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…)

Known unknowns: feminism, intersectionality and humility

In 2002, Donald Rumsfeld made the following comment:

Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.

Compared with many Rumsfeld quotes of the same era, this actually makes an awful lot of sense… but I hadn’t thought about it in the context of feminism until just recently. I’ve been thinking a lot about how not just feminism in general, but my own experience of it – particularly in terms of how, when and whether it makes sense to challenge some views of some feminists, whilst agreeing with their outlook. That’s going to be the subject of a whole other (and more difficult) blog post, but while thinking about it, I’ve had to acknowledge the fundamentally ignorant position from which I approach all of this. That leads me to the topic of humility.

I suspect that if you ask a random person in the street (of any gender) for words they associate with feminism, most probably wouldn’t include “humble”. The image conjured in my head is that of women standing up to be counted, proclaiming “This isn’t good enough – we deserve better!” That doesn’t sound terribly humble, does it? Indeed, there are may be many people who would find a call to humility to be insulting – but that’s certainly not my intention. (Nor is it my intention to try to shut those confident voices down in any way. I want to be very clear about that.) Maybe it would be helpful to go back to why I feel humble – or at least understand that I should be.

Shared humility

I suspect that many readers of “Everyday Sexism” have a reaction of “Phew! It’s not just me! But I never knew how bad it was…” My reaction was more one of astonishment… whilst being aware of sexism in general, many of the examples really left me stunned. They’re simply outside my realm of experience. But what has been taking longer to sink in is the aspects of intersectionality – something which has been present in my reading list right from the start (with bell hooks and Feminism is for Everybody). The interplay of race and class in sexism (both in terms of the struggles of those involved, and the politics within feminist movements) was new to me, and I still feel like I’m only starting to grope round the edges of it. There’s a lot of “I hear what you’re saying, and I have to trust it’s correct, but I don’t really understand it yet.” For a guy who spends most of his time in an environment where he’s reasonably competent and experienced, this is pretty challenging.

One thing I am finding about intersectionality, however, is that I’m not alone. Sure, a white woman probably knows more about what the type of prejudice that a black woman faces than I do – but they wouldn’t know everything. A black man and a white woman getting together to talk about their experiences still wouldn’t know what it’s like to be both black and a woman, facing attitudes that are specific to that context. The only way to find out what challenges black women face is to ask… black women. It doesn’t stop there, of course – I’ve used those two aspects of identity for simplicity, but obviously there are many others, and many different points on each spectrum of race, gender, sex, religion, disability, class etc1.

In that sense, surely we should all be humble – not about whether or not we all deserve respect, equal opportunities or a safe environment, but about how little we know about the lives of others. Going back to Donald Rumsfeld, think about the categories he talked about, in this context:

  • Known knowns: I have a pretty good idea of how someone just like me gets treated (in my area, anyway).
  • Known unknowns: I’m aware of some of the challenges faced by some people who are different to me. I’m trying to learn more – but really, I still need to be listening. Even when I gain knowledge, that’s a long way from understanding – it takes a lot to go from knowing there’s a problem to being able to reason about solutions and predict consequences.
  • Unknown unknowns: there are countless situations I haven’t even heard about, let alone pursued, considered and devoted time to.

Inclusive ignorance

Clearly the set “known knowns” is pretty tiny compared with the others… just as I’m sure it is for everyone. I’d even argue that it’s somewhat relevant that less privileged sets of people don’t know what it’s like for more privileged sets. This isn’t a matter of claiming that I’m due any sympathy as a straight white cis male – just that the more we all understand each other’s experiences, the more likely we are to come to a common vision for a brighter future.

I’ve been finding that articles and speeches taking this sort of humble view to intersectional feminism are inspiring and inclusive. I’ve been trying to find a way of expressing this that doesn’t make me sound life a self-centred jerk, but I’ve failed – so I’ll just express it as honestly as I can instead. When I find myself in an environment of women complaining – with good cause, mind you – about how men are treating them unfairly, I find that daunting and depressing, not only for the awful experiences recounted, but because I feel alone in my ignorance. When I find myself in an environment of women still recounting their experiences but also asking others for theirs in the expectation of learning something new – that’s a room I feel comfortable taking a seat in…. where I won’t feel that any question is too dumb to ask. My personal comfort level should be pretty far down the list of anyone’s priorities, of course – but it feels to me like it’s a sign of the whole atmosphere being a constructive one2.

