A blast from the past: writing on Winnie the Pooh

Many years ago, I was an undergraduate studying maths at Trinity College, Cambridge. There is an annual prize for public speaking at Trinity, called the Hooper Declamation Prize. I entered the competition twice, and won it once. I believe that was in 1996. The rules that year were to talk on one of the supplied quotes from famous Trinity alumni. I chose “I am a Bear of Very Little Brain, and long words Bother Me” written by A. A. Milne.

For a long time I believed that the text of my speech was lost – or at least buried deep in the Mono BBS which I used to spend a lot of time on. Tonight I found a copy of it on a now-defunct Poohsoc home page, captured by the Wayback Machine, and thought it worth resurrecting here.

I haven’t edited it beyond replacing a “1” with “I” and removing a couple of spaces before colons. There are almost certainly further typos, missing words and worse, but they were presumably in the original text file I typed out all those years ago.

I wrote this over half a lifetime ago, but I can still easily recognise my own writing and speaking style in the text. I leave it to the reader to consider whether this is a good thing or not.


In writing the phrase, “I am a Bear of Very Little Brain, and long words Bother Me,” I feel A. A. Milne summed up his whole world view as seen through the ideas of Pooh Bear. However, only in the context of the rest of his slightly paranoid but nonetheless beautiful parody of our world does it achieve its full potency.

Many take this to be just a rather sweet little line for Pooh to say whilst visiting Owl – in fact, it bears the weight of Milne’s view of the world and its intellectual class struggles. This is by no means the first of his references to this struggle, but it carries the most impact.

I shall outline for you what I believe Milne’s view of society to be, and hopefully it will become obvious that Pooh’s line is at the crux of an intricate web of intellectual one-upmanship.

The first glimpse we have of this web happens even before the first chapter of Winnie the Pooh, in the introduction. Milne says that although “can’t take Pooh to school without everybody knowing it”, “Piglet is so small that he slips into a pocket, where it is very comforting to feel him when you are not quite sure whether twice seven is twelve or twenty-two.” I think this may in fact be accidental, for by putting it under his own name and not as said by a character, he is already taking the attitude at he ridicules and fights against throughout the two Pooh books.

However, in the very same paragraph, he states that “[Piglet]… has got more education than Pooh, but Pooh doesn’t mind. Some have brains, and some haven’t, he says, and there it is,” emphasising the lack of importance of intellect to Pooh. So, straight away we have a contradiction between Milne’s patronising nature and his wish for an end to intellectual bigotry. Perhaps Milne’s aim in writing these books was to confront his own prejudice, as consistently the narrative highlights such behaviour in a discouraging way, but Christopher Robin is almost the most patronising of all the inhabitants of the Hundred Acre Wood. Milne clearly puts himself in the part of Christopher Robin, at least during the main narrative sections, as the sole human, and often the only character interested in actually learning as opposed to merely demonstrating knowledge.

The characters are introduced to us fairly gradually in “Winnie-The-Pooh”, possibly so we can fully realise what each is meant to represent before the next is brought onto the stage, as it were. Obviously, the first animal we meet is Pooh himself, who, along with Piglet, is very easy to understand. Pooh and Piglet form a pair, and represent the working class masses who take little or no pleasure from thinking. Indeed, the very phrase “I am a Bear of Very Little Brain” underlines this – and, I believe, Milne’s idea of the inferiority complex that he perceives the working class as having. They are constantly confused by any writing, and both Owl and Rabbit (on whom I shall elaborate later) often treat them with disdain. Milne seems to go to any length to display their stupidity: Pooh following his own footprints, and Piglet thinking Pooh is a Heffalump form the basis for two whole chapters. However, the narrative itself is never unkind, only the characters. Eeyore, Owl, and Rabbit chide Pooh the most, although I personally find no offence in Eeyore’s scoldings as firstly he has more justification, due to his greater intelligence, and secondly he is miserable with everyone for most of the time, irrespective of their education.

Christopher Robin comes out with variations on “Silly old Bear” any number of times, but usually qualifies it with a statement of how fond he is of Pooh. Indeed, at one stage Pooh becomes quite dejected, proclaiming that “I have been Foolish and Deluded… and I am a Bear of No Brain at All,” and Christopher Robin retorts that he is the best bear in all the world. However, I find Christopher Robin’s attitude condescending in general, and he never denies Pooh’s claims of stupidity.

Rabbit, one of the more complicated characters, is introduced in the second chapter, when Pooh visits him and becomes stuck in his entrance after eating too much. This chapter not only shows Rabbit for what he really is, but is an absolute stroke of genius which could have saved millions from misery had they only taken its lesson to heart.

Rabbit is clearly meant to represent the politicians of this world. He is permanently busy, he lies in his very first words to Pooh, and throughout the books he is the natural leader out of the animals – if Christopher Robin isn’t involved, but a plan is required, it is Rabbit who is usually in charge. This chapter gives us a gentle introduction to him, but also predicts an event perhaps sixty years ahead of its time. Wells predicted the laser, amongst other things, and Verne’s visions have also been uncannily accurate in several cases, but I think it is a mark of Milne’s genius that he was able to predict mass overspending on credit and its effects, demonstrating it with a simple homily in the world of the Hundred Acre Wood.

To remind you of the chapter, Pooh visited Rabbit, and ate the honey and condensed milk that Rabbit offered him. This is, I believe, the equivalent of the government encouraging increased spending, without considering the possible problems of families living on credit and counting the cost too late. In Pooh’s case, “too late” came when he tried to leave, and found he was too plump to get out. Despite being pushed and pulled, he couldn’t budge – just as families in debt find they can’t get out of the credit hole they dig for themselves. Pooh just had to stay there without eating, whilst Christopher Robin read stories to him. Rabbit himself was very little help, and ended up using Pooh’s legs as a towel-horse, much as the government will still try to squeeze whatever taxes it can out of those living in poverty. Fortunately, this story has a happier end than real life, and after only a week, Pooh manages to extricate himself (with a little help from his friends and Rabbit’s relations) and live a normal life again. If only the real world were so kind.

