Sunday, 29 December 2013

“We need to talk about privilege.” 25.12.13

I keep being told that “we need to talk about privilege” and I agree.  We do need to talk about it; it’s important; and I’ll get to it, by and by.  Privilege is all over the place.  There is white privilege, cis privilege, male privilege, straight privilege, able privilege, young privilege, thin privilege, pretty privilege, and probably a whole load more that I have yet to hear about.  Privileges result in people being marginalised, excluded, dismissed and oppressed; it is a critical issue in our society.

However, first and foremost I would like to talk about The Rise Of The Righteous Ass-Hat.  Righteous Ass-Hats are everywhere these days.  They are prominent, brash, and in some fields they appear to be taking over.  The internet seems to either breed them or at the very least encourage them to come out of their shells and congregate.  This results in displays of Synchronised Ass-Hattery that are enough to put the fear of the Inquisition in anyone with a smattering of historical knowledge.

“What is a Righteous Ass-Hat?” I hear you cry.  Well, their basic characteristic is an uncontrollable urge to break into vehement, superior, or downright hateful speech when exposed to certain triggers or situations.  The triggers are often imaginary or only imperceptibly connected to the situation.  The resulting speech is characteristically circular in nature, with certain phrases or words repeated compulsively.  These interjections, often inappropriate to the conversations in question and lacking in logic or factual accuracy, may baffle the onlookers who often become drawn into futile attempts at sensible debate. 

The speech of the Righteous Ass-Hat is not to be seen as a form of verbal communication as witnessed between regular humans.  The function of the words in question is similar to the aggressive territorial displays witnessed in many animal species.  Regardless of the particular “content” of the speech, its only intention is to make the person at the receiving end either submit to the local dominance of the Ass-Hat or leave the area altogether.

If their behaviour is not handled appropriately, Ass-Hats can mutate, Gremlin-like, into creatures almost impossible to handle.  When they reach this stage, they lose all human inhibitions and will attack violently and without constraints, becoming very dangerous to all in the area.  Furthermore, their mutation is contagious, potentially resulting in large mobs of Ass-Hats attacking at once.

It is believed that this condition is caused by a reduction in brain functions caused by an infestation of Ass-Umptions.  These Ass-Umptions clog up the sufferers’ brains in such a manner as to render them unable to connect to the reality most of us share.  Here, for your edification, is a list of the main Ass-Umptions you are likely to encounter:

1.       “You can’t possibly know anything about this issue.”
These Ass-Hats convince themselves that, although they don’t know anything about you, they can determine that you have not been affected by an issue, because it’s quite simply not an issue that affects “people like you”.
The classic manifestation of this Ass-Umption is women telling men that they cannot possibly know anything about rape, domestic abuse and prostitution, because they are “women’s issues”.  The fact that there is plenty of evidence out there proving that men do suffer from rape and abuse and sometimes work as prostitutes is somehow completely discounted.
I would like to take this opportunity for a shout-out to the lady who screeched to a male friend of mine that he couldn’t possibly know anything about rape.  As it turned out, she was not a rape victim.  He was.  I can only hope that him telling her his experience, in all its gory details, has cured her Ass-Umption for life.

2.       “Because you have not been personally affected by the issue, you have not been affected by it at all.”
These particular Ass-hats must use a different reproductive strategy from that commonly seen in humans.  Clearly they have no mothers, fathers, siblings or children; they are generated, grow and live in perfect isolation, completely independently of all other humans.  They never form close social groups.  They probably mate by post.  Therefore, they are incapable of comprehending that people are not only affected by their personal experiences, but also by the experiences of the people around them, and particularly their loved ones.
The strapping young friend of mine they accused of “able” privilege built half his muscles struggling to push his disable mother’s wheelchair in and out of buildings.  The straight boys they did not let participate in the gay marriages campaign[1] are the sons of a lesbian couple.  This doesn’t matter to these Ass-Hats – the concept of shared experience is entirely meaningless to them.

