usually for nefarious purposes like escaping military service or gaining access to places where young females could be found who might be available for heterosexual sex. But the most obvious cases of cross-dressing occurred (and still occur) on stage where the Pantomime Dame or the burlesque Drag Queen have for a very long time (centuries?) presented a comedy of “ghastly parodies” . Sometimes these parodies appear off stage and may have been in Germaine Greer’s mind. Would the defenders of trans people’s rights welcome a Pantomime Dame to a Women Only meeting?

That sort of question may be a way into thinking about the whole issue. If you would not admit a Pantomime Dame, my guess is that is because you think they are simply a man pretending to be a woman. Fine, it’s not really in dispute. Next question: How about an old-fashioned male-to-female transvestite who cuts a very striking figure in high heels and booming voice? Is that person more than a Pantomime Dame, but just off-stage? If so, what makes the difference? What has to happen to qualify that person for a "Women Only" meeting? Do they just have to Pass in the way that the Dame and the old fashioned transvestite Fail, namely, the ability to Pass? And who is to make up the rules and judge who Passes?

Germaine Greer has said that "just because you lop off your dick it doesn't make you a woman". This is obviously true: men have their dicks lopped off in car crashes, industrial accidents and - most frequently - misadventures with military high explosives. Few of them breathe a sigh of relief or think "Now I can be the woman I always wanted to be". Greer is saying that even if you lose your dick as part of a self-mutilation or voluntarily undergone medical procedure, that in itself is not sufficient to make you a woman, not enough to get you into the "Women Only" meeting. That seems correct: you need a supporting story which explains why you did it and how it forms part of the "woman" identity you are claiming. It seems to me quite possible that someone whose dick is intact could have a stronger claim than a dickless person to be regarded as a woman.

Rachael Melhuish is right in this: people who are gratuitously offensive to others generally deserve a put-down of some kind if we can be reasonably clear what we mean by “gratuitously offensive”. Greer has always been foul mouthed and blunt and that is one reason she achieved iconic status as a feminist. If she thinks an argument is ridiculous, she will say so and that does not always go down well. It’s not obviously the same thing as being gratuitously offensive. It is not offensive to shred a bad argument; it is one of the things students are supposed to do.

*

Freudian psychoanalysis is hated only and always by those who insist that we are always who we say we are and what we say we are. I am a kind and loving person, always – and if you dispute those Facts, I will cast you into outer darkness. But most aspects of our selves are not things we can will, and those who believe that the will can always triumph are doomed to failure. My will won't triumph over my toothache and I can’t will away primary sexual characteristics or even many of the secondary gender characteristics I have acquired. Several critics of the NUS’s recent positions use the word “fascist” or allude to it (as I have done in referencing Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 film Triumph of the Will ) in describing its politics. I think this is because of a suspicion that there is a background belief here that all of life is about resolutions, decisions and will-power. Take away the reference to Fascism and an alternative might be to call such beliefs The Anorexic Mistake. They are beliefs which cluster around the idea that we can subject our bodies and ourselves entirely to control by our will power.

I realise that earlier I used examples – the Pantomine Dame, the Drag Queen - which may seem trivial, though that’s a familiar device to clarify complex issues and it sometimes works. But in reality, from what I read, trans people have much more difficult lives than the Pantomime Dame, as do Hermaphrodites - Intersex persons - who start from a different anatomical situation. It is hard and often enough anguishing to realise that you are only going to feel more authentic, more comfortable, more desirable if you shift into a mode of self-presentation which asks other people to reclassify your gender, more or  less regardless of the state of your sexual organs.

But just because it’s hard does not mean that a Narrative of Suffering or a Hard Luck story on its own should open the doors to the Women Only meeting. The narrative needs to be convincing and the story true. In the UK, a 2004 Act of Parliament attempted to deal with the matter by creating a Gender Recognition Panel. It may be that the legislation will need to be modified but it seems to me unlikely we will conclude that so little is at stake that anyone can self-declare who and what they are for all purposes. Those who appear to want simple self-declaration to suffice are arguing for something which can place others at risk of harm – it has occasionally happened already that males with heterosexual interests and a tendency to violence declare themselves women to gain access to Women Only spaces.

So the stories we tell cannot always let us off the hook of other forms of accountability. Likewise, just because you may encounter hostile or dismissive reactions does not mean that you are automatically to be reckoned morally superior to those around you. You will still have your own weaknesses and unkindnesses – things which make everyone uncomfortable with themself at one time or another, things which we would like to wish away with a “No, that’s not me”. We can never be entirely who we say we are or what we say we are. That's just one of life's unfairnesses. But at least it applies to everyone.