We are introduced to both Eeyore and Owl in the next chapter, which is a touching irony when one realises the quite opposite ideas they represent. At the start of the chapter, Pooh comes across Eeyore thinking quietly to himself, as usual. Pooh spots that Eeyore’s tail is missing, and decides to do his best to find it. Here Eeyore reveals his nature in two speeches: when Pooh tells Eeyore of his tail’s mysterious absence, Eeyore says, “Someone must have taken it. How Like Them.” A couple of paragraphs later, when Pooh has pledged himself to find the tail, he says, “Thank you, Pooh. You’re a real friend. Not Like Some.” Taken with the other hints given about Eeyore, we now have enough evidence to suppose that Eeyore in fact represents the concept of Truth. He is wise, quiet (for truth rarely if ever advertises itself – to access it, one must be patient, humble, and ready to listen), and, unfortunately, sad. I cannot help but feel that Milne must have taken a fairly dim view of the world. Whether through frustration at his attitudes so hateful to himself, or possibly his ideas about what a grind the world is for everyone both high and low, he comes through as being depressed at the state of living in his time, despite the general gaiety of life in the Hundred Acre Wood.

Pooh, in his blissful idealism thinks that if anyone knows where Eeyore’s tail is, it’ll be Owl. He goes to visit Owl, and here we catch a glimpse of Owl’s character before we even meet him – we learn that Owl “wise though he was in many ways, able to read and write and spell his own name (WOL), [ … ] somehow went all to pieces over delicate words like MEASLES and BUTTEREDTOAST [sic]”. However, it is a good job that we are told that by the narrative, as Owl himself would never deign to admit defeat when it comes to writing. Indeed, in another chapter, he misspells “A Happy Birthday” and lies to Pooh by saying it says “A Very Happy Birthday with love from Pooh”. Predictably enough, what he actually writes is garbage… although whether he realises this himself could be argued both ways. When we meet Owl, we find he is an intellectual snob of the first order. He reels off long words (which, one presumes, he knows will Bother Pooh) and our amiable Bear gently nods off. On waking, he is shown Owl’s bell-rope, which, unsurprisingly, is Eeyore’s long lost tail. By now we have already, and regrettably, realised Owl’s place in Milne’s world. Much as it saddens me to say it, I believe Owl is Milne’s perception of how his academic superiors were at our very own beloved College. I suspect he thought himself superior to them, as he was still learning whereas he viewed their knowledge as limited, stale, and dwindling. It is not until we reach the climax of the story, however, that we realise quite how bitterly Milne feels about them. Owl explains that he didn’t realise it was Eeyore’s tail, and that it “came off in his hand”. Here we see Milne’s idea that teachers take Truth wherever they can find it, in incomplete sections, from possibly immoral sources, and often without realising it. They parade it under false pretences, all for the benefit of their own image. Of course, it is Milne, in the guise of Christopher Robin, who puts Eeyore’s tail back. I cannot fully express my sadness at the unfortunate state of Milne’s obviously highly gifted mind – had he more willingly accepted the ideas from his mentors how much greater could he have been?

My theory about the subtext within Milne’s work was, after the first six chapters of “Winnie-the-Pooh”, that the whole book was simply a comment on intellectual prejudice. However, when I carefully read chapter seven, “In which Kanga and Baby Roo come to the Forest, and Piglet has a bath,” I discovered that Milne was expanding his initial attacks to any kind of bigotry. From the first line in the chapter, which reads, “Nobody seemed to know where they came from, but there they were in the Forest: Kanga and Baby Roo,” it is clear that racial tension is the next issue he is tackling. Rabbit emphasises the point: “[ … ] we wake up one morning, and what do we find? We find a Strange Animal among us.” Of course, to mirror the racism in the real world, the animals of the forest plan to drive Kanga and Roo out as soon as they can, by any means necessary – Rabbit’s plan involves the kidnap of Roo. Of course, Kanga turns out not to be a Strange Animal after all – she is a devoted mother, who is intelligent and has a good sense of humour. As I have already mentioned, the narrative appears to have no prejudices, and attempts to show that this is the correct attitude to have.

After the first episode involving Kanga and Roo, Milne seems to lose interest in racial affairs. When Tigger comes to the forest, in “The House at Pooh Corner”, Pooh is initially wary but after less than a page is quite happy to sleep in the same room as him. In fact, in this, the second book about Pooh, there are far fewer statements about the way Milne views the world. As most of his insights are fairly pessimistic about life in general, perhaps this is a sign of his having been of a cheerier disposition whilst writing about the further adventures of Pooh. Indeed, as opposed to the plethora of negative, almost angry emotions we feel coming through the subtext of “Winnie-the-Pooh”, “The House at Pooh Corner” seems to contain far more humour about life, and where it is sad about the state of things, it feels more like nostalgia than bitterness. Maybe Milne had learnt that although money can’t buy you happiness, a best-selling book can bring one satisfaction. Hopefully he had been able to put behind him the sadness that Trinity seemed to have unfortunately bestowed on him, and was now not so paranoid about the educational ratrace.

Only four points come to mind from “The House at Pooh Corner.” The first is about the nature of Tigger. When I was considerably younger than I am now, which is to say somewhere between being old enough to listen but too young to read – my old and battered copy of “The House at Pooh Corner” has an inscription on it saying, “One of these days you’ll be old enough to read this yourself!” – Tigger was always my favourite animal. He was full of vitality, and seemed more brightly coloured to me than any of the other characters. Perhaps I shouldn’t be too surprised to discover that Tigger, to me at least, represents mass entertainment and humour. He is the “Fantasy Football League” of the Forest. Always having silly ideas, he makes a fool not only of himself, but of those around him. When he climbs a tree, he preys on the innocence and ignorance of young Roo, who never appears to realise either the danger of his predicament or his foolishness for trusting Tigger in the first place. There are any number of ways we can interpret this tale: perhaps it represents gambling, maybe drugs, or possibly the ever more extravagant rumours of the popular press, taking the general public further and further up the tree of scandal. Only Milne knew for sure, but I think the lesson holds, however we may view it.

