Category Archives: wimmin

He knows so much about these things

 

Eddie Izzard, interviewed (paraphrased?) in the Times magazine’s “What I’ve learnt” column, 7th May:

I’m not a transvestite. I have some of the same genetics as women, so I’m transgender. When I see a pair of nice heels I think, “Yeah, that could work. That could be kind of fun, kind of sexy.” Anyone can feel that. We’re obsessed with the differences between someone with a penis and someone with a vagina. Everyone should calm down and take a chill pill.

There is, as you’ve probably noticed, quite a lot of this stuff around at the moment. Opinions are divided – rather bitterly – as to just what it is we’re seeing. Is it a liberal movement, a claim for rights by a new constituency – are transgender people a disadvantaged and hitherto overlooked minority, whose struggles for recognition the rest of us should support? It’s worth pausing here to say that if that were all we were talking about, there wouldn’t be anything to talk about: singling out Sally (who I know or suspect to have been born male) for any kind of special treatment is no more appropriate or justifiable than doing so with Sam (who I know or suspect to be Jewish). That’s not controversial; it’s barely even political. In most social situations, the liberal assumption of universal human equality gets us all where we want to be: people are people, and that’s the only starting assumption anyone needs.

But it sometimes seems as if the trans thing is about something more than that, or something else entirely. Is it a more unsettling form of radicalism, a new wave of gender-subversive activism which seeks to challenge the pink/blue girl/boy female/male binary order most of us live in, rather than staking out a place within it or alongside it? Or is there something else again going on – something not particularly radical or even liberal? I mean, what does “a pair of nice heels” have to do with anything?

I was troubled by Eddie Izzard’s comments – not to mention his decision to rewrite his own identity as transgender rather than transvestite. (He’s been out as TV since the early 90s, but to my knowledge he’s never claimed to be transgender before this year.) I flashed back to this LRB column from a few years ago by an occasional cross-dresser: “I like wearing a dress and tights, and I want to look good in them, and I like being addressed as Stephanie … I like my life as Stephen just fine, so long as I get to be Stephanie now and again”. I wondered, is it wearing a dress or is it ‘be[ing] Stephanie’? Does Stephanie ever wear trousers? (My daughter’s been in trousers since she could walk – she only frocks up for parties.) The writer attends a makeup workshop at a trans convention:

The workshop itself was helpful but intimidating. ‘To be born woman is to know,’ Yeats wrote, ‘Although they do not talk of it at school,/That one must labour to be beautiful’: adults who weren’t born as women have a hard time learning later on. Among the lessons of the session were that girlish looks need more blush, sophisticated adult looks less, though they may need more mascara.

Heels and genetics, mascara and being ‘born woman’. The slippage goes both ways: first, wanting to look like a girl – to present in ways that have been coded as female – turns into being female; then it seems that being female (as 51% of the population are generally agreed to be) requires looking like a girl, labouring to be beautiful, dragging up. Just as it did in Yeats’s day, and just as it seemingly always had done. There’s a wrong turn somewhere here.

I was also reminded of a friend of mine, and of what we talked about one time when I dropped in on him just before Christmas. I found him and his family – wife and two kids – putting up decorations. They had some long, heavy coloured tinsel garlands, for hanging on the wall in swags; when I came in my friend had two of these draped around his neck like feather boas, and was giving one of them a twirl. The effect was very camp, but not in a mocking, exaggerated way; he looked remarkably comfortable like that, twirling his boa, chatting with his kids. I said “oi, Conchita!” or something similar. We got talking about Eurovision, and we agreed that Conchita Wurst’s performance had been stunning; my friend said what an amazing moment it had been when Conchita won, how inspiring and how right it had felt. (I remember we both avoided using the words ‘he’ and ‘she’ – Conchita this, Conchita that…)

Later, we talked some more about camp and about drag. My friend said he and his wife had bonded, years ago, over the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Frank in particular – that ‘sweet transvestite’, somehow coming across as both fussily camp and powerfully macho, in heels, stockings and a basque. Role model? I asked. He laughed – well, not exactly… but it would be nice sometimes to have that element of display, you know? I guess I was spoiled by glam rock… (And we talked a bit about Bowie.)

Later still, my friend said to me, You know, my best friend at school was always a girl – always. Well, not when we moved and I went to a single-sex school – but right up till then. Other kids said we were going together – when I was eleven or twelve, this was – but it wasn’t like that. From about the age of six it was always a girl I looked to, when I wanted someone I could talk to properly, someone I could trust. And of course when I started having girlfriends that’s what I wanted from them – someone to trust, someone to talk to. Always wanted to start with that, not with the dancing and flirting and silly fun stuff. Probably missed out. But I wouldn’t want a relationship that wasn’t based on it – friendship, I mean.

I don’t suppose I’ve ever told you about my trans period. Mmm? (I tried not to look startled.) No, I know I haven’t – I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone. I would have been about fourteen, struggling a bit with puberty. I was an intellectual little sod and I had very mixed feelings about being permanently randy, like you are at that age: puritanical mixed feelings, mostly. Basically I hated my body. I was at a boys’ school by this time, so I had lots of exposure to the less attractive side of masculinity – rugby, bullying, people going on and on and on about sex… I used to read the Guardian, including the women’s page; I had several female role models, people I’d always looked up to – older sisters, a godmother – but not much in the way of male ones… It all stacked up. Long story short, I turned against maleness in all its forms & decided that I should have been a girl. But I did have enough self-awareness to realise that if I were a girl I would still be attracted to girls; in my diary I referred to myself as a male lesbian.

You go through a lot in your early teens. Oh, you do – you try things out. It must have been around that time that I converted to Buddhism for a week; it wasn’t meant to be temporary, but it just happened it was the week before Easter, and on the day itself I had an intense emotional response to Christianity and promptly converted back. This lasted a good bit longer than that, though. It wasn’t an intellectual pose, either; the consciousness of not being a girl made me genuinely unhappy for quite a while.

What happened then? A couple of things. One was that I told my best friend, who was taken aback, but not in the way I’d expected – it turned out that he’d been working up the courage to tell me exactly the same thing about himself, and he clearly felt I’d stolen his thunder. I don’t remember ever discussing it with him again. But his actual sex life took off quite soon after that – and that he did discuss with me – which made the whole thing a bit academic. (I saw his name in the paper the other day, incidentally; he’s OK, and still a bloke.) The other thing I did was tell my Mum; she was sympathetic, but took the view that I should think about it for a good long time before committing myself to anything I might regret. She recommended Jan Morris’s Conundrum, which I got out of the library.

The classics, eh? Oh yes. Mum recommended Orlando, too, but I was more curious about somebody who’d actually been through it. The main thing I remember is how certain Jan Morris was, after completing gender reassignment, that she felt different, thought differently and even saw the world differently: she was more emotional than he had been as James but less interested in politics, and she’d acquired the ability to look at distant objects and see them as toys. (“So you see, Jan, these are small, but those are far away…”) I ran some of this past my mother; she didn’t quite give it the Nora Ephron treatment, but she was distinctly unconvinced. That stayed with me; it may have occurred to me even then that the qualities I admired, in the women I admired, didn’t include susceptibility to flattery or tolerance of being overcharged by tradesmen.

