Not that bollocks about trigger warnings again

That argument about trigger warnings has popped up again, and I feel compelled to write about it again.

This time, the nexus of nonsense seems to be around putting trigger warnings on classic books, with university students asking for this concession to be made. It seems like a reasonable and trivial request, but this hasn’t stopped the commentariat nonsensically screaming censorship.

Let’s start with the obvious: warning that a book contains content likely to cause trauma is not the same as censorship. Do these hacks sit in the cinema, harrumphing about Big Brother when the BBFC certificate pops up and announces that the film will contain scenes of violence? Do they switch off their TV in a rage and write a column about censorship when the announcer points out that there will be an abuse storyline in the next episode of Hollyoaks? How does one even live like this? The only way one can make an argument that content warnings are akin to censorship is if one doesn’t know what censorship is.

And of course, every time this argument rears its head, we see the same ridicule thrown around by privileged journalists. They are mocking people who have survived trauma. They are mocking people who live with mental illness. They are mocking a strategy which helps people to stay alive. That’s the crux of it: putting a trigger warning on something takes only ten seconds of your time, and can mean the world to other people.

I have yet to see a compelling argument against trigger warnings/content warnings that isn’t nonsensical and, at its heart, completely and utterly disablist. It’s selfish and puerile to kick against them, and largely makes you look like a complete bellend. I applaud the widening of the application of trigger warnings: it’s about time they hit the mainstream.

Shit I cannot believe needs to be said: no platforming and censorship are different

Some people genuinely seem to believe that no platforming and censorship are the same thing. It comes up every now and then, this annoying argument, like a turd that just won’t flush. And so I write this post, in an attempt to break it up with a butter knife before flushing again.

Let’s start by discussing what censorship is. Censorship is something that comes from the top down: it’s done by the government or the media, those with the power to control who speaks in the public domain. The aim of censorship is to quash dissent, to silence voices speaking out against their aims, and to maintain the status quo. Censorship can only be enacted by those who are capable of doing so: those who have the means of blocking webpages, redacting documents, editing what gets published, and so forth. Censorship is an expression of power.

Let’s compare this to no platforming. No-platforming, in contrast, is bottom up. Those who organise events can democratically and transparently decide who to invite, and who not to. Likewise, people can suggest to organisers that perhaps it is inappropriate to invite a certain person to speak, and democratically and transparently apply pressure to disinvite people. The aim of no platforming is to avoid giving someone who is known to be an active contributor to oppressive power structures any further airing, and to maintain a safer space. It’s a refusal of complicity in oppression. No platforming is enacted by ordinary people: trade unions, pressure groups, activists, and just the regular everyday sibling on the street. It’s a tool we can use because, unlike the government and the media, we have no direct control over public discourse: all we can do is choose who to listen to. It’s important to note that this is an aspect of free speech often overlooked: the power to not listen, and the power to challenge. No platforming is an expression of free speech and democracy.

Some don’t see it that way, and it’s no coincidence that these people tend to be the sorts to get themselves no platformed. It’s no secret that fascists hate being no platformed, and indeed it’s about the only time they care about free speech, and no surprise that people like Nick Griffin will play the victim and cry censorship when venues refuse to host his vile parade of fascists, or they don’t get invited to shit. George Galloway, rape apologist and all-round tankie bellend, famously threatened to sue the NUS after they passed a no platform motion against him. And, right now, reams of column inches are being wasted on whinging about how it’s unfair and mean that noted enemy of bi women, sex workers and trans women, Julie Bindel is no platformed in a lot of spaces.*

It’s no coincidence that when someone is no platformed, the media will gladly report on the no platforming, often uncritically repeating the hate speech that got them no platformed in the first place: someone who is no platformed will generally have their own platform within traditional modes of communication. They will be a media personality. That’s how people choosing to no platform will find out that a speaker is inappropriate: from public presence. No platforming is a pretty small weapon, all things considered. It’s like throwing a pebble at a charging rhino.

Nonetheless, it’s a weapon that those who benefit from the current system want to take away from us. Their sense of entitlement to our spaces knows no bounds, and their contempt for the will of the people is evident. And so they will do what they can to quash this tiny little tool that we have.

But remember this: no platforming and censorship are not the same thing. Censorship is their tool, to keep us down. No platforming is ours, and a niggling little thorn in their side.

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*As an aside, yes, I once did share a platform with Julie Bindel. My mental health was poor at the time I agreed to do it, and I didn’t really understand what I was getting in for. It went better than it could have, but it was a mistake, and I own that mistake.

My white privilege

My skin is white. This means I have white privilege.