The second event of importance is when we learn of Christopher Robin’s education. I think it is best put in Milne’s dialogue between Eeyore and Piglet:

“Do you know what A means, little Piglet?”
“No, Eeyore, I don’t.”
“It means Learning, it means Education, it means all the things that you and Pooh haven’t got. That’s what A means.”

And later, from Eeyore…

“What does Christopher Robin do in the mornings? He learns. He becomes Educated.”

This, together with Christopher Robin’s improved spelling, demonstrates that Milne believes the hard work involved in real learning, to be the true mark of a healthy mind and not just knowledge without understanding.

The third incident involves Tigger, and is of great importance in reinforcing Milne’s ideas of how misleading entertainment may be. A small matter in the Forest’s eyes, Tigger’s bouncing Eeyore into the river takes on a whole new perspective when we remember Eeyore’s place in things as Truth. Clearly it is reflective of our shunning of reality, and needing to escape into a fantasy world for recreation.

The final point I draw from “The House at Pooh Corner” always fills me with a certain nostalgia and wistfulness for my real childhood. Again, the first few lines of the final chapter in the book sum up what is to come: “Christopher Robin was going away. Nobody knew why he was going; nobody knew where he was going; indeed nobody even knew why he knew that Christopher Robin was going away.” I suspect everyone here has had that feeling – either about their friends, themselves, or possibly their own children, and it is a sad feeling. Childhood can never be recovered, and although the book ends ostensibly cheerily, I always feel the picture on the final page, with Pooh and Christopher Robin skipping into the distance, is a lie, trying to hide the loss of innocence and wonder. I miss my childhood – I miss being able to read charming books such as these without seeing metaphors everywhere, whether intended or not.

I will finish with a short dialogue which I believe to be the most touchingly funny little section of the whole Pooh history. It occurs at the end of the first book, and Pooh and Piglet are walking home together.

“When you wake up in the morning, Pooh,” said Piglet at last, “what’s the first thing you say to yourself?”
“What’s for breakfast?” said Pooh. “What do you say, Piglet?”
“I say, I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today?” said Piglet.
Pooh nodded thoughtfully. “It’s the same thing,” he said.

Happy Trans Awareness Week

This week is Trans Awareness Week. I don’t have searing insights here, but I did want to reflect briefly on how my own awareness has changed over the last year.

Most obviously, I’m now aware I have a daughter. Ash has always been my daughter, I just didn’t know that until relatively recently. Many of the other points below have come from her. It’s wonderful to be educated by your kids. (And Robin and William certainly teach me things too – just not so much about trans issues.)

I’m more aware of the Gender Recognition Act (GRA), mostly due to the proposed changes to it. This goes alongside increased awareness of the many forms of discrimination faced by trans folks.

I’m now much more keenly aware of the divisions within feminism over whether cis women’s rights and trans women’s rights are complementary or in opposition. I’m not naive enough to expect feminism to mean the same thing for everyone, and there are plenty of other topics that cause fierce debate within feminist circles, but this one makes me sadder than any other.

I’m gradually raising my awareness on a slightly more academic level: Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl is proving very thought-provoking and informative. It’s going to take me a long time to process all the information and ideas there.

On a human level, I’m more aware of the experiences of trans people simply by meeting, talking and making friends with them. Thinking about it, this is almost all trans women at the moment, which is obviously not ideal in terms of learning more diverse experiences, but maybe that will change over the next year.1

On a more personal level, I’ve probably thought about my own gender more over the last year than in the past. I identify as a man: why? What does that mean to me? How much does that identification prop up a harmful gender binary dichotomy? I don’t know whether this really counts as something to bring up when specifically talking about trans awareness week, but it’s definitely a corollary of my increased awareness of trans issues.

I’m very conscious of how much I’m still unaware of, and I look forward to taking stock again in a year’s time.


1 I don’t like the way this paragraph reads. I don’t like using the word “them” as if it’s in opposition to “us”. I don’t like the idea that I’m “collecting” trans friends as some sort of woke status symbol, or that these new friends “owe” me education. I may rewrite this when I’m less sleepy. For the moment I just want to acknowledge its problems.

Why aren’t more men feminists?

In March, I was fortunate enough to interview Catherine Mayer twice about her new book, Attack of the 50ft Women, once for “Talks at Google” (video coming soon, hopefully) and once at Waterstones in Reading.

While chatting before the first event, we got onto the subject of feminist men, and how few there are. This is clearly something that bothers Catherine (and me) – for example, she mentioned how several men at events had asked her to sign a copy of the book, which turned out to be for their wives rather than themselves. I think Catherine may have hoped I’d have some insight into the issue, as a man myself. I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say I had “insight” but I’ve been giving it a bit of thought and reflecting on my own experiences.

Privilege and empathy

I’ve previously written about being (somewhat) aware that I’m privileged. That awareness came through a lot of reading and contemplation. To some extent, this was only possible because of the privilege I enjoy. I’m not working two jobs, I don’t face micro-aggressions when I walk down the street, I don’t have to deal with racist abuse, and so on. I have time and space to read and think in peace.

On the other hand, not having faced significant prejudice, whether blatant or subtle, I can’t look at the problems many others face through the lens of related experiences. My good intentions will always have an aspect of patronizing voluntourism – I don’t have skin in the game in an obvious way. That puts me at bigger risk of messing up in both thought and speech – it’s all too easy to try to read an article and think “What would I do in that situation?” rather than trying hard to understand the people who are in that situation. I’m not alone in this – the most common examples seem to be people telling others how they “should” behave or feel after being raped or finding themselves in an abusive relationship.

So we end up with yet another problem: those who are possibly in the best place to understand the inequality of privilege are those who face it every day, but they’re simultaneously those who don’t have the luxury of reflecting on it and trying to understand (and counter) aspects of privilege over others they may enjoy. Catherine talks about this in the first chapter of Attack of the 50ft Women from various perspectives, including the continuing efforts to ensure the Women’s Equality Party reflect diverse experiences rather than being a club for white middle-class feminist women.