The other thing that stuck in my mind from that book, oddly enough, was Jan Morris’s retrospective celebration of the joys of being James Morris. There was a certain kind of energy and physical confidence which (Jan believed) went with being male as well as young and fit; and there was the memory of having sex with his (and subsequently her) partner, for which Jan didn’t see any need to apologise. “For when your lover pants beside you he is not necessarily enjoying the orthodox satisfactions of virility” – but this is your lover, and he is panting beside you, and that’s not nothing. It makes me think now that there might be loads of heterosexual men out there having sex without “enjoying the orthodox satisfactions of virility”, whatever that actually means; but Jan Morris didn’t reflect on that. Anyway, it was a small but definite influence on me, that book; a reality check (it can be done, she did it!) but with a bit of “Lord, what fools these mortals be!” thrown in (…and now she likes men holding the door for her?).

So you didn’t want to… Transition? (He grimaced.) No, there was no danger of… But actually, you know what, I’d say I did: I transitioned into being the person I wanted to be. It took me a few years, but I got there in the end. I remember thinking 27 was a very good age to be. Things have got better for me since then – much, much better. But by the time “Suedehead” came out I pretty much knew what was what.

Why do you telephone? Why indeed. Great unanswered questions of our time.

So what was 27? Mostly, 27 was not being one of the kids any more; it was feeling that I didn’t have anything to conform to any more – or to rebel against conforming to. It made everything a lot simpler. What was the person I’d wanted to be, after all – the person who I’d thought couldn’t possibly be male? Someone like my mother, my godmother, my aunt – someone intelligent but also caring, sympathetic but thoughtful, cultured but funny…

Sounds like quite a family. OK, someone like an idealised version of those people. But you take the point. Wanting to look good was part of it – I was so disappointed when I discovered ‘menswear’! – and wanting to move with a certain amount of grace, not just barging through everywhere. Hating my body was part of it, too; thankfully I got past that, eventually. But mostly it was about the kind of person I wanted to be – and after a while I found I could try to be that person without worrying, or being made to worry, about being a man. I mean, once you get to 27 there aren’t so many people calling you a ponce for using long words, or telling you that boys don’t talk about their feelings. There aren’t so many people policing the way you move or the clothes you wear, come to that, so you can pick up that side of it as well.

I don’t know if a 27-year-old woman would agree with that last part. Perhaps not. And that actually relates to one of the things that bothers me about the trans moment we seem to be in, culturally – the draggier end of it, anyway. Femininity seems to have become a site of transgression for men without ceasing to be a uniform for women. I’m willing to bet there are workplaces out there where a man who came in wearing makeup would be frowned on less than a woman who came in without it – he’s being bold and transgressive, she’s just not making an effort. It’s as if patriarchy reserved a second-class space for women – a space for emotion, not logic; for the body, not the mind; for falsity and display (“paint an inch thick”), not for the unadorned truth – and now men are even entering that space. While still trying to keep women inside it – we frock up to play at being something we’re not, but for women femininity is what they are. (When we’re talking about trans we always seem to be talking about women in the end.)

Aren’t you over-thinking this? What about that confused, lonely teenager who just wants… What about him? Didn’t I just explain that I was that teenager? I’m prepared to believe that my gender dysphoria was milder and more short-lived than many other teenagers’, but you’re not telling me that it wasn’t genuine. Besides, if it was mild and short-lived, mightn’t the reaction it got have something to do with that?

Are you complaining? No, I’m getting ahead of myself. What I’m saying is that the guarded tolerance with which my mother greeted my story gave me no encouragement, and no condemnation to react against either. I was left to share my feelings with my best friend, with my diary and with a book by Jan Morris. All of these did something to keep those feelings alive, but after a while I got interested in something else and they faded away. And, thirteen short years later, I was 27. It was a hell of a slog getting there – “will Nature make a man of me yet?” and so on – but growing up usually is.

So my message for that confused, lonely teenager is: “Hang on. You’ll be fine. It’ll all be all right. It doesn’t seem possible now, but it will be. You can be the person you want to be; you will be the person you want to be. And it doesn’t have to involve surgery, or drugs, or cross-dressing, or even changing your name.” (Although I was obsessed with changing my name when I was a teenager – the search for the perfect pseudonym occupied me for years.)

Should we call you Conchita after all? No, no, it was my surname I wanted to get rid of – I couldn’t imagine becoming a rock star with a name like mine. And it’s true, I never changed my name and I never did become a rock star.

So, “hang on”… And is that what you’d say to teenagers who think they might be gay? Should everyone wait till they’re 27? No, of course not. I would advise fourteen-year-olds not to think that whatever they’re going through is necessarily going to last forever – but they’d never believe me, so there’d be no point. But seriously – when I was seven years old I wasn’t attracted to women; I also wasn’t a practising Christian, a Labour voter or a well-meaning middle-class Guardian reader. My parents expected me to grow up to be all of those things – that was our house for you – and so it came to pass, by and large. But if I’d grown up to be gay, or a militant atheist, or even a Tory, it would still have been a story I could tell from a shared beginning, a story that could make sense. By contrast, my parents didn’t have any expectations that I would grow up ‘as’ a boy – they knew I was a boy, from the moment I was born. (So I was a boy who didn’t like football, who liked wearing bright colours, whose best friend was a girl – so what? Still a boy.) To say that your entire past is a lie – not that your beliefs or your desires have developed in ways you didn’t expect, but that you never were what you were – is an awfully big step, for you as well as for everyone around you. Besides which, saying what you’re not doesn’t enable you to say what you are. You may have a deep-rooted feeling of revulsion against the sex you were born into (I remember that feeling), but you can’t possibly feel that you are the other sex – you’ve no idea what being the other sex is like. I’m a straight, Labour-voting mild agnostic, but I know from personal experience what it’s like to believe in an empty and meaningless universe, what it’s like to vote against Labour and what it’s like to be attracted to another man. What it’s like to have periods – or what it’s like not to have a prostate – I can’t begin to imagine.

All this is without getting into what committing to a trans identity, particularly as a young adult, will commit you to from that point forward. At the very least, going down that route is letting yourself in for years of distress – that’s what I’d say to that teenager. This isn’t about intolerance or prejudice; it’s changing something fundamental about yourself, socially and culturally as well as physically fundamental. I can’t think of a bigger change you could make, with the possible exception of some forms of extreme body modification. So yes, if you possibly can, hang on. But it’s a hopeful message as well – not just “hang on, don’t risk it”. “Hang on – you’ll be fine. It’ll all be all right. It doesn’t seem possible now, but it will be.”

Some would say you’re trivialising… Yeah, maybe. As I say, it’s possible that the gender dysphoria I experienced was an unusually mild and fleeting thing; maybe most kids identifying as trans these days ‘just know‘ who they are, undeniably and unshakeably, and know it from an early age. But I’m not sure. I saw some research the other day vindicating the reality of trans kids’ gender identification. One way we know that trans identities are real & deep-rooted, apparently, is that trans kids tend to socialise and bond with kids of their adopted gender, not their birth gender. So, there you go – me and my female best friend, what does that tell you? (Or should we be asking about her and her male best friend? Good heavens, what kind of weirdoes were we back then?)