 *

At the back of my mind I have this thought. The history of medicine is littered with histories of doctors doing terrible things to people, supposedly to "cure" them of this or that. Some of the medical techniques employed to re-configure sexual characteristics have been around a long time: sheikhs had eunuchs in their harems, the Vatican had castrati in its choirs (until 1913 or 1959, sources differ on the dates), German sex clinics began offering operations in the 1920s, chemical castration was around in the 1950s to punish homosexuals like Alan Turing, the major industry which services the desire for larger breasts is very well established. The range of surgeries and chemistries available continues to grow. But there is a possibility that a hundred years from now, those who by then believe themselves to be progressive and humane may regard at least some of those techniques as barbaric - even when self-chosen - and as falsely offering cures for catastrophic dilemmas which require other modes of approach. Even now, when I read up on the history of Lili Elbe [Lili Elvenes] (1882 -1931), the so-called Danish Girl, I find myself uneasy when I discover that her fourth and final surgery, submitted to when she was 49 years old, killed her. It was carried out in Dresden and involved the unprecedented transplant of either ovaries or a uterus. It reads just too much like an irresponsible medical experiment conducted on a vulnerable person who was past normal child bearing age. Worse, it occurs in a political context where medical irresponsibility was soon to achieve political sanction and encouragement. Dr Warnekros who operated on Lili in 1931 joined the Nazi party in 1933. Put into that kind of context, sex change operations at that time belong to the same world as medical experimentation on those who had not consented, to forced sterilisation and other eugenic policies which culminated in the mass killing of the mentally feeble and physically handicapped.


Thursday, 16 September 2021

Lord Frost and Imperial Measures

 

This is a short extract from my book The Best I Can Do (2016), available from Amazon and Blackwell

….. The UK has a pre-modern political system - a Ruritanian monarchy with the usual trappings of odd local rights and privileges (ownership of swans and such like); an unelected and completely corrupt second chamber; a first chamber designed to remind its Members of 19th century public schools. Those members have their own unbreakable habits - in the UK, the House of Commons, despite modest changes, remains submerged under fatuous rituals designed to create a backlog of real work and thus to stop as much change as possible. It is made tolerable to Members of Parliament only by the availability of large amounts of subsidised alcohol, recently revealed as the secret ingredient in the famous rowdiness of the House of Commons.

But even where politicians are open to change, they have to contend with the electorate's resistance. Voters are people who stand there, fold their arms and tell you that they always have done and always will do it THIS way. Urged to change, they will stamp their feet and cry, Shan't! Can't! Won't! As a result, for example, the United Kingdom has no coherent system of weights and measures which everyone uses. For a number of years, the European Union tried to get us to Go Metric. But teachers had no intention of going metric (they didn't understand these foreign ideas) and market traders saw the chance to become Metric Martyrs, and like the pound sterling, wasn't it part of our Tradition and Heritage to have fourteen pounds to the stone and , er, eight stones to the hundredweight (which is not one hundred but one hundred and twelve pounds ) and, your turn, how many hundredweights is it to the ton unless it’s a short ton ….and so eventually the European Union gave up in the face of irredeemable stupidity. We were granted yet another opt-out.

As a result, the UK remains pre-modern, with an incoherent jumble of systems in use. Just visit any supermarket. Here you can find pints for some liquids, litres for others. Grams and kilos on one shelf, ounces and pounds on another. In Cornwall, maybe they still sell potatoes by the gallon. Weigh yourself on the bathroom scales, and some of us will use pounds and stones and some kilos. Medications are normally measured in milligrams and grams, millilitres and centilitres and not everyone understands what that all means so there are occasional disastrous results. Go to a fabric shop and you may find meters or you may find yards. Buy petrol and it's in litres, but distance measurement is in miles not kilometres. And, to rub it in, road signs show fractions of miles rather than decimal points of miles - as you approach the Channel Tunnel, you are counted down from two-thirds of a mile to one-third of a mile, a final flag-waving Work-That-Out-If -You-Can optout from new-fangled and, above all, foreign systems.

Two hundred years or more ago, as countries entered the  modern era, so they unified, simplified and extended the reach of systems of weights and measures. Local and highly particular traditions disappeared as did local currencies. The decimal system and the metric system are the expression of this move to the modern era, and their near-universal adoption is one of the enduring achievements of the French Revolution. It was a political achievement but the actual work was done by mathematicians and scientists of the first rank – Condorcet, Laplace, Lavoisier. They tried to work with British and American colleagues – Thomas Jefferson notable among them – but both those countries turned up their noses at what the French were proposing. It took Britain until 1971 to decimalise its currency and 1984 until the anomaly of a ½ penny coin was removed.

 But we still haven’t made it into the modern era. Children learn how to use bits of different systems and none of them very well. They have no idea of how powerful a tool a unified system can be. They simply become good at bodging which is fine for a nation of bodgers. It’s obtuse to expect children to be good at maths when their culture constantly tells them to muddle through with anything to do with numbers.

The moral is this: dysfunctional and, more generally, sub-optimal states of institutions and practices can persist indefinitely. They don't necessarily get eliminated any more than do pandas (who are terribly ill-adapted to their environment and generally miserable in consequence). All that happens is that people are generally miserable as they see their societies and economies grumbling and stumbling along, their politicians still aspiring to nothing more than an Opt Out from the modern world.

But people won’t do anything about it. They made their vows long ago.