In a nutshell: empathy is hard. But it’s that empathy that I think we’re so badly missing, and I don’t know what to do about it. It’s an issue that extends in multiple directions, and not always the ones that liberals are happy to think about. For example, I voted Remain in the UK EU referendum, and I still find it hard to empathize with those who voted Leave. It’s easy to pigeon-hole people and make lazy assumptions, but that just leads to divisions along different lines. When those assumptions are then given voice, the feeling of “us” and “them” intensifies even further. It’s hard to stand up for your own beliefs while trying to understand the motives of those who oppose those beliefs. I hope we’ll make progress on this front in the next decade, or I dread to think where politics will go.

Better for everyone?

Beyond not understanding the inequalities of others, there may be selfish reasons for not trying to counter them. If men are in a position of privilege, don’t they stand to lose by campaigning against that privilege?

The idea that gender inequality is a problem for everyone is baked into the heart of the Women’s Equality Party – the “about” page for the party is very clear:

Equality for women isn’t a women’s issue. When women fulfil their potential, everyone benefits.

I believe this, wholeheartedly – but I can see arguments against it. If you’re a man already struggling to keep up in an industry which is male-dominated, I think you have some immediate reasons to fear women being given equal opportunities. You may phrase this to yourself as disliking the idea of women being “boosted up the career ladder solely for political correctness” or similar terminology assuming you’ll be discriminated against, and we can disagree about that – but I can certainly agree that for women to take an equal share of political and industrial power, some men will lose out in that specific aspect. To give one practical example: a male MP campaigning for more equal political representation needs to understand that they may lose their job if they’re successful.

The moral counter-argument is that just because something works out well for you doesn’t make it fair. But that’s not the case the Women’s Equality Party is trying to make, and it’s not the case I want to make either. (Just to be absolutely clear on this, I’m an enthusiastic member of the party, but not a spokesperson. Please don’t attribute any of my badly-thought-out arguments as being WE arguments.) Appealing to fairness is laudable, but an appeal to self-interest is likely to be more effective.

So if I may find myself further down the career ladder in a fairer world, what’s in it for me? In a nutshell, I want to live in a world with a thriving economy, the best politicians making the best arguments, the best journalism, and so on. My personal position in society and industry is only one part of what contributes to my well-being. I’m affected by how society harnesses the skills of everyone else, in every aspect of life. When we discriminate against sections of society (not just by gender, of course) their skills aren’t used as effectively.

At a more personal, household level, it’s easy to see why men might not want to consciously acknowledge all the extra household work women typically do: the obvious next step is trying to share that work more equally. I’m hypocritical here. Holly still does the bulk of the housework, particularly cooking and childcare. (There are other aspects where I’m more involved, such as organizing our finances, driving kids around, and laundry – but they don’t add up to as much as Holly does.) Again though, I think there are plenty of benefits to more equal parenting and general housework-sharing. Better father-child relationships, better partner relationships, more time to enjoy together, etc. And yes, I need to walk the walk here.

So yes, I can see that addressing inequalities will lead to localized downsides for men, but against a bigger picture of generally increased prosperity. In short, I don’t think it’s a zero-sum game.

Feminism and happiness

This is a topic I’d meant to write about for a while, but I think it makes sense to include it here. When I read about other people’s experiences of becoming feminists, they often contain a mixture of the sadness of being more aware of the inequality of the world and a feeling of empowerment and self-worth. There’s also a sense of community, of sisterhood. That’s entirely natural when most of those accounts are written by women. (I briefly brought this up with Catherine before the interview at Google, and she mentioned that feminism doesn’t make as many women happy as she’d expect or want. I’d like to hear more about that, and what can be done about it.)

Being a feminist doesn’t make me happy. There’s the same sadness of being more aware of inequality, along with the horror at having been the benefactor of that inequality. There’s the concern about complicity in patriarchal structures. There’s a feeling of impotence as you try to empathize and know that you’ll never really “get it”, along with the “pushing a boulder up a large hill” feeling of trying to be a tiny part of changing things. I don’t expect to feel like part of the sisterhood, although I will say that I’ve been warmly welcomed in general.

As Aaminah Khan wrote:

And once you start doing this, you can’t just stop, because even if you want to, you won’t be able to shut your eyes to reality once you’ve had them opened.

So it’s not like I wish I were back in a bubble where inequality seemed more abstract, far removed and over-stated. I’m not calling for feminist cookies to try to appeal to more men. We (men) just need to accept that sometimes doing the right thing – even doing something that will ultimately be beneficial to us – may not feel fun or empowering.

(It’s also worth noting that although some trolls will attack male feminists online, it’s generally nothing compared with the abuse women receive for posting feminist views. Fear of being such attacks may be stated as a reason for not being a vocal male feminist, but I don’t think it’s a good one, personally.)

Feminism as a term with many meanings

For a while I rejected the word “feminist” as one I’d apply to myself. I preferred the term “equalist”. This was a long time before I started deliberately trying to find out what feminism really entailed. I know that others have suggested that the Women’s Equality Party shouldn’t be as explicitly about gender equality, and more about equality of all forms.

For some people, the word “feminist” will conjure images of women who would rather men didn’t exist at all, or believe that all men are inherently awful. I can see how if that’s your idea of feminism, you wouldn’t want to be part of it.

There are feminists who believe men simply can’t be feminists – being a woman is part of their definition of being a feminist. If that’s the definition you work with and you’re a man, being a feminist isn’t even an option.

Language is important, and has been used to devalue people for a long time, so the meaning of the word “feminism” is important too… but I’m personally comfortable with different people using it in different ways. If a consensus starts to coalesce around a meaning that either excludes me or that I wouldn’t feel comfortable with, I’ll stop referring to myself as a feminist. Until then, I’ll keep using it, aware that in some contexts some more clarification (or even different word) may be needed.