3.       “Because you are not affected by this issue now, you obviously never were.”
One of my friends was given a “medical deadline” by his doctor due to the health complications resulting from his excess weight.  He managed to completely change his lifestyle in under five year.  He’s now not only the fittest person I know, but he works as a personal trainer.  He knows the practical, clinical, and emotional implications of being overweight and how to best manage that condition.  He can also give people useful pointers on how to try and resolve it if they so wish.  But no – he now has “thin privilege”, so he is obviously no longer entitled to express or even have an opinion on weight issues.  This makes as much sense as telling a blind person who has recently received a successful eye transplant that they are no longer allowed to engaged in conversations about disabilities.
You may think this Ass-Umption is purely the result of hasty profiling.  However, this is not the case.  Mentioning that you were once affected by an issue but have overcome it, rather than causing these Ass-Hats to back down, generally results in them going completely rabid and jumping right to the next Ass-Umption.

4.       “Because you overcame an issue, you are shaming/blaming those who haven’t.”
There is an issue.  The issue is serious enough that it is responsible for the marginalisation, victimisation and general sufferings of those that it affects; it is serious enough, at any rate, for people to feel the need to engage in fearsome debate about it.  The issue is a problem, affecting lives.  It was affecting yours.  You managed to do something about it.  How very dare you!
Apparently, the moment you overcome an issue you instantly become part of the problem.  You are no longer one of the good people, the marginalised minority; you are now one of “them”.  This is not necessarily linked to the fact that the solution is a limited resource – say, there is only so much money, and in order to gain “rich privilege” you are forcing us all to stay poor.  The “fact” is that your triumph, rather than being encouraging or aspirational, is casting blame and shame, probably with a side dish of worms, upon those who are still suffering.  You should not be proud, or at least relieved, for what you have accomplished.  You should skulk in the shadows forever so that nobody can be oppressed by your success.

5.       “Because you have not affected by an issue, you cannot begin to guess how it feels.”
Let me be lazy, and let Wikipedia do my work for me:
“Empathy is the ability to mutually experience the thoughts, emotions, and direct experience of others. It goes beyond sympathy, which is a feeling of care and understanding for the "feelings" of others.”[2]
Empathy is a key human trait.  In fact, it is so important that lack of empathy is considered both a symptom and a serious difficulty in some individuals on the autistic spectrum or those with certain personality or psychological disorders.  Yet these Ass-Hats completely discount it; does that indicate that they are incapable of it?  If that is the case, I find it worrying.
A corollary of this is “because you have not been affected specifically by this very issue, you cannot transfer your experience of other issues to inform your opinion on it”.  For instance, I have never pushed a wheelchair.  However, I have pushed a double pram.  I have no experience of the access issues that apply to people using wheelchairs; however, I have a ton of experience of the access issues suffered by a ridiculously small and feeble woman trying to push a pram loaded with chubby kids.  Some practical experiences allow us to extrapolate.

6.       “Because you have not affected by an issue, you have nothing useful to say on the subject.”
By this token, doctors should not be able to have an opinion on any disease or conditions that they have not personally suffered from.  Anyone who has a purely technical, professional or rational understanding of a subject without being personally affected by it should shut up and go away.  This has the brilliant result of excluding from debates a whole host of people who may be able to make suggestions on how to make things better.  Apparently to the Ass-Hat that is not a significant problem.

7.       “Because you have not been affected by an issue, you do not care about it.”
Let us talk about me, for a little while.  I am not gay.  I have never been gay.  I do not plan to be gay.  However, I feel passionately about the right of gay people to get married.  Whether they can or can’t does not affect my life at all.  However, just thinking about the fact that people who love each other being prevented from celebrating their love upsets and disgusts me more than I can begin to tell you.  To be brutally honest, it tends to make me cry.
Why do I care so much about gay rights?  I don’t – not a bit.  In fact, I don’t believe there is such a thing as gay rights – we have collectively forgotten that this expression is nothing but shorthand for “human rights that are being denied to gay people”.  This is also true of women rights, racial rights, and the rights of any other group that is being in any way excluded.
I’m a human.  I care about human rights.  I hate to see them denied in any way, shape or form.  If you can’t grasp that concept, I am sorry but there is no help for you.  YOU are the one who believes that the differences created by our gender, sexuality, age, ethnicity, size, etc. are more significant that our common bond as human beings.