At the end of the day, I can only picture the cultural landscape that would face me if I were an unhappy fourteen-year-old boy in 2016, and if I’d become convinced (as for a time I did) that being the wrong sex was the root of all my problems. I picture it and I wonder. I think of the resources of information, support, validation and enablement which I’d be able to find and tap into, and I wonder what my life would be like by the time I got to 27, or even to 21. I don’t think it would have gone the way it did. I might have ended up perfectly happy; I don’t believe in the inevitability of trans misery. But I do believe that there are many routes that most lives can take, many ways that most people can find to be happy – 14-year-old people especially. And if there are many routes to happiness, it seems like a good idea to choose a route of minimum self-imposed transformation and maximum self-acceptance – acceptance of your life, your body, your self.

That sounds like the cue for a song. What, ‘Rise Like a Phoenix’?

No.

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This is not who we were

Once, listening to my former boss reminiscing with one of his Round Table mates, I had a sudden realisation: I had never in my life bought something so as to sell it for a profit. I’ve never profited from anyone else’s labour, either (should there have been an a fortiori in there?). I was self-employed for a few years, but the point was always to get someone to hire me to fill a page or two; I was always, by design, working for somebody.

I’ve got about as much experience of owning a business as I have of being pregnant, and in the former case it’s partly by choice. I think I’d rather beg in the street than be an “entrepreneur”. (I’m sure I’d have a better chance of making a living.)

So I think it’s fair to say I’m not the target audience for a talk that was recently advertised at my place of work. But I don’t think it’s just me; even making allowances for my own predisposition, I think there’s something deeply weird about a talk called

Entrepreneurship as Embodied Practice: Clues from the Experiences of Pregnant Business Owners

Liberal feminism, I used to tell my students*, started from the position that women should not be excluded from doing anything that men do. Radical feminism, conversely, started from the position that women’s experience was so different from men’s that what women did, or could do, had no necessary connection with what men did or could do. And socialist feminism started from the position that women weren’t excluded but oppressed, by structures of exploitation which shaped women’s consciousness just as they did the consciousness of workers.

Right, I concluded**. Given that theoretical backdrop or choice of backdrops, how the hell do you explain “Entrepreneurship as Embodied Practice: Clues from the Experiences of Pregnant Business Owners”?

It is, of course, an advance for pregnant business owners to exist as an identifiable group, and a further advance for women to be able to get papers like this given and published. Once, in a fit of alliteration, I described my mother in a letter as “prolifically preposterous”; she commented that it was a good thing I hadn’t got the words the other way round, as “preposterously prolific” would imply that she had too many children. I was struck at the time by this oddly restrictive use of the word ‘prolific’. It’s also good news that I can say without much fear of misunderstanding that the speaker is highly prolific – enviably rather than preposterously so (says a man with the REF looking over his shoulder). And “‘Can You Hang On While I Give Birth and Breastfeed?’ Individualisation, Agency and Oppression in Entrepreneurs’ Maternity Plans” is a terrific title.

You could say that “Entrepreneurship as Embodied Practice: Clues from the Experiences of Pregnant Business Owners” goes beyond liberal feminism, but I’m not entirely sure that’s a good thing – it’s certainly an awful long way from what radical feminism set out to do. As for socialist feminism, she’s sitting in the corner with her eyes shut, telling herself this isn’t happening. “Clues from the Experiences of Pregnant Business Owners”. O Tempora, O Lordie.

*How a middle-aged bloke came to spend 90 minutes explaining feminism to a room full of 20-year-old women is perhaps a story for another time.
**I didn’t really.

Update (for Lisa and anyone else who’s interested). Well, it was a lecture in the third-year course on Victims of Crime that I developed a couple of years ago. It seemed important to say something about the way that feminist criminologists turned the study of victims around, banishing the victim-blaming and pathologising tendencies of old-school victimology – and once I’d embarked on that it seemed important to say something about where these feminist criminologists were coming from. (Feminism, mainly.) Factor in an 80% female enrolment for Criminology and a tendency for male students not to bother with lectures, and presto: a middle-aged man tells a roomful of young and slightly baffled women at some length about how important and powerful radical feminism is, and how it shouldn’t be confused with socialist feminism (which is also important and powerful but in different ways). The worst of it was that I really don’t think they knew this stuff already. I had some panic-stricken emails a few months later from students who were afraid there’d be a Principal Strands of Feminist Thought question in the exam – most of them women.

Your scholarly room

Lots of hits over the last few days from people looking for “market managerialism”, or sometimes “what is market managerialism”. No idea why that topic should be popular at the moment, or indeed what they’re finding here that’s relevant. Can anyone enlighten me?

Another recent search term is less hard to understand. Today someone found their way to this blog after searching for

very crude naked ladies pics

I welcome all new visitors, although in some cases I wouldn’t necessarily want to shake their hand. Come for the boobs by all means, but stay for the radical politics, music videos, autobiographical musings and bad jokes. But I must demur at “very crude”. All you can find here in that line is a couple of links to sensitive and artistic naked ladies pics, which are not the same thing at all. Apart from the naked ladies – that element is constant.

Constant, and rather odd when you start to think about it. More years ago than I care to calculate, I remember leafing through a copy of H&E belonging to a friend’s older brother with a mild, amused interest – oh look, there are some women with nothing on… and there are some men with nothing on… and there are some more women with nothing on! All vaguely shocking and transgressive – you knew that people generally took care not to be seen with nothing on – but it didn’t do anything for me (or to me). Then, a few months later, I was on a school skiing trip in Switzerland when I happened on an advert in a magazine featuring a naked woman in a Viking helmet, standing behind a waist-high shield and covering one breast. The effect of this fairly anodyne image was electric and instantaneous; it seemed to go straight from my eyes to my crotch without passing through my brain. Puberty had well and truly arrived, and henceforth the sight of a woman who was… you know… I mean, not wearing any… I mean, you know, in the nude… would turn my head and turn me on, more or less whether I liked it or not.

Realistically, our (my) reaction to p0rn – not to mention our concept of what constitutes p0rn – has to be something that’s learned, culturally-determined and culturally encoded (relatedly, see this discussion of the meaning of the words “naked woman” through history – “naked” has always meant “scandalously under-dressed” but hasn’t always meant “absolutely not wearing anything whatsoever at all”). Some years ago Susanne Kappeler argued that it’s all about sadism and power: a naked woman in a magazine is on display in very much the same way that a shot elephant or a captured slave might be displayed, as an invitation to the man looking at the picture to vicariously celebrate the power over women wielded by the man behind the camera. It’s alarmingly persuasive, but I don’t think it’s the whole story (and not only because there are female erotic photographers); there’s a weird quality of compulsion, even powerlessness, in the way men look at women. (I don’t believe that overrides the more conventional power relation described by Kappeler, though (pace Joe Jackson) – everyone’s more vulnerable naked than clothed, being watched than watching.) I also wonder, when did I learn that way of seeing? Not, surely, between the look-at-the-funny-naked-people half hour with H&E and the Oh. My. God. p0rn thunderclap in Switzerland.