I face a bit of crap in my day-to-day life, because I’m not the nice kind of English white that people prefer. My name comes from my father–he is Greek Cypriot. Poor Cyprus, it only managed a decade and a half of independence after being passed between various empires, before the chunk of the island my family happens to be from got itself invaded again.

My surname is not English. Stavri. It’s six letters long, and if you were to guess at how it were pronounced by shoving together each sound phonetically, chances are, you’d get it right. Despite this, I am perpetually asked how one would say it, or finding my name mashed into something that English tongues find more recognisable.

I get asked where I’m “really from” more often than I care to count. The answer to this is London. I was born in London, raised in London and have lived in London for almost all of my life. But where am I “really from”? What flavour of foreign am I?

This is all profoundly irksome to me, but do you know what? I still have white privilege. I have it in spades, because my skin is white.

It means that when people look at me, there isn’t a whirling mass of stereotypes activated. I am not judged for the colour of my skin, I am not considered a representative of white people. People do not look down on me with disgust or patronising pity because of the colour of my skin. There is a whole world which can be invisible to me if I choose, because I have white skin. I benefit from white supremacy.

There’s no turning away from it. Despite these things that annoy and needle, I will never experience discrimination because of the colour of my skin.

I have white privilege. I cannot pretend it away. I cannot point to the microaggressions I experience for not being some sort of English rose and pretend that this treatment is in any way on a par with what is experienced by people of colour, because it isn’t.

And perhaps conversations about British colonial history and a general nagging xenophobia are necessary, but they cannot be had over discussions of white privilege, because it is something completely different. To suggest otherwise is a derailing tactic.

As a white woman, I own and acknowledge my white privilege. I attempt to mitigate it as best I can, and I try to learn what I can about something I can never personally experience. I try to advocate for women of colour, and I’m open to criticism when I fuck up, because I know my white privilege makes me ignorant as all fuck about these things.

The feminism produced by women like me–white feminism–has failed far too many women by its repeated negligence in analysing structural racism and this must change. I don’t want to be part of the problem. I don’t want to be complicit. And yet, because of the colour of my skin, I can be both of these things.

Shit I can’t believe needs to be said: Liking problematic stuff doesn’t make you a bad person

In a desperate attempt to get past the tedious arguments that keep hampering our progress in actually Getting Shit Done, I’m going to say this, and then every time it crops up again I can whap this out and be all like “ta-da! Here’s my opinion, now I’m going to go back to bed.”

Today it’s Lily Allen putting out a music video that women of colour feel reflects another manifestation of white supremacy. Yesterday it was some other music video, the day before it was a newspaper column, and before that it was a thing on telly, and basically what I’m saying is these arguments happen again and again. It goes like this:

  1. Pop culture thing happens.
  2. Privileged people like it.
  3. People without privilege criticise it from their perspective and call it problematic.
  4. Privileged people who like it get upset.
  5. Privileged people who like it think the criticism is some sort of personal attack.
  6. Privileged people who like it declare the thing to be Not Problematic.
  7. Ranks close. Nothing changes.

I was once one of the people who lathered, rinsed and repeated steps 4-7, so I can see exactly how it happens. It’s nice to enjoy something. It makes you feel good. And you’re a nice, good person. Also, racism and transmisogyny and sexism and ableism and bourgeois dickholery are generally pretty awful. So, it logically follows that because you and the way you feel are good, and oppression and supremacy are bad, the thing you like can’t be any of those things.

Except that’s not how it works. That thing you liked? It’s not a part of you. You almost certainly, in fact, had no creative control over it. Instead, it was created by rich and privileged people, far far away. Chances are, they’re not big evil hood-wearing KKK members either. They fucked up, because privilege kind of does that.

The people who are criticising it are those who have to experience oppression. This means they’re a hell of a lot better at spotting it than privileged people. They are probably right here, far more likely to be right about this than you, the fan.

So do you need to stop liking that thing you like? Hell no. I recommend you read this excellent guide: “How To Be A Fan Of Problematic Things”, which guides you through the process of actively critiquing pop culture, starting from this position:

Liking problematic things doesn’t make you an asshole. In fact, you can like really problematic things and still be not only a good person, but a good social justice activist (TM)! After all, most texts have some problematic elements in them, because they’re produced by humans, who are well-known to be imperfect. But it can be surprisingly difficult to own up to the problematic things in the media you like, particularly when you feel strongly about it, as many fans do. We need to find a way to enjoy the media we like without hurting other people and marginalised groups.