Wrap-up

So to summarize a few reasons men might not declare themselves to be feminists:

  • Lots of men don’t feel they have an easy life either, and they don’t want to “waste” their time learning about the inequalities women face. (If their societal experiences have all been around claiming how there are no such inequalities anyway, why would they bother to even try?)

  • Fear that it’s against our self-interest. I can understand that fear, because it’s easy to see small-picture, concrete downsides compared with big-picture, abstract promises of a better world. (Again, it’s easier for me to not worry too much about the downsides as part of a comfortably-off family.)

  • Seeing that it doesn’t give the same person empowerment or self-worth boost that it can give women. (This isn’t so much of a reason not to be a feminist as the lack of an enticing reason to be a feminist.)

  • Some men may understand the word “feminist” as having negative or exclusionary connotations for men. Unfortunately I suspect that in some cases that may be enough to stop them from finding out more.

This post has just looked at some simplified aspects of a complex topic. It’s very much “armchair quarterbacking” – for a more nuanced, thoroughly-researched set of thoughts, I’d recommend Nikki van der Gaag’s “Feminism and Men”.

Finally, when Catherine signed my copy of Attack of the 50ft Women, she ended with “Now can you do more?” I’m not sure whether Catherine deliberately loads each conversation full of challenge as well as food for much thought, but it seems to have been the case so far when I’ve talked with her. I’m sure my answer to her question is “yes” but that doesn’t mean I know what it’ll look like. Maybe it will be something to do with making more men aware of feminism and gender inequality – only time will tell. I promise I’ll try.

Putting my hand up on failure

This is going to be a brief post. I’ve been putting off writing it until I have lots of time, which means it never happens. I’ve just finished writing about four pages of C# in Depth this evening (which is good going), and I’m now waiting for my wife to text me that she’s ready to be picked up from her book club. So, I might as well put that time to good use.

When I was a schoolboy, I was in various choirs. One of those was particularly good, and it had a different way of rehearsing pieces to the other choirs. We did very little “note bashing” but instead spent more time on dynamics and listening to each other. As such, wrong notes were relatively few and far between, but of course they had to be addressed. There was no problem in terms of blame, but the conductor wanted to know which sections he needed to go back to. So when we got something wrong and realized it, we simply put a hand up for a second or so, the conductor would notice, and we’d keep going. If we didn’t put our hand up, he’d know that we were unaware of our mistake and the section needed more work. As well as that practical benefit, it meant that we were watching ourselves more carefully, concentrating harder, and generally singing better. Importantly, there was no blame attached – putting your hand up was never seen as something to avoid.

My journey as a novice feminist feels a little like that experience, and I’m consciously trying to emulate it. I take enormous comfort from the wonderful “10 ways to be a better male feminist” by
Aaminah Khan. She writes (in point 10):

You will probably be taken down a peg or two when you mess up. (Don’t worry, we all mess up, and we all eat crow afterwards. It’s fine, the internet has a pretty short memory.)

Yep, that’s happened. Fortunately it’s always been polite so far (presumably because I’ve been polite to start with, and I hope my good intentions are obvious) but I’ve definitely written without enough consideration of how I express my ideas – which has occasionally revealed how far I’ve still got to go.

Sometimes it hasn’t been a matter of me explicitly messing up, but instead reading articles about problematic attitudes where I reluctantly recognise myself. (Relatively mild one: Hadley Freeman‘s article about women’s motivation for fashion/make-up. I have a theory about why many men make assumptions there, but I don’t think it’s worth me writing it up.)

It’s easy to compose a mental rebuke and try to come out the moral victor, but I’ve found that doesn’t feel as good as it sounds. I’m trying to learn to put my hand up instead – whether that’s actually out loud on the internet, or just to myself – and see where I can improve.

The idea of blame-free introspection is far from new of course – I’m really not trying to claim any credit here. But I’ve found it surprisingly liberating. I’m free to be openly imperfect, but I still have to try to improve. This doesn’t mean blindly accepting every criticism that comes my way – the whole point is to put conscious care into what I do… but a much larger proportion of criticism is reasonable than I’d probably have thought before.

On that note, time to call it a night… so thank you again to everyone who nudges me (knowingly or not) to hopefully become a better person.

Thoughts on privilege

The first rule of Privilege Club is: You do not know you’re a member of Privilege Club.

The second rule of Privilege Club is: Even if you know you’re a member of Privilege Club, you don’t know how far your membership goes.

The third rule of Privilege Club is: The second rule of Privilege Club applies even if you try to take it into consideration.

The fourth rule of Privilege Club is: You do not talk about Privilege Club, except to deny its existence.

Just what we need: more proclamations from a straight white man

This is my third attempt at writing this post. The reasons I’ve found it hard to write are the same reasons I think it’s important for me to write it. Its purpose is mostly to help me organize (and record) my own thoughts; a secondary purpose is to effectively raise my hand and say “I believe privilege exists” to punctuate the silence from many privileged people. I believe that the more people who openly acknowledge privilege, the easier it will be to defeat, and this post is just one way of acknowledging it.

I recognize that there’s a risk that this post will come across as mansplaining privilege. “Listen dear, I know you think you know about privilege, what with being sexually harassed, talked over in meetings, received less recognition and compensation for your work and so on – but hush now: man talking. Let me tell you what privilege really is.” Recognizing the danger isn’t the same as avoiding it, and I may fall into the pit anyway. Please call me on it if I do.

How does privilege affect me?

I’m a straight, white, cis-gendered, married, middle-class Christian male living in the UK. I could go on with things that have given me advantages, but that’s probably enough to start with.