Whatever is ultimately going on, the experience for me was – and, let’s face it, to a pretty large extent still is – an unthinking, automatic, instant reaction to certain images; images which are likely to work the same trick for other straight men. (That said, my ‘certain images’ aren’t going to be exactly the same ‘certain images’ as someone else’s. Pynchon takes this idea to its extreme in Gravity’s Rainbow, where he has a spy being sent a message written in an ink which will only become visible when treated with his semen – and accompanied by an image which calculated to induce immediate orgasm in him and him alone. Yow.)

Ultimately Tom Robinson was right about this (as about much else) – pictures of naked young women are fun. But they’re also odd: a culturally-determined image that’s also a law of nature (or that’s certainly how it feels). In the immortal words of a comic song I heard on the radio years ago,

Men like naked ladies –
The only exceptions are when
They’re either
Guardian readers
Or they prefer naked gentlemen.

Well, one out of two’s not bad.

I don’t wanna seem crude

So there I was in W.H. Smith’s, queuing up with my Radio Times, when… actually I wasn’t buying anything, I was hanging around the magazine racks waiting for my wife and daughter to get finished in Build-A-Bear; I just thought that would take too long to explain. In any case it’s only a bit of scene-setting, I might as well have been getting the Radio Times. Shall we start this again?

I was in W.H. Smith’s – that much is true – when my attention was snagged by a display stand opposite the tills. There, where you might expect to see something by Bill Bryson or an Ordnance Survey road atlas or a new variety of chocolate orange, was this:

Just Kate Moss with no clothes on. Move along, nothing to see here.

Whoa. Tracks, stopped in.

Now, I’m a man of the world; the idea of a magazine printing pictures of Kate Moss naked doesn’t shock me. I have long been aware of the existence of pictures of Kate Moss in the nude; I know that more than one photographer has been granted the opportunity to take pictures of Kate Moss starkers, and more than one of the resulting pictures of Kate Moss in the buff has escaped onto that Internet. I’m quite relaxed about the idea of pictures of Kate Moss letting it all hang out; pictures of a bare Kate Moss are fine by me.

(And people pay consultants to get hits on their Web pages! Piece of cake.)

Kate Moss nue, Kate Moss nackt or Kate Moss desnuda (see what I did there?), it doesn’t bother me. Or indeed surprise me – the model in question has been notably relaxed about doing the whole nude bit. But it was a bit of a jolt to see that image displayed in my face, or rather around waist height. For a moment it took me back thirty-odd years, when I used to get the train home from school every afternoon and hang around the magazine stall furtively glancing at the covers of Der Spiegel and Stern. For some reason German news magazines in the 1970s quite often put topless models on the front cover, which was more than English top-shelf mags did; once or twice Stern even featured a flash of bush, which left the teenage me simultaneously aroused and genuinely shocked (on the cover! can they even do that?). Transgressive stuff there from Gruner+Jahr. (NB “shocking” and “subversive” – not the same thing.) My German isn’t great, but de.wikipedia seems to be saying that a group of women sued G+J in 1978 over the sexist objectification of women in Stern, and frankly I’m not at all surprised. The next time I saw anything like that I was in Schiphol airport, having a drink at a café completely surrounded by hard-core pr0n and thanking the Lord I didn’t have any children with me (“Daddy, what’s ‘hot wet pink action’?”).

It was a striking display, anyway – and a cursory examination confirmed what the visual grammar of that cover rather strongly suggests, i.e. that there are pictures without the masking tape inside. (And I do mean cursory – there are times and places for studying pictures of naked women, and standing opposite the till in W.H. Smith’s while waiting for one’s wife and daughter is neither.) A more leisured investigation later confirmed that Ms Moss is one of eight models featured in the issue; that Love, although it’s essentially a fashion magazine, prints rather a lot of elegant monochrome nudity; and that it’s not the only one – there’s a howlingly expensive mag called Purple which seems to specialise in naked female celebrities, while still ostensibly appealing to well-off women who like looking at posh clothes rather than well-off men who like looking at bare ladies. (I guess it’s possible that Purple‘s core audience is well-off women who like looking at bare ladies and posh clothes, but that seems too small a niche.)

There’s been a two-way traffic between fashion photography and the classier end of soft pr0nography for some time, with several people working both sides of the street; they both involve posing impossibly elegant women to look attractive, after all. Classy soft pr0n as fashion photography seems new, and rather odd – although it’s a trend that may have been brewing for a while: take this (NSFW) from a 2008 issue of W magazine, originally captioned “Christopher Kane’s cashmere sweater with polyester paillettes and glass beads”. Hands up anyone who thinks that’s a picture of Christopher Kane’s sweater.

So what’s going on? I considered the possibility that (to rework the saying about music) “if it looks too rude, you’re too old”. Back in the 1970s, when I wasn’t gawping at Stern from a safe distance, I did occasionally buy my very own copy of Mayfair or something – sometimes accompanying it with a copy of New Society or Omni, research purposes you understand…. Back then the combination of (a) a nice-looking woman and (b) no clothes was all a young lad would ask for from his top-shelf mag – which was just as well, as that was all he was going to get. But that’s a long time ago; maybe Kids These Days demand action sequences and extreme closeups, and anything short of that just doesn’t qualify as pr0n. Conversely, maybe nudity’s a tired old Anglo-Saxon taboo, and we’re all relaxed and European now. I don’t think that’s it, though – the reaction to those photos has been far from ho-hum (NSFW). I guess it’s partly a case of “pushing the boundaries” (yawn), getting attention by doing something slightly more outrageous than the last time – and what Love did the last time was a nude Beth Ditto photoshoot, so you can see the logic of going for the multiple-supermodel approach. In the case of American magazines like W and Interview, there may also be a bit of a transatlantic cultural cringe (directed our way for once), with the perception that the Europeans are so cool about nudity and Americans need to stop being so prudish – and massive over-compensation as a result. (That comparison is valid to some extent, but it’s pretty hypocritical either way round. I don’t think American men feel any differently than French or German men about looking at naked women – they all like doing it and think they have a fundamental right to go on doing it. It’s just that one way of putting naked women on display gets labelled as relaxed (or exhibitionistic), while another gets labelled moral (or uptight).)

I think there’s also something going on about the status of professional photographers, in this age of Internet-enabled mass amateurism, and the status of printed magazines. Which is, after all, something of vital interest to a shop like W.H. Smith’s: anything that makes printed magazines seem a bit less dispensable is good news for a printed magazine shop. (I initially wrote ‘physical magazine’, but if you write ‘physical magazine’ over and over again it starts to get distracting. Whatever did happen to Health and Efficiency?)

I think what caught my eye at the weekend was somebody’s USP. (No, not Kate Moss’s. Settle down.) Sure, you can take pictures of what you want when you want, and sure, you can download pictures of more or less anything you can imagine, but have you got a picture of Kate Moss, dressed in nothing but a pair of high heels, artistically lit and printed on large-format glossy paper? You haven’t? Well, isn’t this your lucky day – look what we’ve got here. Right here, just by the checkout.

(Title courtesy of Stuart, cutting to the chase in his inimitable way.

I saw a lady and she was naked!
I saw a lady, she had no clothes on!