Conclusion(ish)

I’ve mostly added this heading to force myself to draw this to a close. It’s all somewhat rambling, because my thought process is somewhat rambling – this is like a condensed version of the last 18 months or so in my brain.

The TL;DR is that I still find myself overwhelmed by how much I don’t understand. Indeed, the more I learn, the more I’m aware of how much more there is to learn. I find it empowering when I hear that others – including powerful, confident voices in feminist movements – are also constantly learning, and don’t expect to have all the answers.

If any of this sounds like mansplaining, I apologise. Please let me know in the comments – I probably won’t edit the content (to avoid revisionism), but I’ll try to take it on board for future writing. It would be an interesting symptom of the exact ignorance I find myself mired in.


1 I don’t want to imply that we can be reduced to a simple set of points on multiple axes either, of course. The idea that (for example) every straight white cis woman faces the same set of prejudices or challenges in life is nonsense, of course. I hope this doesn’t really need to be spelled out to anyone, but I wanted to make it crystal clear just in case.

2 Sometimes, it’s really good just to vent. That’s not to make the world a better place in general, it’s to make you feel better. That’s still a benefit, and not one that should be underestimated. It can also have the positive side-effect of letting others know that they’re not alone if they’ve had similar experiences. I don’t want those benefits to be lost – I guess I just don’t want that to be the only sort of experience.

Book Review: I Call Myself a Feminist: The View from Twenty-Five Women Under Thirty

Title: I Call Myself a Feminist: The View from Twenty-Five Women Under Thirty
Edited by: Victoria Pepe, Rachel Holmes, Amy Annette, Alice Stride and Martha Mosse
Amazon links: UK, US
Genre: Feminism, Essays

My initial reaction to this book, before even buying it, was regrettable / embarrassing. More on that later. I wanted to mention it up-front to make it clear I’m not ducking it, but it’s important to get to what’s in the book before my reactions to it.

The essays

The book really is exactly what it says on the tin: a collection of essays by young (relative to me!) feminist women. Between the essays there are a few quotes, but each stands alone: if there’s intended to be a path from one to the other, it was lost on me. However, there’s an introduction which acts as an extra essay in some ways – and the absence of one specific direction doesn’t feel like a lack so much as an opportunity for a very diverse set of essays. Indeed, I’d say the variety is actually a primary feature setting this book apart from some other books I’ve read. A multiplicity of authors naturally leads to a range of voices, styles and experiences – but it’s more than that. It allows each essay to be very personal about what especially matters to that particular woman.

I’m pleased to say that not all essays sat easily with me. Some included points that I plain disagreed with (usually alongside others that I did agree with) but others were simply more challenging in terms of a different experience of life. I generally feel that if a book only goes along with my existing experience, I probably don’t learn much from it. Of course, at the other extreme, if I can’t connect with an author’s viewpoint at all, that’s not much use either. A few essays within “I Call Myself A Feminist…” felt like simple common sense (which is at least reassuring) but plenty were challenging and stretched me. (Even if there’s resistance to the stretching, planting the seeds for future change can be positive.)

I’m not going to point out which essays I had mixed feelings about, but I’d like to draw particular attention to a few which stood out for me:

  • “Manifesto for feminist intersectionality” by Jinan Younis. Intersectionality and trans+ discrimination are topics where I’m particularly lacking in personal experience and meaningful understanding.
  • “What can men do to support feminism?” by Reni Eddo-Lodge. Naturally something I’d want to know about, of course – and I certainly recognize some of the criticisms there. (I try hard to hold back at local Women’s Equality Party meetings, but I’ve a long way to go.)
  • “A typical engineer” by Naomi Mitchison. Again, as an engineer interested in diversity in my field, this was always going to hold particular interest for me. The author’s consideration of the Typical Engineer is a problem beyond gender diversity, and the stereotype can encourage some actively harmful traits – but that’s a topic for a different time.
  • “Staring at the ceiling – it’s not always as simple as yes or no” by Abigail Matson-Phippard. While I can see the benefits in trying to make consent “as simple as yes or no” the reality is more complex, and it’s good to see this explored. (Again, I’m only encountering this whole topic from a position of ignorance, but a lot rings true in here.) Louise O’Neill has also written about this in the Irish Independent: “Blurred lines: when it’s not rape but it’s not right”.
  • “Islam is my feminism and feminism is my Islam” by Maysa Haque. Amidst all the negativity and prejudice around Muslims of late, this is a wonderfully refreshing essay of personal growth within both feminism and Islam.

