I encountered an anti-choice demo

This afternoon, I had a lovely lunch with my friend Jed. We ate sushi in the park and enjoyed the glorious unseasonal sunshine. On the way back to work, our mood was sullied.

Opposite the Marie Stopes centre in Fitzrovia was an anti-abortion demo. A woman stood on the pavement, with a rosary wrapped around her wrist. Next to her, on the pavement, was the word “LIFE” spelt out in plastic foetuses. It shocked me. It was one of those things I associate with the US, not something that happened yards away from my office.

I decided to take a photo. I crossed the road, and, standing outside the centre, prepared my camera. It was at this point I realised there were two of them. The other anti-choicer, a man, stood in front of me and refused to let me take the photo. He spoke with an Irish accent. In his hands were two rosaries and a handful of leaflets printed on cheap coloured paper. I didn’t see the text, but there was a great big cross on the front, so I think I can guess at the subject matter.

I informed him calmly that it was my right to take a photograph of a demonstration, and he became rather enraged and threatening, so fixated was he on moving me away. Across the road, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Jed lining up a sneaky snapshot. I created a distraction while Jed took the photo above.

As we were about to leave, the man had been pretending to call the police. Of course he wouldn’t have really called the police. He had been rather threatening towards me, and the demonstrators were wise not to want their pictures taken. They were in the process of committing a crime: section 5 of the Public Order Act, causing harassment, alarm or distress. Having an abortion can be a very stressful experience for people, and this is exacerbated by people hanging around with misleading leaflets, rosaries and plastic foetuses, harassing them and causing distress.

I found it very interesting that the woman never spoke. She stood, placidly in her position while the man spoke for her: “She doesn’t want her photo taken”. It was a microcosm of patriarchal privilege and power, which is a huge motivator of the anti-choice agenda.

The experience left a bad taste in my mouth. It is one of those things that I hope I will never see again, but, sadly, I suspect I will. I do not want such demonstrations banned–it sets an ugly precedent, and those anti-choicers have as much right to protest as any other soul.

But I don’t want to see it again. I don’t want women to have to enter clinics for advice, for contraception or for abortions when they are at risk from harassment. So what is the answer here?

Long-term, it is to build a world where choice and bodily autonomy is respected completely, and nobody feels the need to be poking about in someone else’s womb-business. For now, though, we must work to foster an environment where anti-choice demonstrations are not welcome–a less confrontational, smaller-scale version of counter-demos against fascist groups like the EDL. This may be as small as taking a photograph of the demonstrators. We may, at some point in the near future, need clinic escorts, who protect people entering centres from the anti-choicers.

I don’t want to ban demos like this, but I truly hope that I never see one again.



How to oppress men a little more effectively: what we can learn from fish

I’m a feminist, and so I absolutely hate men and want to do everything I can to oppress them. Feminism is, after all, about female superiority and completely ignoring the men. It’s true! Everyone says it! I want to make sure that we women absolutely demonstrate how we are better than men and herald in a new dawn of women’s supremacy.

The thing is, we’ve stalled. We need inspiration. It’s not enough that we oppress men by fighting for equal pay and bodily autonomy and generally wanting to carve our own paths in life and find ourselves on equal footing with the men. Our demands aren’t unreasonable enough yet. We need to oppress harder, damn it.

Evolutionary psychology often looks at animal behaviour and compares it with humans. I decided, in my quest to stomp my Doc Marten on the face of men forever, that I would do the same. I took inspiration from fish.

Seahorses are brilliant. The male seahorses are the ones that get pregnant. One of the biggest things standing in the way of female supremacy is the fact that sometimes we find ourselves knocked up, and we fancy carrying the foetus to term just so that the man–sorry, spunk hose–can spend the rest of his darling life paying child support. Other times, those spite abortions that we have are time-consuming. At any rate, wouldn’t it be better if it was the men who get pregnant?