Great song; the S/M imagery is particularly appropriate, bringing out how compelling and overpowering this kind of experience can feel (“Why she want to pick on me?”). It’s a hard life being a man, you know…)

Never be your woman

Will:

Yesterday I was giving a talk on the egocentricity of the digital revolution … and afterwards stood around chatting to some media lecturers, all seemingly left wing intellectuals. They were dolefully discussing how their students showed no interest in criticising brainless, celebrity-obsessed and pornographic magazines, deeming it to be purely a matter of choice what one reads, and whether a woman chooses to be photographed naked. One of these academics said that it is only around five years since every class contained at least one out-spoken feminist, but that these have either disappeared, or been silenced by a new majoritarian view that it is arrogant/pretentious to take up political positions in such a way.

Five years. The Blair government has coincided with an important generational-cultural shift, just as the Wilson government did 30 years earlier. If racism and sexism started to become unacceptable in the late 60s, thanks to a post-war generation that refused to accept them, then perhaps the defence of rights started to become unacceptable in the late 90s thanks to a post-Thatcher generation that refuses to accept it, on the basis that political rights arrogantly trump consumer rights.

Today the newspapers report that sexual harassment of teachers and pupils in schools is widespread, and that girls are starting to accept sexist language as the norm … Have I simply dragged some value set from the distant past, which I want to see imposed upon this new social avant garde? My sense of frustration about this is doubtless no more morally sincere or keenly felt than that of the 60s conservatives, who despaired at what the kids were doing then. In each case, a moral gulf opens up, and politics struggles in vain to bridge it.

If history really is repeating itself, expect to see a ‘conservative’ backlash, whereby those born between 45-79 seize power and attempt to force some traditional values on the youth (more or less what we’re already seeing, even from Ken Livingstone), followed by a bright new political dawn around 2020, in which a young fresh-faced child of Thatcher marches down Downing Street in a hoodie, swigging from an alco-pop, and announcing in faux-cockney tones that he’s a pretty straight guy who used to be into 50 Cent.

The horror, the horror.

I don’t know about the last paragraph – I just kept it in because it’s funny. The part about sexism is interesting, though. Here’s a comment I posted on Will’s blog:

I am not a Hegelian… oh all right then, I’m a recovering Hegelian… but I think there’s more historical cunning at work than your academic friends allow. As little as thirty years ago, it was widely assumed that women’s only roles were to be decorative and look after children; women who ‘made it in a man’s world’ were freakish oddities. (When Thatcher became leader of the Tory Party, a popular slogan on the left was ‘Ditch the Bitch’. Right on, brother.) If seventies feminists did a lot of shouting, they had a lot to shout about.

So it’s true on one level that magazines like Nuts and FHM take us back forty years, to the days of Titbits and Reveille – and it’s true that pornographic imagery is degrading, oppressively so when it’s ubiquitous. But it’s also true that some of the core feminist arguments have been won, or at least conceded. The very language in which these students defend those magazines reflects the radical liberalism of mainstream feminism, or of the mainstreaming of feminism: why shouldn’t a woman be a doctor/bus-driver/MP/astronaut? why shouldn’t a woman go where she likes and wear what she likes? why shouldn’t a woman take her clothes off for the cameras if she wants to?

Feminism also meant a much harder set of arguments, having to do with dignity rather than freedom of action. These are questions of what’s good for women as women – and, more importantly, who gets to decide. I’d say that the problem on this front isn’t that the gains of women’s liberation have been rolled back, so much as that they were never really made. “Women shouldn’t have to look sexy all the time” is a fine liberal argument – it’s a subset of the belief that nobody should have to do anything. “Women shouldn’t be expected to look sexy” is another matter, and finds a lot of liberals on the other side of the fence – after all, why shouldn’t people have expectations of one another, and why shouldn’t people sometimes choose to comply with other people’s expectations?

It’s an argument which was never really won – and, I would argue, it’s come back to bite us in the shape of the hijab debate. Twice over, in fact: advocates of hijab play a distorted and sexist version of the dignity argument (“why should a woman be expected to put herself on display?”) while advocates of other people’s right to wear hijab play a version of liberalism that seems equally distorted by sexism (“why shouldn’t a woman have the right to shield herself from prying eyes?”).

So I think you can add to your list of prophecies that feminism will be back, but it won’t be so liberal next time. And it’ll probably be wearing a pinafore dress over jeans. (Why do people do that? Women mainly.)


While I’m in philosophical mode, a swift plug for Clive‘s dissection of Blair’s weird and sinister maunderings on the ‘social contract’, which he seems to want to replace with… well, an actual contract (only this time round they would impose it on us, not the other way round). I rarely succeed in getting through Blair’s statements, what with being overcome by outrage, panic or sheer pedantic irritation (no, look, it doesn’t mean that). Fortunately Clive is made of sterner stuff.


Q: Why is the Italian government letting convicted fraudsters out of prison?
A: It’s all because of the Christian Democrats.
Q: But the Christian Democrats ceased to exist over a decade ago, didn’t they?
A: Indeed they did, my knowledgeable questioner. But they’re still making the political weather.
Q: Oh. What’s that about then?
A: Read “Open up the nicks“, new from me at the Sharpener. The second in a six-monthly series of commentaries on Italian politics. Possibly more interesting than it sounds. (I can’t really tell – I mean, it sounds pretty interesting to me…)

Step right up and show your face

The following letter appeared in the 20th October Independent.

Sir: My fellow countrymen seem bewildered by the niqab, a bewilderment rapidly turning into anger and repulsion; but it is just a simple garment with a simple purpose.Every other person in Britain has been affected by infidelity, and it all boils down to either party having been charmed by someone else, hence losing interest. Britons are so used to this reality that they view any means of prevention, however logical, as absurd and futile.

Dress code plays an integral part in the promotion of fidelity in a society. Islam seeks to preserve the family and quash promiscuity. Immodest dress is a direct cause of this vice. As for men, in Islam they need to be in the world of work for most of their day, and wearing similar clothing would be a major impediment. Islam prescribes this formula as the only way to attain harmony and peace in marital life.

Do commentators and politicians honestly believe an extra garment worn only outside the house means a woman loses her meaning, her value, her self? This is a backward and oppressive concept which amazingly is being referred to as “progressive” and “empowering”.

A woman in niqab is not a mere shadow; she has family and friends who know and appreciate her. They are the only people she is concerned with and who should be concerned with her. A friend of mine complained: “For God’s sake, I have a great life, I have a family, friends, go to parties, and everyone I know knows me. The only people who I haven’t been quality-stamped by is the public, and I don’t see why I need to be.”

I and many other Muslim women view the present furore as nothing but a politicised version of being nosey.

Women’s faces should be concealed, lest they charm another woman’s husband. Promiscuity is a vice. Sex is dangerous. Sex is caused by women’s attractiveness to men.

Men need to be in the world of work. Women don’t.

A woman’s family and (presumably female) friends are the only people she is concerned with and who should be concerned with her.

I grew up in a society which had been deeply affected by the achievements of the women’s liberation movement and its successors. As a result, I grew up in a society where attitudes like those expressed in this letter would be laughed at, or at best treated with pity and scorn. I don’t respect these attitudes or the practices which derive from them; I don’t believe they deserve respect. I believe they’re an insult both to women and to men, and should be criticised on those grounds.