Looking through the essays again for this review – it feels like an age since I read them first, despite being less than two months in reality – I was reminded of just how much I enjoyed the glimpses into their lives that the authors shared. One of the nice things about a collection of essays is that it’s easy to dip into at any time, although I fear the impact on my ever-growing reading list if I do so…

Initial reaction

Here’s the part I’m embarrassed by. When Louise O’Neill first retweeted the launch of the book, I replied asking whether it would have been impossible to find just one man’s voice to include in the book, to explicitly include male feminists too. I’d missed the point.

Of course it would have been possible – but why should the editors feel any duty to do so? Not every book needs to be specifically for every possible reader… something I’ve already been annoyed about in the opposite direction, when reviews for C# in Depth complain that it’s not suitable for beginners (something it doesn’t try or claim to be). So why the hypocrisy here? Recognizing this felt like a giant red “check your privilege” stamp coming down from the sky onto my forehead.

I still believe it would be reasonable to have a similar collection of essays from male feminists. I do think feminism is stronger when supported by men too, and that reading about other men’s experiences, feelings and difficulties can be helpful. I believe that can be done without taking anything away from the more-obviously-crucial writing of women about feminism.

But that doesn’t mean I have any right to demand that of the editors and collators of this book. Instead, it feels natural that if I want to see such a book, I should be part of making it happen. I’m imagining a smaller collection, distributed for free. I have no plan at the moment – no list of people to ask, no covering letter, nothing. Writing down the intention feels like a good start, and we’ll see whether anything comes of it.

Conclusion

I suspect I’m going to get sick of ending my book reviews by “thoroughly recommending” the book in question, but I have no hesitation in doing so here. It’s possible that more “seasoned” feminists may have read something similar to each of these essays before, but as a relative newcomer I found plenty to chew on. Even the essays which only reinforced my existing thoughts were refreshing through their sheer vitality.

Great stuff – and I shall attempt to check my privilege next time…

Book review: Only Ever Yours

Title: Only Ever Yours
Author: Louise O’Neill
Amazon links: UK, US
Genre: Fiction, Young Adult

I’ve noted the genre as “Young Adult”, but Only Ever Yours has nothing that feels “young” about it – not once did I feel it had been dumbed down for a youngish audience, either in the ideas expressed or the way in which they were expressed. That seems to a common theme in good YA fiction these days – they’re simply good books which also happen to be suitable for young people. I’m looking forward to my eldest son (about to be 12) finally getting round to reading Only Ever Yours, so we can talk about his own impressions…

Plot

I’m going to try to restrain myself from spoilers in this review, but it’s hard to say very much without giving some parts away.

The book is set in a post-apocalyptic dystopia. The nature of the apocalypse isn’t made clear, although it is indicated that the population is discouraged from finding out too much about it. After the event, the population is radically smaller, and the nature of reproduction has changed: boys are born, but girls are “designed”. Almost all the action of the novel is set in the School where the girls are prepared for their adult life, which will consist of being a companion, a concubine or a chastity. The first two of these roles are pretty obvious, although “companion” sounds considerably more egalitarian than the reality; the chastities are the teachers in the School. The girls are divided into these roles by the boys in society who are of the same age: the boys choose their companions, with the boy from the most prestigious family having first pick.

The story is told from the perspective of freida, in the months leading up to the Ceremony which marks her graduation from the School, when her future is decided for her. We see her battles with peer pressure, eating and sleeping disorders, friendship, betrayal, romance and more.

That quick description doesn’t really attempt to do justice to the storyline. All I want to get across here is the premise. While the story is compelling, it’s not really what I took away from the book. Perhaps it’s the story that kept me turning the pages, but it’s the atmosphere that haunts me afterwards.

Style and themes

Beyond the initial “what’s going on?” intrigue which is a natural part of the first few pages of any book, the oppressive nature of the world of Only Ever Yours makes itself clear immediately, simply in capitalization. Every girl’s name and every woman’s name is in lower case. When I earlier referred to freida, that wasn’t a typo – that’s how she’s consistently referred to throughout the book, including within her own thoughts. Compare that with the many other aspects of the story which are capitalized – the School itself, room names, web sites, special events, and of course, all the boys’ and mens’ names.