Seahorse culture is like a feminist utopia. While the male is at home, bare-tailed and pregnant, the female is CEO at Coral Towers. It’s perfect! This is exactly what we as feminists want! We’re finally in our rightful places, on top of men. The men wouldn’t mind at all, either. They’d know the kids were theirs. Because men have been doing a spectacularly poor job at getting pregnant so far, we women have had to do it, and because we’re all sluts, the bloke we dupe into paying for our kids probably isn’t the real father. I’m sure this probably makes them feel sad, so I’m sure they’d be very happy about getting pregnant.

But perhaps we don’t want men to be happy, right, sisters? We’re better than them, who gives a fuck what they think about us? Really, men are only good for one thing.

The fish pictured above is an angler fish. The thing is, that’s a female angler fish. Male angler fish look kind of different. This is what a fully-grown male angler fish looks like. Like human men, he is a pathetic and tiny parasite. The male clamps on to the side of the female, and slowly becomes a part of her. Gradually, he is absorbed into the female angler fish until he becomes nothing but a spunking cock and balls welded to her side.

Isn’t that just brilliant? The female angler fish doesn’t need to bother with listening to any of his whining, she just has the relevant bits of him on hand, whenever she needs it. We feminists could learn a lot from this. Also, we would be even better at asserting our superiority if we looked a bit more like angler fish. I’m an advanced feminist, of course. My vagina already boasts a set of teeth that could rival the most brilliant of angler fish. To my feminist sisters, when you hate men as much as I do, you, too, will grow a row of sparklers in your nether regions.

That’s still not enough though, is it ladies? I mean, that spunking cock welded to your side is eating your food! What an ungrateful little bastard. Perhaps, then, we should have a special someone over for dinner…

In some species of octopus, the women eat their mates. That’s right! Like praying mantises, female octopodes sometimes eat male octopodes, during or immediately after sex. That’s because sex is hungry work. Also, once they’ve blown their load, is there really any point to men? I applaud the female octopus. She has shown us the way.

But what of we feminists? We’re doing pretty well, but unfortunately we’ve still not fully assimilated into the Hive Vagina. We’re still not quite there yet. Although a lot of people think us a homogeneous mass, there’s still some traces of individualism among our ranks.

Here, we can learn from the fish once again.

A lot of fish swim in shoals. This really confuses predators: myriad upon myriad of identical fish, they find it impossible to pick out their prey and get confused and swim off. We feminists could do well to learn from it. Imagine how much easier we’d find it to shut down debate if we fully assimilated into a swarm like so many fish do.

If we take tips from fish, we as feminists can do a far better job of oppressing men. Right now, we’re just not good enough. We’re not even equal yet. How can we achieve female supremacy if we still find ourselves oppressed by men?

Simple. We swarm and eat their heads.


Rats and levers: how to smash capitalism with behavioural psychology

Almost eighty years ago, rats in boxes led to a new paradigm in our understanding of human learning. The famous Skinner trained rats to pull a lever to receive food. Later, with the same methodology, he taught pigeons to play table tennis.

The phenomenon is called “operant conditioning”, and it is pervasive. It is the ability to connect a behaviour with a stimulus: press a lever, receive food; press a lever, avoid pain. It is one of our primal impulses: behaviour leads to an effect. Without that ability, we would get very little indeed done.

For operant conditioning to happen, we need to feel pleasure when we receive a good stimulus and an unpleasant feeling when we receive a bad stimulus. We can see this from when the brain goes wrong: when the ability to feel a sweet little dopamine kick at a pleasurable stimulus is impaired, learning too is impaired. To learn to associate our behaviour with something pleasant, we need to be able to feel good.

It is hardly surprising, then, that the system which we have in place taps into this basic system so well. We spend money, we receive something nice, we feel very good about that. It’s nice to have nice things, and so it’s nice to spend money. We learn to become consumers, because ultimately the stimulus-response effect is positive. Spending money is all too simple. We walk into the shop, bung our money down, and in return we get our nice new handbag or book or delicious burrito. A sweet little dopamine kick tickles our mesolimbic pathways. The response gets carved in deeper.