This isn’t to say that they shouldn’t be tolerated. The most worrying thing about the current furore about the veil is that the difference between tolerance and respect seems to have been forgotten or obscured, on both sides of the debate. Defenders of the niqab argue that it’s just one more outwardly visible sign of religious observance, like a crucifix or a turban, and should be respected as such; I don’t need to restate my disagreement with this position. But critics of the niqab go to the opposite extreme, arguing not only that the niqab is objectionable but that women should be asked – or compelled – to remove it. I detest the niqab – come to that, I’m not at all keen on hijab in general, which seems to me to embody very much the same set of sexist assumptions – but I was shocked and offended by Jack Straw’s casual revelation that he asks niqab-wearers to unveil. I find myself in qualified agreement with this columnist from the Arab News:

Mrs. Azmi was suspended not because she is Muslim but because she is unable to perform her job to the standard that parents have a right to expect for their children. If she believes that it is her religious duty to wear the full-face veil — as she does — then clearly she cannot be asked to remove it, but neither can she expect to teach in a mixed-gender environment. I have no doubt that Aishah Azmi is a dedicated and capable teacher but she should be teaching at a single-gender school where she can be free to teach without a face cover. Clearly she knows this since she did not wear a face covering to her job interview at the school.There are a host of jobs that Muslims cannot undertake. Some, like wine tasting, are out of bounds for men and women. Others, like being a lifeguard, are out of bounds for veiled women. It is in the nature of the job. It is ludicrous to cry racial discrimination because the job we wish to do is incompatible with our religious customs.

One final note on the sexism of the niqab. Apparently Aishah Azmi was happy to teach a class of children unveiled, as long as she could replace the veil if a male member of staff came into the room. Picture the scene: a man comes into the room, the woman hides her face. What message does that send to the girls in the class? What message does it send to the boys?

PS Fortuitously, Brian (who didn’t grow up in the 1970s) has been thinking along similar lines.

Update 23/10
Rob, in comments: “to tolerate something requires that you disapprove of it”

Interesting angle. Apparently on Question Time the other night the idea that this is historically a tolerant society (and so why should we have a problem with this?) got a lot of play. My first reaction to hearing this was to laugh out loud – we may live in a society which respects non-white and non-Christian cultures now, but it sure as hell wasn’t like that in the 1960s and 1970s, to go back no further than that. (Flicker of sympathy for the anti-Islamophobia lobby at this point. On the anti-racism front we’ve come a long way, in quite a short time.)

But tolerance – in the sense of “I think the way you live is wrong but you’ve got a right to carry on doing it, as long as it doesn’t harm anyone else” – probably is better-rooted in this society than intolerance (“I know the way you live is wrong and you’ve got to stop it right now”). And it’s intolerance, of course, which Straw and Kelly play to. All very communitarian, in New Labour’s understanding of the word – compare Cameron’s ostentatious tolerance of ‘hoodies’.

(There’s a difference between tolerance (public attitude) and toleration (official stance), but since Straw & co are effectively playing both ends – evoking intolerance in support of decreased toleration – the difference may not make much difference in this case.)

Update 30/10

DUKE.
Is this the witness, friar?
First let her show her face, and after speak.

MARIANA.
Pardon, my lord; I will not show my face
Until my husband bid me.

DUKE.
What! are you married?

MARIANA.
No, my lord.

DUKE.
Are you a maid?

MARIANA.
No, my lord.

DUKE.
A widow, then?

MARIANA.
Neither, my lord.

DUKE.
Why, you are nothing then: neither maid, widow, nor wife?

LUCIO.
My lord, she may be a punk; for many of them are neither maid,
widow, nor wife.

[From Measure for Measure, Act 5, Scene 1. ‘Punk’ = prostitute]

Karen Armstrong (via Rob) makes some excellent points drawing on her own experience of veiling as a member of a Catholic religious community [sic], a group which has attracted its own share of opprobrium in this country:

When my order was founded in the 1840s, not long after Catholic emancipation, people were so enraged to see nuns brazenly wearing their habits in the streets that they pelted them with rotten fruit and horse dung. Nuns had been banned from Britain since the Reformation; their return seemed to herald the resurgence of barbarism.

She also brings out the history of governmental and imperial oppression which official demands to un-veil bring with them. It’s as well to be reminded that reactionary customs may be a resource of resistance to the coercion of state-sponsored liberalism.

And yet, and yet. There’s a large hole in Armstrong’s argument; she ignores or obscures the crucial difference between the nun’s veil and the niqab. To take the veil is to devote oneself to God: it’s an emblem of withdrawal from any kind of involvement with society or with men, and of being set apart from the great majority of women. To become a nun, in a time when the options for women are defined by their relationship with a man (maid, widow [or] wife – or prostitute), was to refuse a role in a gender-defined social structure; for some women it could be an act of self-determination, even rebellion. To put on the niqab is an act of religious duty, and it’s an emblem of withdrawal from involvement with male-dominated society, but these similarities are deceptive. The niqab-wearer’s withdrawal from society goes along with a continuing relationship with one man (and his children). It’s a way of living within the framework of maid, widow or wife, not withdrawing from it – and its advocates recommend it for all women, even (or especially) those women who are already actively refusing to live a life defined by gender roles. If putting on the niqab is a rebellion, it’s a rebellion against self-determination. In many respects it’s the polar opposite of the nun’s veil.

Don’t go changing

I recently read Alison Lurie’s New York Review of Books article on C.S. Lewis and Narnia. It’s worth reading, if you haven’t seen it; her Guardian article includes some of the same material but is much shorter.

This, in particular, leapt out at me:

Many readers have been infuriated by Lewis’s final condemnation of Susan Pevensie, the former wise and gentle Queen Susan, as “no longer a friend of Narnia.” In The Last Battle she is cast out of Paradise forever because at twenty-one she speaks of her earlier experiences as only a childhood fantasy, and is “too keen on being grown up” and “interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations.” Apart from the fact that these seem very minor sins, it is hard to believe that Susan could have changed that much and forgotten her happiness in Narnia and her commitment to Aslan. Apologists have claimed that her banishment was necessary to demonstrate that even those who have once been saved can fall from grace. Nevertheless it has seemed deeply unfair to many readers that Edmund, Susan’s younger brother, who has betrayed the others to the White Witch, is allowed to repent and stay in Narnia, while Susan, whose faults are much less serious, is not given the opportunity.

It’s not a new criticism, but I think Lurie’s wording is particularly forceful: it is hard to believe that Susan could have … forgotten her happiness in Narnia and her commitment to Aslan. What this brings home to me – the last phrase in particular – is that, if Aslan is (more or less) Christ, then Susan had been as much a Christian as the other three children; if belief in Aslan equates (roughly) to Christian salvation, then Susan had been saved. But nylons and lipstick and invitations were enough to damn her – quite literally, as the Last Battle ends with Aslan enacting the final division of sheep and goats.