8.       “Because you benefit from an unfairness, you are in favour of it and wish to exploit it.”
Just right off the bat, this flies in the face of actual history.  The fact is that most inequalities and discriminations were not overturned by bloody battle.  The oppressed minority did not fight its way to success despite the nasty, mean, oppressive majority.  The suffragettes campaigned, but it was men who voted to give women the vote – women, back then, couldn’t vote to give themselves the vote, because, well, they didn’t have the vote.  Suffrage was entirely enacted by men.  Women could have railed in the streets forever and nobody had to do anything beyond going “yes, dear, that’s lovely.  Please try not to get arrested until after you’ve made my tea.”
Just because someone belongs to a majority, it does not mean that they support the oppression of a minority.  Just because someone is, for whatever reasons, better off than you, it does not mean that they want to use that fact to hurt you.

9.       “Because you truly do not understand a single thing about this issue, you should be excluded from conversations about it.”
“Let them eat cake” is the sentence commonly misattributed to Marie Antoinette, Queen of France[3].  Regardless of its historical accuracy, it is the perfect example of clueless privilege – a privilege so big that the person enjoying it has no understanding of what “real life” is like.
This sort of people can be very frustrating to deal with, that’s undeniable.  Having a notorious lack of patience, I am routinely tempted to whack their heads into the nearest hard object just to see if I can knock some sense into them.  However, being clueless does not mean that the person is unwilling or incapable of learning about the subject.  In fact, they may want to know more about it – maybe, just maybe, that is why they have entered the conversation in the first place.  Telling them to shut up and go away is unlikely to make them more informed.  And maybe, just maybe, the result of our education will be that they will be on our side.  Can we afford to waste allies?

10.   “You are guilty of everything that anyone “like you” ever did.”
Under this Ass-Umption, anyone born within a certain group, with certain privileges, is guilty of the past, present and future sins of the entire group.
For instance, you happen to be born a man.  You have had absolutely no say in this.  You have also have absolutely no say in what other men have done in the past, are doing in the present, and will do in the future.  The only actions you can control are your own.  None of those facts matters in the least to this breed of Ass-Hat - you are male, hence you are guilty, by birth, of every bad thing every bad man ever did.
The extreme form of Ass-Umption causes the sufferer to spout broad-sweeping, factually incorrect, and deeply offensive statements, such as “all men are rapists”.  I do not know if this is a reflection of a severe and possibly incurable case of rectocranial inversion, or whether it is a true reflection of these people’s situation.  If the latter, hell, they are welcome to stay at my place as long as they need to; wherever it is that they live, that place really sucks.[4]
-          -      -

“We need to talk about privilege”.  Yes, we do.  Privilege causes people to be marginalised, excluded, dismissed and oppressed, because people use the word as a weapon.  Claim that someone has a “privilege” that affects a certain issue, and you are apparently given the power to take away their right to state an opinion on that issue, or even to have an opinion on that issue.  You give yourself the right to shut them up and shut them out.  If they do not comply, you give yourself the right to accuse and vilify them.

The bottom line is that discounting someone’s argument purely “because it is them saying it”, which is the operative system here, is neither big nor clever.  It does not show discernment.  It is frankly irrational, as well as rather uncivil.  You are purely suffering from a bad case of ad hominem fallacy, and it’s showing.[5]  I’m sorry to say it, but you are being a Righteous Ass-Hat.

Now, if you are involved in a private or restricted conversation and someone tries to butt in, by all means let them know that they are not welcome.  Whether at a coffee house or on a specific internet forum, you have the right to restrict who you want to talk to.  In a public setting, however, people have a right to state their opinion.  If you give yourself the right to shut someone up “because they have privilege”, what you are doing is giving yourself a privilege – that of controlling participation in a public dialogue on the basis of arbitrary standards and often a heap of assumptions.  The definition of privilege is “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group.”[6]  Its origin is from the Latin “privilegium”, essentially meaning “private law”.  It is beyond the ironic that a concept originally designed to highlight existing discriminations for the purpose of helping to fight them should be used to create a whole new one. 