Normally, I’m not a fan of this sort of thing. I think of the normal rules of English as a convention to help convey ideas, to reduce the friction of trying to get inside someone else’s head. Painting a pipe funk colours doesn’t make water flow through it any more easily. (This doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate a carefully-crafted sentence; it just means I’m not a fan of difference for the sake of difference.) I can only think of a very few times when something which could be regarded as a gimmick has been effective for me as a reader – A Clockwork Orange being the most obvious one. The difference is that while I gave up reading A Clockwork Orange the first time, the change in punctuation in Only Ever Yours is slight enough that it doesn’t make the book any harder to read. It’s not subtle – I doubt that any reader would fail to notice it – but it doesn’t get in the way. Instead, it just constantly reinforces the impression of what’s important and what’s not in this brave new world.

While the capitalization is the most easily-cited example of the way that O’Neill crafts the claustrophobic world of the School, it’s only one aspect. It’s relentless – just when you think it can’t get more depressing, it does. Of course, if it were just grim reading, it would be monotonous and unreadable, but the bursts of joy and creativity that freida experiences just make it more sickening when the system pounds everything positive out of her life. Here, the system doesn’t just consist of the rules of the School, or the strictness of the chastities – it is the competitiveness of the other girls, and even the voice inside freida’s own head telling her she’s not good enough.

O’Neill reinforces what actually happens with what she chooses to describe – the clothes the girls wear are described frequently, but the girls themselves usually only merit comparisons with each other, and even that in a sort of airbrushed, plastic way. (Admittedly the face of the plastic doll on the front cover has no doubt affected my memory of the book, but that just goes to show how it builds as a whole.)

The inner monologue of freida sometimes comes close to full-on rebellion, but I don’t think she ever steps back to question the whole system… she has internalized her fate as simply what life is like for girls. Even without that level of awareness, I got the impression that freida is perhaps unusually thoughtful and inquisitive. I’m not sure whether that was O’Neill’s intent, however – some of the other girls do have distinctive personalities, but we don’t get to see much beneath the surface. (Both isabel and agyness come over well, having said that. How much is that me liking them, and how much is it freida liking them? Hard to tell.)

Obviously the overarching theme of the book is the tyranny of misogyny, and how pervasive it can become. There’s no attempt to excuse it or lessen it – it’s just there, bleeding through every paragraph, casually malevolent. The majority of the book is “man-free” in terms of direct interactions (although clearly not in terms of context) – and although I’d like to write a little about the attitudes shown by the boys later in the book, I think that’s too close to the boundary of spoilers.

The obsession with physical beauty is the strongest manifestation of self-reinforced oppression (for which there’s no doubt a better word), but this is compounded by the absence of anything more intellectually or emotionally stimulating. Learning about nature has to be done on the sly; trying to find out about maths rings alarm bells. Exuberance is suppressed as far as possible.

Reactions and conclusion

I’m very aware that I’ve been gushing throughout this review so far. I know that unrelenting praise can be a bit cloying, so I will say one aspect which niggled: it felt like either I’d misunderstood the population size of the EuroZone (and possibly the world), or there were some inconsistencies there. The TV shows, social media and pharmaceuticals felt like they were part of a much more densely populated world than other aspects of the book led me to believe. As I say, maybe I misunderstood how the system worked somewhat, and it doesn’t impact on the book much at all, given that the vast majority of the story is firmly within the walls of the School.

So did I learn anything? I’m not sure I’d put it that way – but I’d say it’s added to my experience and beliefs around feminism. Unlike O’Neill’s other novel (Asking For It – to be reviewed shortly…) this is set in a fictional future, and doesn’t claim that this is the way the world is right now. It’s hard not to see pretty much every aspect of the misogyny in the book somewhere in our life, however. It’s as if the difference is in concentration – the poison which is pure in Only Ever Yours is diluted by not-so-sucky bits of life in our world. It still acts as a warning though, reminiscent of 1984. I read this book concurrently with Everyday Sexism, which brought everything into fairly miserable focus, but it made it a very contemporary experience. The recent story about Essena O’Neill’s experiences with Instagram – no relation to Louise O’Neill as far as I’m aware – adds more evidence that we should heed the warnings from Only Ever Yours.

To conclude, I’d strongly recommend Only Ever Yours, with the warning that it’s far from a fun read. It’s very dark – but equally gripping and beautifully told. It will stay with me for a long time.