It goes slightly deeper than this, though. Money is an interesting reinforcer: on its own it has no value whatsoever. It is purely symbolic. You can’t eat a fiver; you can’t play with it much beyond folding it in a way to give the Queen an amusing sadface; a fiver is not entertaining or useful in any tangible way. It is only by exchanging that fiver for the real reward that it has value. This is called a secondary reinforcer. It can be compared to when someone trains a pet using a clicker: the animal will respond to the clicker because it associates the clicker with rewards.

We perform all sorts of actions which are reinforced with this essentially valueless stimulus: we sell our labour, we exchange goods for money, we fill in forms. Some of the money is spent on actual rewards: that shiny new handbag, that book, that telly, all wrapped up with the bow of a sweet little dopamine kick.

The thing with Skinner, though, is that the rats weren’t always working for nice things. Sometimes those rats were starving and they were stuck in a box, pressing that lever so they could eat. This is, usually, how we exchange our tokens: basic food to keep going, shelter, warmth and even water. We are sitting in that box frantically pressing that lever just to stay alive.

This is how the system feeds. We need the money, so we perform the actions. Every so often, we’re rewarded with something to makes us feel good. It’s smart. It’s instant. It taps into a basic learning system: even a rat can do it.

And that’s why it’s so hard to dismantle. Alternatives to the system do not always tap into that instantaneous stimulus-response system. Working against the whole shitty system often does not tap into that instantaneous stimulus-response system. We press the lever and nothing happens. Perhaps ten minutes after the lever press, the pellet of food drops down, but by this point the association is not there. The adage “good things come to those who wait” applies here: those who can build associations and put off an immediate reward in favour of a bigger one in the future tend to do better out of life. For most of us, though, this ability involves a cognitive struggle. And sometimes it’s easier to just play on the immediate stimulus-response reactions.

In activism, a lot of the time we find ourselves bored and standing in the miserable drizzle until we finally fuck off to the pub. Nothing is achieved. In part, this is because our goals are too vast: we will hardly dismantle capitalism by standing in the rain feeling cross and handing out leaflets. What if, though, our goals were smaller? That for each action, we set a simple goal: to change one mind, to block a road for an hour, to disrupt a bank so it will lose a certain amount of business that day? These goals are achievable, and the trip to the pub with comrades suddenly feels like a little treat, combined with a fizz of dopamine. This method is called mastery, an offshoot of operant learning: measurable behaviours, measurable and achievable goals, slowly building.

Satisfaction can come from other sources than buying, as many in the left wing community will know. I take more joy from a scarf I have knitted than one I have bought. I feel happier sharing a meal cooked with friends than something pricier in a restaurant. Gratification is possible, and consumerism is not the only way to get that sweet little dopamine kick. It is simply the most salient way of being.

While this works for activists, it is preaching to the converted. How can this rat and lever response be used to help those who are currently buying wholesale into the system? What we want is for people to know about the problems and act to become part of the solution. The bad news is, those leaflets we hand out in the rain are only useful for awareness-raising. Providing information does not tend to lead to magical change of behaviour. For people to act, we need to be ready.

One way is to negate the reinforcing value of money and the things bought with money. There are few legal ways of achieving this, and it is not necessarily a feasible course of action–and for our own morale, pursuit of the feasible is important. The other option is gradual: starting with helping people to do simple tasks which are rewarding, things that make them feel good. Simplicity, at first is crucial: start off with an e-petition, perhaps. E-petitions are largely pointless, but the signers tend to feel good about themselves afterwards. From the petition, progress to a slightly larger task–such as writing to an MP. Escalate slowly and gently, facilitating people to move to increasingly larger tasks until eventually they, too, are ready for revolution.

This is, essentially, why movements such as UK Uncut have been so successful, with mass appeal. UK Uncut actions involve performing a simple behaviour (sitting down in a shop) with measurable results (the shop loses business). It is hardly surprising that this movement has been a gateway for many into activism: it taps into that simple stimulus-response system.