That means:

  • I can sit here thinking about privilege instead of working a second job or trying to find a job. If I lose my current job, I can be reasonably confident of finding another one before I go hungry.
  • There’s a referendum tomorrow: I can vote freely, and I’m confident the vote won’t be rigged.
  • I can write this post and be pretty confident I won’t be abused for it. (When I messed up an earlier post in a few ways, I was called on it by a writer I admire. It stung, but the criticism was all measured, polite, and useful. No threats, nothing ad hominem. Compare that with the comments on the average feminist article…)
  • I can walk across the local park to the shops without fear of sexual harassment. (If I walk across at 10pm and there’s a group of teenagers hanging around, I get nervous. I don’t know how rational that is though.)
  • I can show affection to my wife in public and not receive abuse.
  • I can practise my religion without persecution. (I’ve received more abusive comments from other Christians for things like my stance on homosexuality than I’ve received about my other religious beliefs.)
  • Although I tend to talk quite a lot in meetings, I’ve rarely been cricitized for it. I suspect a woman talking the same amount would be seen as “overly opinionated” or somesuch.
  • I’ve never been denied service for how I look. Compare this with the #AirBnbWhileBlack situation which originally prompted this post, and which horrified me when I heard about it. It horrified and surprised me due to rule two.
  • If someone buys me a drink, I’m happy for them to bring it to the table, without worrying about whether or not it’s spiked.

Now none of this is what I might have termed “privilege” a couple of years ago. It’s just “normal life, the way it should be” – because everyone is equal, right? I would have used the word “privilege” for things like blatant nepotism, or inheriting millions. (The deposit my parents gave me for my first house? No, not privilege, of course not. Being lucky to have hard-working, generous parents? Sure, I can acknowledge that – but calling it privilege would break rule one.)

Living in different worlds

I’m not hopelessly naive – I haven’t just woken up and discovered that sexism, racism and homophobia exist. But I’ve become more aware of the extent of them, and how they can make it feel like you and I may be living in entirely different worlds. We could walk down the same street, minutes apart, and experience very different journeys – not just tinkering round the edges, but aspects that change the decisions we make, the state in which we arrive at our destination, our outlook for the rest of the day, and so on.

That’s an easy idea to shrug off, and I suspect I’d have dismissed it at least partially a while ago. No-one could have proved it to me, in that I can’t live in someone else’s skin. Sure, you could have shown me a video of the two experiences, but that’s not the same as feeling it, and living it – not just for five minutes, but for a lifetime. So instead of looking for proof, I go by what others say about how they find the world around them, basically – and it feels like reading books like Everyday Sexism has opened my eyes, at least partially. (Girls Will Be Girls helped a lot here too, particularly descriptions of structure vs agency.)

I still have to fight myself on this – privilege is apparently really hard to shake off. It’s so easy to fall into Privilege Denying Dude mode, fundamentally assuming that the world really does work the same way for everyone, and that those unfortunate people that bad things just seem to happen to would be so much happier if they’d just make better life choices. It would be lovely to think I always catch myself before going into that mode these days, but it seems unlikely… and how could I know?

Aside: eyes wide (?) open

This morning I read a wonderful piece called “10 ways to be a better male feminist” by Aaminah Khan. It includes this line:

And once you start doing this, you can’t just stop, because even if you want to, you won’t be able to shut your eyes to reality once you’ve had them opened.

For a couple of months now, I’ve been realizing that being a feminist isn’t making me happy. I didn’t really expect it to, but when I first ordered a few books a couple of years ago, I don’t think I’d expected how sad and angry I might become… and yes, that’s obviously within the privileged position of only having to learn about the injustices rather than live them. No sympathy requested or expected. The only way I expect to become less sad or angry about this is for the world to change.

Debatable privilege

There’s one aspect of privilege which isn’t directly related to my gender, race, sexuality or anything like that – but more my experience.

For those coming to this post from a non-software-engineering background, I’m a micro-celebrity on a Q&A site called Stack Overflow. People ask questions about how to solve programming problems, and other people provide answers – I mostly provide answers, and I’m pretty good at it. This in turn has led to me speaking at quite a few conferences. It’s fun, and the attendees seem to enjoy my talks.

Now, when a conference opens its Call for Speakers, the organizers often email me directly to ask me if I’d like to speak. Sometimes they’ll put me in the agenda before we’ve even worked out what I’m going to talk about, let alone written a full abstract.

Is that privilege? Most of the other speakers will have had to find topics which are new and cool, hone abstracts, carefully craft bios to sound impressive but not arrogant… all work I haven’t had to do. I’ve taken a shortcut. Does it count as “not privilege” due to “earning” the shortcut with previous talks and Stack Overflow answers? I honestly don’t know. Sometimes I feel guilty about it; usually I don’t.

Conclusion (aka darn it, this time I’m going to hit “post”)

I don’t want to come across as wearing too much of a hair shirt. I didn’t “opt” to be in a privileged position, and I don’t feel guilty for being a man, or being white. (And no-one is asking me to feel guilty for that, either.) But there’s no excuse for not recognizing the privileges which give me unfair advantages every day. I hope that busting the rules of Privilege Club is the first step in dismantling it entirely. I hope I’m able to help open my sons’ eyes to privilege earlier than I opened mine. I hope there’ll be less and less to open our eyes to over time.

Speaking up on rape

(Yet another blog post that’s hard to write an appropriate title for. Sorry for the lack of imagination.)

If you haven’t already read about the Brock Turner sexual assault case, you might want to do some background reading first. There are many, many articles about it. This Independent piece does a good job of showing some of the bizarre support given to the perpetrator1, along with the powerful letter from the victim. A couple of articles which helped to prompt this post, neither directly about this case, but both obviously relevant.

The latter article in particular made not writing this post increasingly difficult, compounded by tweets like this by @bookshaped:

I’d love for men to start Tweeting under a hashtag of #IRegret or something, based on times they didn’t stand up to rape culture. (I know)

… and this by @ClaireGillesp:

I’m going to retweet this from now and until I see men talk about rape culture. (Retweeting Roe McDermott’s article linked above.)

(Apologies for not knowing how to include tweets in a cooler way here.)

On the other hand, my ignorance makes writing this post pretty tricky too.

I haven’t been raped. I haven’t raped anyone. Very few of my acquaintances have told me that they’ve been raped (or sexually assaulted, or sexually harassed); I’m no longer naïve enough to believe that very few of them have been victims of those crimes, but that doesn’t help in terms of personal knowledge. Basically, I only know what I’ve read online and in a few books explicitly dealing with rape (of which Asking For It is the most obvious example) and in the general feminist literature I’ve been reading over the last couple of years. Oh, and the thinking that those books have prompted, of course.