So please, please, please let’s stop having this wearing argument. While liking something problematic doesn’t make you a shit, having this argument pisses people off. It pisses off the marginalised voices we need to hear more of in feminism. It pisses off people who are subject to oppressions. It pisses off everyone who’s had to sit through this nonsense more than once–on both sides.

Let’s just listen to what’s being said, understand it and engage with it, and then enjoy our favourite things with a more critical eye.

Shit I cannot believe needs to be said: why “rape prevention” advice is dangerous nonsense

Following my blog on Caitlin Moran’s dreadful comments about how she lies in bed thinking about how easily she could rape women wearing high heels, I was surprised to see a comment thread where some agreed that she had a point. A similar pattern occurred later in the week, when I came across this ghastly, inexplicably Red Riding Hood-themed advice put out by Durham City Council, which informs women “Don’t make yourself vulnerable by getting too drunk”.

Once again, people were defending this as good advice. This was not just lengthy mansplanations–although I certainly did receive some lengthy mansplanations. Women, some of whom were feminists, saw nothing wrong with putting out this sort of advice. I’d hoped fervently that the archaic “short skirt” argument was a dead horse these days, but it is apparently alive and healthy. And so I cannot believe that, as 2012 draws to a close, and the world might end tomorrow, that I have to write a blog explaining why putting out advice like this is not just nonsensical, but dangerously nonsensical.

Put simply, rape prevention advice targeted at women shifts the responsibility for a rape from the perpetrator to the survivor. We should know by now that rapes don’t happen because the survivor is wearing a short skirt, or a pair of heels, or she has been drinking too much. This should go without saying. Yet implicit in all of this rape prevention advice is the assumption that actually these behaviours displayed by some women are related to them being raped, and if they would just not do these things, nobody would get raped.

And of course, this isn’t true. This rape prevention advice is targeted at a very narrow model of rape: the predatory stranger in the dark alley. The vast majority of rapes do not happen this way–it’ll more likely be a friend, a partner, or an acquaintance, and it probably won’t happen in a dark alley. By reinforcing stereotypes about rape, we help maintain rape culture which benefits greatly from the assumption that rape is only a thing which involves a stranger jumping out of a bush. Were we to take rape prevention advice to its logical conclusion, we would need to put out a campaign informing women not to talk to men, not to go to places where men might be, and for the love of God don’t have a relationship with a man. This is just as nonsensical as telling women to make sure they get a taxi home after a night out if they don’t want to get themselves raped.

The net effect of rape prevention advice, then, is further patriarchal regulation of women’s behaviour. You will notice that rape prevention advice tends to tell women not to do certain things which “good girls” shouldn’t do: wear revealing clothing, get drunk, be independent. A good example of this is the targeting of high heels: why aren’t concerned citizens sagely advising women not to wear flip flops, when flip flops make just as much noise and reduce mobility? You can’t even kick someone in flip flops! There are two major differences between flip flops and heels, and both say everything we need to understand about rape prevention advice. The first is that flip flops are gender-neutral, and the second is that they are not remotely “sexy”.

What rape prevention advice does is develop a climate of fear around something which need not be feared. Rape prevention advice delivers a threat of rape: unless the woman complies with a set of behaviours, and if she does not then it will be her own fault that she gets raped. It’s a potent threat, and it took me years of walking home drunk through dark alleys in silly shoes for the fear to fade.

Some people prefer to defend rape prevention advice by saying it is just sensible personal safety advice, which also applies for protecting oneself against mugging. This would only be true if this advice were also thrown at men, and it isn’t. It really, really isn’t. Likewise, rape prevention advice is not the same as telling someone to lock up their car, or hide their wallet. It is far deeper than that, and rape is very different from theft.

Comedian Nadia Kamil perhaps provides the best demonstration of the difference between rape prevention advice and how other crimes are dealt with in this short sketch, which I recommend you watch.

Transcript here. This sketch absolutely perfectly demonstrates how ludicrous it is for people to hide, not living their lives in the way they choose to because of the threat of drunk drivers. And of course, that is nonsense: we’ve all seen how society deals with drink driving in massive awareness campaigns informing people not to drink and drive. This is exactly how it should work for rape.

The current state of rape prevention advice is unhelpful. It targets the wrong people and manages to further muddy the waters in our thinking about rape. Rape is not about what the survivor has done to bring it upon themselves, but, rather what the perpetrator does to make it happen, and there are still very few instances of mass-scale campaigning to address this. Sure, there’s a few and they have their flaws (see Lambeth Council’s Real Men Know The Difference campaign for an example of this), but we need to build upon this model. Rape prevention advice should–and must–consist of one simple message: don’t rape people.