Awareness of this basic response can help us shape the world. It can help us achieve the ultimate reward: liberation.

What does getting over it look like?

Trigger warning: this post is about rape, and the experience of dealing with that. 

A couple of years ago, I was raped. I have also had sex in the past which could be termed coercive. These pieces of information are usually not important; these experiences do not tend to infringe on my day-to-day life. I am privileged in that respect: the sex I have now, I thoroughly enjoy, and I do not think much about what happened in the past. One could say, I’ve got over it.

And that’s all well and good apart from the times when I realise that perhaps I haven’t quite got over it. There are times when I realise why so many feminist bloggers put a trigger warning above articles about rape; those little times where I feel an anger and sadness that is personal rather than political at a sad tale of rape or an infuriating case of rape apologism.

Another time, there was a small incident in which a lover did something in their sleep. I was halfway across the room and somewhere between anxious and utterly fucking furious before I had even properly woken up. When the lover woke up due to me very loudly failing at rolling a cigarette between sobs, they were understandably rather baffled.

It was the sort of thing which was a fairly neutral incident, and looking back, kind of funny. The lover in question was fast asleep, unresponsible for their actions, and someone I know and trust. Rationally, it was nothing. Yet the mood I found myself after this sleepy farce was the kind where I could have easily gone on the offence.

It made me realise: am I really over what happened to me a few years ago? My reaction to the situation was not warranted in the slightest; it was an overreaction which had been thoroughly coloured by previous experience, despite the fact that it was unrelated to my previous experience. It was an old scar itching.
I wonder if I am over it, or if I had just papered over the cracks. Am I really all right? Can I expect, one day, for those cracks to be filled completely and for things to not bother me as much as any other person who had not experienced what I have? Or is this occasional overreaction going to be the best that I will ever be?
I hope it is not, I fervently do, yet I suspect that it is.

If “being over it” is the ability to lead a life where I am usually untroubled by painful memories, then I am over it. If “being over it” is a return to completely normal, no hair trigger reaction, no prickle of personal outrage, as though nothing had ever happened at all, then I am not over it at all.

It a way, what happened to me made me the angry feminist that I am today. It is that occasional flash of anger, a deep empathy and understanding for other rape survivors, which makes me determined to kick and scream and fight for a future where rape is a thing of the past. If even at my level of peace, I am not over it, what of the many women who are not so lucky as to be where I am.

Yet I wish to be normal. I wish for the scar to fade completely. It feels like a weakness to me. If I, the lucky one, am not completely OK, what for the others who have been through what I have and worse?

Getting over it. I’d love to do that. If only I knew what that even looked like.

In which I am visible and bi

Today is Bi Visibility Day. It is a necessary day, not because bisexual people tend to be completely transparent, but because there is still a lack of acceptance for bisexual folk.

I suppose, technically, I am bisexual, although I hate that word as it reinforces binary notions of gender. Instead, I tend to use the vaguer term “queer”, or simply “hi. I fancy you.” I’m roughly a 3 on the Kinsey Scale. I like cock. I like cunt. I like boobs and bums and beards and I don’t really mind if all of those things occur on the same person.

A lot of the time, I do not really feel the need to be visible. Most of my friends and lovers also happen fall somewhere in the great territory between heterosexual and homosexual. Those who are not are usually unfazed by my sexual orientation; it doesn’t bother them in the slightest.

And yet, from personal experience, there are some times that I see just why we need a day for bisexuality to be celebrated. There are some times that I see just why we need a day for bisexuality to be visible.

It’s those times exclusively gay women will believe me to just be experimenting, and therefore will reject any opportunity for us to experiment with each other to see if they are sexually compatible. There are still some people that hold the belief that it is not possible for me to be genuinely attracted to both women and men (and, of course, those in between). Luckily, they are few and far between, but when that happens it’s like a slap in the face for how far we need to go.