All of this is to say that you shouldn’t expect much insight from this post. It’s more a statement of support than anything else. A small voice saying, “I acknowledge there’s a (huge!) problem, and it’s a problem men should be dealing with. It’s awful that we’re not.”

Let’s get simple things out of the way first. Things I’d love to believe are uncontroversial:

  • Rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment are unacceptable. (We could argue over the lines between the three of them. I have a fuzzy idea of where I’d draw the lines, but I’m happy to be guided here.)
  • The victim should never be blamed. Wearing sexy clothing does not make it the victim’s fault. Getting drunk doesn’t make it the victim’s fault. Passing out doesn’t make it the victim’s fault. Going from “consent given” to “consent withdrawn” doesn’t make it the victim’s fault. Rape is the fault of the rapist.
  • The perpetrator should be blamed, and held responsible. Having a promising life outside this crime doesn’t excuse it. Being drunk doesn’t excuse it. (If you can’t be drunk without assaulting someone, the onus is on you not to drink. Surely that’s a simple rule to follow.) Not having any previous convictions doesn’t excuse it.
  • A staggering number of women (and some men, of course) are victims of sexual violence and harassment. I find it hard to get my head round the statistics that are presented, but that doesn’t mean they’re not accurate – it just means the world is a nastier place than my white male middle-class privilege has shown me.
  • The conviction rates for rape are appalling, for various reasons – some of which are well-intentioned parts of general criminal justice systems, and some of which I suspect are simply male privilege at work.

The stats really are staggering – to me, anyway. I don’t remember my parents teaching me about consent explicitly, but it was just a general part of how we were brought up. I can’t get into the mindset of that sees an unconscious woman and thinks “Ah, there’s an opportunity.” When I’ve had some drinks, I certainly exercise poorer judgement in general, but that’s such an enormous leap that I just can’t understand it.

Regrets, I’ve had too few

Where I find it hard is that #IRegret part. When I said earlier that I haven’t raped anyone, I appreciate that in many cases that could be denial at work. In my case, my life has been such a stereotypically middle-class “nice boy” one that I can really be pretty confident in it. I’m likewise confident about sexual assault. For sexual harassment, it’s certainly easier to believe that I’ve inadvertently perpetrated that – and if that’s the case, I do sincerely regret it. But regretting nebulous “something I might have done” isn’t really useful.

Have I perpetuated rape culture more generally? Here I can remember one very specific remark I made while at university which objectified a woman sexually in a troubling way. (Aargh – even just finding the words now is horrible. “In a troubling way”? It was a nasty, sexist, demeaning thing to say, and I regret it.) I’ve also told a number of sexist jokes over the course of my life, hopefully decreasing over time. I’m watching myself now.

Have I tolerated others making sexist and demeaning remarks, thereby increasing the acceptance of rape culture? I’m honestly coming up blank here (my circle of friends is also pretty tame), but I think it’s pretty certain that I have. While I’d like to think that being “actively demeaning” is relatively rare for me, being too afraid to rock the boat by calling out offensive comments sounds all too plausible. I regret that, and hope to do better.

What I certainly can own up to with regret is trivializing sexual harassment. I haven’t wolf-whistled women or made comments about their cleavage etc, and I’ve always been “mildly disapproving” of such behaviour – but in the past I haven’t considered it to be as harmful as I do now. I’m never going to have the full sense of the life described in books like Everyday Sexism, but I hope I will gradually have more understanding and empathy.

Call to action

So what’s the point of this post? Why write it?

  • I hope it encourages other men to come out in support of victims and acknowledge that men have been getting away with sexual violence for far too long, and should be vocal about it.
  • I hope that in writing it, I’m encouraging myself to be less cowardly in situations where I can help to fight rape culture instead of passively accepting it.
  • I hope that it is a tiny crumb of comfort for women who don’t see men making any attempt to engage with the topic.
  • I hope it acts as encouragement to help steer money to rape crisis centres. Recently, Sarah Breen walked the Vhi Women’s Mini-Marathon in aid of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre. If (like me) you’re a man feeling like you can’t do a lot to help on this issue, you can at least get your wallet out. Find a local rape crisis centre or women’s refuge to donate to, or simply skip the research and give to the Dublin RCC. (That’s a direct link to the “donate now” page. It won’t take you long. Do it now.)

1 I say the support is bizarre, but what would I do if one of my sons were in the same position? While I can hope that I’d stick to my morals, I’m not going to claim 100% certainty of that. I earnestly hope I never find out.

Dear feminist heroes: please don’t hate me if sometimes I disagree slightly

Update: Following some discussions on Twitter (ironically), I regret some of my wording choices in this post. In particular:

  • The title conjures an image of feminists sniping at me if I disagree.
  • The “head above the parapet” phrase implies that I’m taking some sort of risk both here and in any possible disagreement in comments. The only risk involved is really to my ego, whereas I acknowledge that many brave women face awful harassment for posting their views online.
  • Likewise my use of “safe space” at the end implies a lack of safety (for me) in disagreement otherwise. Again, this is inappropriate compared with the need for real safe spaces.

In addition, where the tone is patronizing – any implication of “I’ll be the level-headed chap to bring common sense, balance and reason to the feminist orthodoxy” – I apologise.

None of this was my conscious intention, but I definitely need to think about why I chose to express myself this way in the first place.

With all that said, I haven’t changed the text beyond fixing typos – I’m not keen on revisionism, and if I don’t own the words I use, it makes it too easy to make the same mistakes again.


Jon, the bad feminist

I have a deep, dark secret. Sometimes when I’m reading an article – most commonly on rape culture, but not always – I say “not all men!” to myself, very quietly. I don’t say it out loud. I would certainly not post it in the comments section – I’m aware of its ability to derail the conversation, whether deliberately or not – but I think it.

This is just one example, and it’s mostly a reaction to the writing style rather than the points raised. (Personally I find that the more compassion for all that is shown in an article, the more thought-provoking it is – but I understand that a smidge of hyperbole can be helpful in getting an article noticed.)