There’s an interesting defence of Lewis on this point on a blog written by two Christians:

Lewis is at this point deliberately illustrating a very Christian contrast, between the forgiveness Jesus holds out to even the very worst person who turns away from their sin, and the rejection Jesus promises for those who finally reject him:

I tell you that any sinful thing you do or say can be forgiven. Matthew 12:31 (CEV)The master will surely come on a day and at a time when the servant least expects him. That servant will then be punished and thrown out with the ones who only pretended to serve their master. Matthew 24:50-51 (CEV)

Jesus himself told a story about the jealousy that this free offer of forgiveness arouses in some people, in Matthew 20:1-16. The idea of unmerited forgiveness does seem “unfair” to us, but it is also unfair to accuse Lewis of carelessness in this instance, where he is in fact being careful to follow what Jesus taught.

It’s a fair point, but it doesn’t go far enough. The real problem is that, in order to illustrate this contrast, Lewis put a traitor to Aslan in the role of repentant sinner, and made his despiser of God a young woman who liked going to parties. In other words, as Lurie says, Lewis ‘allowed’ Edmund but not Susan to repent. The same contrast could just as well have been worked in reverse, with the committed opponent of Aslan turned away from salvation and the worldly backslider seeing the error of her ways. Susan even had form in the matter of backsliding and redemption: one of her main functions in Prince Caspian is to doubt Aslan and then regain her belief in him. But by the time of The Last Battle, Susan’s worldly unbelief seems to have hardened, in Lewis’s mind, into something worse: she ends up in very much the same position as the characters in the Last Battle who genuinely opposed Aslan. Admittedly we don’t actually see her being cast out into the darkness – but we certainly don’t see her in the Narnia-beyond-Narnia which is Lewis’s final vision of Heaven. She doesn’t even end up marooned in Heaven while not believing in it, the ironic fate of a group of selfish and mistrustful dwarfs – they’re good-hearted underneath, presumably.

So what’s going on here? Philip Pullman got this mostly right:

Susan … is undergoing a transition from one phase of her life to another. Lewis didn’t approve of that. He didn’t like women in general, or sexuality at all, at least at the stage in his life when he wrote the Narnia books. He was frightened and appalled at the notion of wanting to grow up.

(Lewis: When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown-up.) Susan hasn’t simply taken sides against Aslan rather than for him; she’s changed, in a way that takes her right out of the Narnian picture. The adult Susan is somebody for whom belief in Aslan – i.e. Christianity – is neither a good thing nor a particularly bad one; she doesn’t think in those terms. And this transition, for Lewis, is far worse than the transition from virtue to sin. Not to care about sin is the truly unforgivable sin – which is to say, it’s the sin which determines the sinner not to seek forgiveness. And, for Lewis, the desire to be very grown-up, and in particular the desire to be a grown woman, is incompatible with caring about sin – so into the outer darkness with Queen Susan.

I think this is just how it was for Lewis – which in turn makes you wonder about how his mind worked. What kind of religion is it that makes indifference to itself the worst possible sin? Or rather, indifference to religion – the ranks of the saved, at the end of The Last Battle, include lifelong worshippers of Tash (the bloodthirsty god of the swarthy Calormenes), but no atheists (with the possible exception of those dwarfs). The bad news is that being good doesn’t get you into Heaven unless you’re also a believer; the good news is that it doesn’t much matter what you’re a believer in. To believe in something is the main thing: something beyond; something other; something not here. To do good is a good thing – which is reasonably uncontroversial; say what you will about Christianity, it’s hard to argue that Love thy neighbour as thyself is bad advice (particularly when coupled with the “Good Samaritan” gloss on the ‘neighbour’ part). But doing good for no other reason than that it’s a good thing isn’t virtue; to be virtuous, good deeds need to be done for the sake of something utterly removed from the people they actually benefit. To be virtuous, in other words, is to do good not because it’s good but because it’s right: to judge your actions by criteria entirely different from the question of whether other people benefit or suffer from them.

It’s this abstract, disciplined calculus of virtue which is threatened by the onset of nylons and lipstick and invitations. For Lewis, growing up – becoming a sexual being, not to put too fine a point on it – was a fall from grace, not because adulthood meant living in sin but because it meant living in the world. The world we know, Lewis believed, is only a poor shadow of a real world we can only know through the imagination. As early as the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Lewis rhapsodises about the vividness, intensity and power of Narnian experience, then cautions his readers that, regretfully, we had never experienced anything like it and never would. (Neither had he, of course.) The land where the three good Pevensies go, at the end of The Last Battle, is described as brighter and more vivid – more real – than even Narnia. Lewis’s vision recalls the sad but ghastly words of Christina Rossetti in “In the bleak midwinter”:

Our God, Heaven cannot hold him
Nor Earth sustain
Heaven and Earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign

To be a Christian, for Rossetti, is to worship God and commit oneself to Him, in the consciousness that our God is greater than anything we know and anything we can imagine. God has no imaginable connection with the world; the Incarnation is more tragic than glorious, and more pathetic than tragic. In this perspective, to withdraw from immediate sensuous engagement with the world – and to devote oneself to oceanic fantasies of being ever more utterly abased, ever more utterly known, ever more utterly forgiven – was not a retreat from reality but a closer approach to it. Further up and further in!

If that’s what Narnia stands for, I’m with Susan. As Pullman says, Lewis’s version of Christianity is not only shot through with racist, sexist and elitist attitudes; at a much more fundamental level, it’s ‘anti-life’.

God is an arms dealer

My hopefully provocative question: since those who tend to oppose this legislation tend to draw a disanalogy with laws banning incitement to racial hatred by pointing to a distinction between what is chosen and what is unchosen, with race not being chosen and religion being chosen, does it matter whether sexual identity is chosen when considering laws against discrimination or incitement of hatred towards particular sexual identities?

Robert suggests an interesting way in to the ‘religious hatred’ question. But first, let’s talk about hurting people. Before I’m a libertarian, even before I’m a Marxist, I’m a humanist, at least in the sense that I believe that human beings – all human beings – are more worthy of preserving from harm than anything else. Of course, this isn’t an absolute rule; the test-case scenarios are legion (the death of one person vs. the loss of an entire species? what about an entire genus? what about the loss of an entire genus vs. the death of the last surviving member of a tribe?). Let’s just say that the prevention of harm to people is value #1 and work from there. It does at least differentiate my position from that of the Texas sheriff I once saw on TV; his words were, “I’ve seen plenty of people that deserved shooting, but I’ve never seen a wallet that deserved to be stolen.” I’m not planning to go to Texas. Personally, I’ve seen plenty of wealth that deserved to be redistributed (did I mention that I went to Cambridge?), but I’ve never seen anyone who, in my eyes, deserved to be shot.

What Robert’s post suggested to me was that the question of religious hatred is part of a broader set of trade-offs, between harm done to other people and our own sense of identity: not the (few) unchangeable facts of identity that we’re born with, but our personal frameworks of habit, compulsion, self-fulfilment – the things you do to feel OK, to feel like you’re you. If you get off on wearing an SS uniform in bed, it’s no business but yours and your partner’s. If you write long articles about the joys of wearing Nazi regalia in bed, I may feel that you’ve got the right to express your sexual identity, or I may feel that publicising this particular sexual identity is a bad idea. And if you tell me that what gets you through the night is driving around Jewish neighbourhoods in an open-topped car wearing a leather overcoat and a death’s head cap, I’m likely to tell you to stop it – the distress you’re causing to other people will matter more to me than your ability to get your kicks. This isn’t a public/private question (assuming for the moment that that distinction is meaningful); the question of harm can have the same gradations in an entirely ‘private’ context. Someone who gets off on inflicting pain, for example, may be fearlessly exploring the outer limits of sensuality; they may be a boring and creepy bully (who, nevertheless, has every right to be boring, creepy and domineering in bed, as long as they can find a willing partner); or they may be actively dangerous and in need of therapy and/or locking up. The distinguishing factor is whether they’re doing any harm to other people. We may not choose the framework through which we see the world, or how we’d like to act, but we can choose what we do with that framework and how we do act. The choice whether or not to cause harm to another person, above all, is always ours.