It’s those times when heterosexual men will believe that I am attracted to women purely for their gratification and wonder if maybe, just maybe, I might snog their girlfriend so they can get their cheapies.

It’s those times when I hear that godawful Katy Perry song that reinforces this awful stereotype that bi women do not really exist, because it’s a pop song about precisely that. It’s those times when I see that very same godawful stereotype rehashed in a popular women’s magazine as a way to turn on “your man”, and nothing else.

It’s all those times I turn on my TV and characters will be either straight or gay. They might “turn gay” or “turn straight”. The notion that they are bisexual is never even entertained. When a show which had previously good bi credentials seems to forget its roots, it makes me cry a little inside (and blog, angrily).

I exist. I do not need the media and other people telling me I do not. I exist, and I am furious that we are still in a position where we need a day to point out that I exist and that millions of others like me also exist.

We have work to do. Heaps and heaps of work to do. To start with, let us make sure we are visible every single day; challenging our general invisibility with in-your-face visibility; challenging prejudice with love.

I exist, and I want everyone to know this.

Right wing authoritarianism: you’ll probably recognise this personality trait

Ever found yourself trapped in an argument that is going nowhere because the other person is so dogmatically right wing that reasoning is impossible? Perhaps they’re cheerfully bellowing “hang ’em all!”, and you want to point out that perhaps the death penalty is a bad idea. Maybe they’re griping about immigrants “coming over here and taking our jobs”, or suggesting that gay marriage is wrong as marriage can only exist between a man and a woman. It might be best to just down tools. That person is likely to be a right wing authoritarian, and you probably won’t change their mind.

What is right wing authoritarianism?

Right wing authoritarianism (RWA) is a personality trait, conceived by psychologist Bob Altemeyer. The right wing authoritarian personality consists of three attributes:

  1. Authoritarian submission: submissiveness and acceptance of authorities which are perceived to be legitimate and established in society, such as government or the police.
  2. Authoritarian aggression: aggression against outgroups and “deviants”–people who the established authority mark as targets. Examples of this includes travellers, immigrants, Muslims and other kinds of scapegoats.
  3. Conventialism: high adherence to traditions and established social norms. This can manifest in a respect for “traditional family values”, for example.

RWA is measured using a scale consisting of 20 items, with a score ranging from 20 (no RWA) to 180 (high RWA). I scored 22; try it for yourself. Depending upon the sample, university students often score around 75, while a large-scale American study found the average about 90.

Correlates of right wing authoritarianism

First of all, right wing authoritarianism is called such because it tends to correlate strongly with endorsement of political conservatism. Furthermore, while attempts have been made to investigate “left wing authoritatianism”–high adherence to left wing party lines and aggression to those who do not endorse left wing values–these attempts have fallen flat, suggesting that perhaps such a thing does not exist. When one measures submission to authority using different scales, it is still found to correlate with right wing ideology; it is likely, therefore, that authoritarianism and being right wing go hand in hand.

Following a lot of research, Altemeyer has identified a lot of ideologies which correlated with right wing authoritarism. The right wing authoritarian is likely to oppose abortion, support nationalistic ideas and behaviours, capital punishment, capitalism, religion and conservative economic policies. They believe the world to be a dangerous place. They also put less value on social equality, and are far more accepting of infringements on civil liberties–Altermeyer found that high RWA people were often not fazed by the Watergate scandal. Unsurprisingly, given this set of correlates, high RWA people are also more likely to be prejudiced against ethnic minorities and gay people, and more likely to be bullies or friends with bullies in childhood.

RWA is not correlated with intelligence, but arguing with a person who is high in RWA may be difficult, as they have been found to uncritically accept poor evidence–how many times have you found yourself arguing with someone who will not listen to reason and instead clings on fervently to a story they were once told by a friend of a friend? High RWA people often hold the perception that they are right, with less ability to accept their own limitations. They are also less creative than less RWA people. High RWA people have less tolerance for ambiguity: this means they are less able to accept change and jump to conclusions in ambiguous situations.