In other cases, I find myself disagreeing with the some of the actual points raised by the article. Importantly, this is usually within the context of strongly agreeing with the primary thrust of the piece. Time for another concrete example, with the risk of raising my head above the parapet here… but I’ll put it all in one paragraph, to try to avoid it dominating the comments. (This piece is not about this particular issue. It’s just an example.)

I don’t think it’s a good idea to knowingly put yourself in a situation where you’re at risk, where it’s reasonably easily avoidable. If you do, and if you are assaulted, that is not your fault. It’s not your responsibility. You are not “asking for it”. But I’d still suggest avoiding the situation in the first place, where possible. When they’re older, I’ll be happy to tell my sons that if they go out clubbing, it might be a good idea for them to sort out leaving with their friends, to avoid being on their own, potentially after drinking, late at night. They should be able to walk the streets (whether in town or closer to home) in safety – but I know that we don’t live in a totally safe world, and I’ll encourage them to take safety precautions. I don’t believe that’s encouraging muggers. I don’t believe that the posters at train stations saying “Pick-pockets are known to operate in this area – be careful with your possessions” are encouraging theft. So when it comes to advice given to women to avoid being assaulted, including rape, I don’t have a problem with there being such advice. I think there are good and bad ways of doing it – that it can be done in a terrible way which is victim-blaming a slut-shaming – but there’s room for it to be done well, too.

That’s the sort of thing I’m talking about here.

Space for disagreement

I’ve been thinking about avenues for minor disagreement for a while – and procrastinating writing this post, basically – but Louise O’Neill’s piece in the Irish Examiner last week gave me cause for optimism, and spurred me on (with only another six days of dithering) to write this. Three quotes from it – out of context, so please read the whole thing:

It felt to me as if we were trying to say that there was a ‘right’ type of woman, or a ‘right’ type of feminist and that feels antithetical to the movement itself.

Feminism is about inclusion. Feminism is for everyone.
[…]
I think the most important thing to retain when discussing political issues like these is a sense of nuance.
[…]
My own sense of feminism is constantly evolving and incidents such as this help to further develop my political ideologies – I would never be as quick to judge as I would have been only two short years ago.

Robust discourse and debate are crucial for the health of any social movement but infighting and tearing each other apart for daring to hold different opinions is not.

Hooray! So that means it’s time for me to start adding comments, right? Maybe not.

I see four broad reasons why I might disagree with something written by (say) Louise O’Neill, Sophie Walker, Catherine Mayer, Emer O’Toole or Roe McDermott.

  • I’m just ignorant. There’s no way round it – I’m not a woman. I don’t know how I would feel about various issues if they’d affected me more personally. When I was mugged early in the morning a few years ago, that affected me more than I hoped it would. So maybe I’m just wrong.
  • It’s just possible that I’m objectively right (without evidence so far) and they’re objectively wrong. There are definitely some aspects where evidence of policy decisions could be available and maybe even is available. Things like the gender pay gap have had a lot of research effort put into them, for example. Perhaps not coincidentally, these tend to be the areas where I disagree least.
  • Maybe the view I inferred from the piece isn’t the one they intended to put across, or it may be exaggerated for effect, and actually we don’t disagree at all, or at least not significantly.
  • Maybe it’s just something where we’d have to agree to disagree, where there is no objective truth. That’s not to say discourse would be fruitless – it’s always good to understand someone else’s views better – but we shouldn’t expect to change each other’s minds.

It’s important to note that I don’t believe any of these make me a bad person. I don’t feel guilty for disagreeing. (Maybe a little guilty when that disagreement is in the form of a mental “not all men!” – darn that feminist social conditioning! ;) Given that I think all of the authors are fabulous people, I suspect none of them would think I’m a bad person for disagreeing, either. So why am I holding back?

Unity first

I think it’s important that men support feminism. I think it’s important that they do so full-throatedly. I think it’s important that they’re seen to do so. And that’s why I’m limiting my concerns to this little corner of the internet, where I can lay it all out and put significant effort into not being misunderstood.

Imagine I write a well-crafted response to an article I disagree with. To be careful, maybe the first paragraph is in broad agreement, then three paragraphs of respectful challenge, then a summary paragraph reiterating the broad agreement and demarcating the area of disagreement. To start with, that’s a much longer comment than many people will read properly, and obviously on Twitter any chance of nuance is pretty much shot. But even for a diligent reader, it ends up as 60%+ disagreement – and I suspect that hurts the cause of feminism more than it helps.

To put it bluntly: I think a man registering disagreement can easily look like a dismissal of the whole feminist movement, whereas a woman is in a better position to explore nuance in comments. It’s a shame that that’s the case, but I believe it is. (If you disagree, please comment here, regardless of whether you’re a man or a woman – or whether you don’t self-identify in such a binary way.)

I hope it won’t be this way forever. I hope that when more battles have been won, when “openly, actively feminist” men are more commonplace, that there won’t be such a risk in my participation in nuanced debate. Until then, I’ve made my peace with mostly staying silent where I can’t be loudly supportive.

To be clear – this is really around public debate. I very much hope to one day meet at least some of these heroes in person. (I’m actively trying to make that happen, too. We often host great speakers at Google, and I see no reason not to try to make self-interest align with office culture.) I would love to have a long, drawn-out coffee with lively debate, with no risk of my counterpart coming away with the impression that I’m a misogynist. I could listen and become less ignorant. I could ask dumb questions and make dumb comparisons without making it sound like I think I’m actually making a clever point. We could take a point of disagreement and work out which of those four broad buckets from earlier that point lay in, or whether it deserves a new bucket to itself.

The more I describe it, the more I think I’m talking about a “safe space” for respectful critical discussion on feminist issues, where men are included equally. But I’m not asking for it yet. I think we have rather more important things to fight for first.

So I’ll continue to self-censor – unless comments persuade me otherwise. I think it’s for the greater good. (And it feels so good just to have finally written all of this down…)