Having said that, it’s not always obvious whether or not what we are into is harmful. In both the S/M-based scenarios I’ve given, there’s one extreme where harm done clearly takes precedence and another extreme where it’s equally clear that nobody is being harmed. Then there’s an area in the middle where (to paraphrase Altered States) the right answer is that there is no right answer. Your critique of leather queen A may be equally applicable to his friends B to Z; it may be a valid but extreme response to diffuse trends in the leather-queen community; or you may just have happened to pick a leather queen who is also a twisted bastard. You aren’t going to know until you talk it through, without either assuming that a particular course of conduct is harmful nor ruling out the possibility. The point is to have the conversation – and, more broadly, to maintain the conditions in which that conversation can happen.

But there’s a complication. So far I’ve assumed that ‘critique’ and ‘harm’ are not only distinguishable but entirely different things: ‘harm’ is all about actions and bodies, ‘critique’ is about thoughts and brains. But brains do more than think, and bodies do more than act: between these two (more or less imaginary) extremes is the muddy terrain where people actually feel stuff. In particular, where they feel hatred – where they desire to harm (or at least severely demoralise) certain other people, or groups of people. Which is a problem. There may be some individuals who it’s entirely appropriate to loathe and despise, but it’s rarely appropriate to view an entire social group with unalloyed, non-negotiable hatred. But, of course, prejudice of this kind does exist; feeling prejudice seems to come fairly naturally to most of us, followed closely by finding justifications for prejudice. And, where justifying prejudice is concerned, there’s no absolute distinction between a mindset based on a set of reasoned arguments and one built on unquestioned beliefs and habits: either one can be used to express and justify hatred. What’s worse, both can be used to portray the hated enemy in ways which will evoke hatred among other people – even people who don’t subscribe to those beliefs or arguments.

This, it seems to me, is very much the area in which the proposed new law on incitement to religious hatred is working. Whatever criticisms we might have of particular religious beliefs (advocates of the new law argue) we should recognise that there is such a thing as prejudice against a group defined by its religion, and that this is no more defensible than racial prejudice. Fears that the new law will have a chilling effect on criticism of religion are misplaced, we’re told; the law will only kick in at the point where critique stops and hate begins. We don’t condone racial hatred, and few people now object to the criminalisation of incitement to racial hatred (which dates from 1976); why should religious hatred be treated differently?

There are two problems with this argument. Firstly, as we have seen, the idea that hatred can be cleanly divided from critique is illusory. If I believe that a defined group of people regularly do something to which I strongly object, I’m not going to feel kindly towards that group. The question is whether this is hatred arising from a reasonable belief, or a prejudiced belief arising from hatred. In the case of racial prejudice, it’s generally not a tough call, for the simple reason that ‘race’ doesn’t govern behaviour. Where religion is concerned, the question is more difficult. Anyone who hates Muslim men on the grounds that they all require their wives to cover their faces is clearly prejudiced (‘Islamophobic‘, even). But if I said I hated those Muslim men who do require their wives to cover their faces (basing this policy on their reading of Surah 24:31), would I be expressing illegitimate prejudice against Muslims or a valid critique of sexism? It’s arguable both ways; I think it’s a conversation that should be held, and held out of the shadow of the criminal law.

Instead of opening up the question of what can and can’t be said about religious and cultural practices, the proposed law would shut it down, giving legal definition to the cut-off point where criticism (legal) becomes hatred (illegal). Since that borderline is essentially imaginary, in practice the law would be liable to bite off either too much (chilling legitimate debate) or too little (leaving genuine incitement to hatred unpunished). The former outcome seems much more likely than the latter. It can be argued that the 1976 legislation has itself had a chilling effect on discussion of race: the legislation only criminalises ‘threatening, abusive or insulting’ statements which are also likely to stir up racial hatred, but it has tended to make it difficult to make any general statement about ‘race’. On balance, this is probably no great loss. By contrast, the new law attacks an area where debate is widely seen to be both legitimate and useful; what’s worse, it doesn’t include that saving stipulation that the language used should be ‘threatening, abusive or insulting’. If somebody says that what you’ve said or written is liable to stir up religious hatred, the law says they’ve got a valid complaint, more or less by definition. (But (we’re told) we needn’t worry, as the Director of Public Prosecutions won’t bring prosecutions most of the time. We’re being asked to give the state new powers which could be abused, in other words, and trust that they won’t abuse them. Why don’t they just drop the big one and pass an Enabling Act?)

There’s another problem. Saying that rational arguments can support prejudice doesn’t mean that unquestioned convictions can’t: religious beliefs may themselves articulate and buttress hatred. The way I feel about the ‘conservative’ Muslim husband who insists on his wife covering her face is very much the way that I feel about the sadist who insists on spanking his partner with a table-tennis bat. Both are constraining someone else’s behaviour; both are doing something which seems unarguably right to them; both are reproducing broader patterns of gender-based subordination, in the form of a culturally-specific practice. And, crucially, in both cases this practice may articulate and support a personal hatred of women, or it may sit alongside feelings of genuine respect. It would be absurd – and grossly insulting – to assume that full-face veiling invariably reflects personal feelings of misogyny. But it would be equally absurd to ignore the degree of ‘fit’ between the injunction for women to be veiled and broader misogynistic social structures, and to assume that contemporary veiling is never associated with misogyny. The conversation needs to take place, out of the shadow of the criminal law.

Instead, the proposed law would tend to protect prejudice, as long as it was expressed in the language of religion. There are Christian ministers – to look no further afield – who express themselves in the most vitriolic terms on the subject of gays, or Jews, or members of other Christian denominations. Anyone denouncing this kind of purportedly religious hate-mongering would need to tread carefully: using the wrong kind of language about the minister and his flock could itself be classed as incitement to religious hatred. (We’re assured that this wouldn’t happen, of course, but that’s almost beside the point. We could expect to see prosecutions – or rather, we would expect to see prosecutions, and most of us would moderate our language accordingly. Is it getting chilly in here?)

Prejudice exists; hatred against any number of groups exists, religious groups included. (To bring sex in one last time, prejudice is a bit like pornography: if you can identify a group, you can be sure that somebody somewhere is prejudiced against it.) Prejudice against religious groups is a genuine problem; the rationalist argument that all beliefs should be equally open to criticism is valid but irrelevant, given that rational arguments can buttress and articulate prejudice just as well as unexamined systems of belief. Unfortunately, the proposed law attacks only one half of this pairing, giving its blessing to the other – and, for anyone who believes in rational debate, the law has picked the wrong side to protect.

But it’ll help Labour get back some of the votes they lost over Iraq, and I guess that’s the main thing. Make Secularism History!

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