What can be done about right wing authoritarianism?

Some critics have suggested that RWA is not an immutable personality trait, but, rather, a response to an external “threat”, and that some people have a disposition to manifest RWA beliefs when they perceive they are threatened. This threat can come in the form of economic crises or 9/11, for example. As RWAs make the best followers for a right wing authoritarian regime, a somewhat frightening implication arises: by ramping up the threat level, a larger number of followers who are willing to accept undemocratic ideas appear. On the other hand, by reducing the threat level, RWA can be decreased.

Due to the reverence for authoritative sources of information and poor assessment of evidence, though, reducing the threat level may prove challenging. An anecdote, which non-RWAs will probably see as poor evidence: I have tried to do this on several occasions. It is incredibly frustrating and ultimately fruitless.

In truth, though, there is very little evidence as to whether RWA can be changed: the bulk of it focuses on correlates and whether it is a personality trait with a genetic basis, a trait with a social basis, or a reaction to circumstances. This is an area which sorely needs research, as RWA is a somewhat dangerous ideology, given that it is so related to prejudice and violence and can lead to worrying policymaking such as capital punishment.

For now, though, I would recommend, for the sake of your own sanity, disengage from the high-RWAs. It’s an argument you won’t win.




Lies in the Daily Mail to suit a crooked agenda

Yesterday, my friend Ellen was at Dale Farm. Throughout the day, I got texts from her, texts denoting worry, fear and most of all a fundamental sadness and anger at the injustice of the eviction. “I don’t feel like I’m doing enough to help them,” she kept saying. Later in the day, the news broke that the eviction would be put off till Friday at the very earliest, and she phoned me. She told me there was a sense of relief in the air, and she seemed much happier. She told me that her visit to the site had been a profound experience, but she still didn’t feel like she’d done enough to help all of the people. She cares deeply. She is planning on going back when she can.

It is curious, then, that this porky pie appeared in the Daily Mail today. In a quote attributed to Ellen, she allegedly said “I’m here for the protest, I don’t give a shit about the travellers”. Here is a screencap of the offending quote; I will not link to the Mail.

Click for full size

Ellen doesn’t remember talking to a journalist and certainly didn’t–and wouldn’t–say anything of the sort. The quote appears to have been conjured entirely from the imagination of the journalist, Arthur Martin, whose journalistic oeuvre seems to be writing misleading articles about anarchists and travellers. It is hardly surprising that he fabricated a quote, then. The Mail seem to keep him on the books as the one who defames marginalised people and those with political opinions that differ from their own.

Martin made up the quote to suit the Mail’s agenda. It hardly needs saying that the Mail has a history of racism that skims the line just below overt. It suits the Mail to paint travellers as people who are not actually supported by anyone, their only friends being people who fancy a bit of a fight with the bailiffs. The quote Arthur Martin made up smacks of the prejudice that swirls within his own head, that prejudice that makes the Mail salivate for more articles.

It is also telling that he only named Ellen in relation to her boyfriend. The Mail aren’t exactly keen on her boyfriend, either, and relish at the opportunity to defame by proxy. Perhaps the quote was not attributed to Jonnie himself as due to his profile, they would be smacked down far more quickly? It may be an attempt to cover their arses when Ellen complains. Or, perhaps, it speaks volumes on how the Mail view women: girlfriends, without their own merits.

They sell Ellen short, they really do. Ellen is one of the smartest people I know. She has recently completed a Masters degree in Genocide Studies, and was very concerned that the Dale Farm eviction looked a lot like ethnic cleansing. She has talked a lot about this; perhaps the Mail didn’t fancy quoting something she actually said because it clashed so hard with their own agenda?

The Daily Mail is a vile rag full of vile lies. It is dangerous. For every lie they print we must kick up a stink. They cannot get away with this.

Other coverage of the story from Minority Thought and Nothing Special