[1] And were called “breeders”, which, in the context of a campaign against discrimination on the basis of sexual preferences, is just peachy.
[4] As an aside, if you are prone to making such accusations and find yourself less than popular with the group you are accusing, you might need to do some thinking.  You may want to ponder the possibility that their behaviour towards you is a function of the way you are treating them, rather than proof that they are mean, nasty people.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Domestic Abuse: tools and talismans. 10.11.13

When I was a teeny tiny girl, I lived with my mum in a one-bedroom flat.  My mum had to take work home to make ends meet, so she would tuck me in my bed and retreat to the living room to toil late into the night.  The living room was at the opposite end of the flat, right at the end of the corridor.  The corridor was quite short during the day, but in the dark it expanded into an eternally long tunnel full of shadowy nooks and crannies.  I could see my mother’s light in the far distance, but to get to her I had to walk all the way down the terrifying corridor, where all sorts of monsters may be lying in wait.

Being a bookish child with an overactive imagination, I used to be visited by the best class of nightmares on the market.  I’d wake up in the middle of the night, scared rigid by my latest brush with horrors ranging from the post-modern to the primordial, and want my mummy.  She was just there, I knew it, yet she was maddeningly out of reach at the far end of the dark, dreadful tunnel.  Hollering for her was not allowed as it would disturb the neighbours.  I was too little to reach the light switches and make the monsters run off.  We couldn’t leave the lights on all the time, because electricity cost money.  Standing by the bedroom door, terrified by what may lie beyond, I knew I only had two choices.  I either had to face more fears to get comfort for the fears I had already endured, or suck it up and tuck myself into bed without a kiss and a cuddle.  It was harsh.

Once my mother became aware of my predicament, she tried to explain to me that dark-dwelling monsters do not exist.  I understood that she believed in what she was saying, but I simply could not trust the information she was giving me.  After all, I was brought up to believe that hell and associated devils were very real.  The existence of a class of monster made the existence of all other monsters possible, however improbable.  The fact that I could not see them with the lights on said nothing about their presence in the dark; after all, we never saw the ‘roaches in the cellar when the lights were on.  Ultimately, like a true would-be scientist, I refused to accept absence of evidence as evidence of absence.

In an unusual fit of resourcefulness, my mother took two practical steps.  Firstly she found me a glow-in-the-dark picture of an angel to put by my bed.  This was my guardian angel, she told me, who would look after me in my sleep and never ever let me down.  Secondly, she unearthed an ancient flashlight I could use to light my way down the dread tunnel, if the angel was not enough to keep nightmares at bay.  She gave me two very different things, you will notice: a talisman to make me feel better, and a tool that helped me deal with my problem.

Me being me, her second present took a slightly different connotation.  The flashlight she had found for me was so ancient that it was made entirely of metal and took eight D batteries.  It was nearly two-foot-long and extremely heavy.  Clutching it tightly with my tiny hands I thought to myself: “how sweet, mummy got me a cosh.”  I truly relished the knowledge that I could not only see the monsters hiding in the dark, but also give them a good hiding.  That’d teach them to try and scare me, or worse.  I’d show them what happens when you hide in MY closet.  I was young enough to enjoy pretending that I believed in the angel, and I believed the light when it showed me the temporary absence of dangers, but I believed in the cosh the most.  Between the tools and the talisman, happiness returned to the kingdom.

My mother never intended to give me a weapon.  She is a sweet, dear lady who is horrified at any thought of violence.  She had, however, unwillingly taken some key thinking steps that enabled me to give myself permission to defend myself from the causes of my fears.  Firstly, she had not dismissed my fears off-hand; she respected the fact that she could not talk me out of them using logic and that I was entitled to them.  Secondly, she showed me that fears can be fought by using appropriate tools.  Thirdly, she created the expectation that I should be brave enough to confront my fears, rather than succumb to them.  In my little girl’s mind, she made me responsible for managing and responding to my fears.  She would help me find solutions, but ultimately the buck stopped with me.  It is probably the most useful bit of parenting I was ever exposed to.

I found myself thinking back about my flashlight when listening to a talk about Domestic Abuse.  The organisation in questions helps women remain in their homes after a violent partner has been removed[1].  As the talk progressed, I found myself getting increasingly exercised.  Domestic Abuse is a hot-button topic with me at the best of time; to be perfectly honest, if tarring and feathering were brought into fashion as a suitable punishment for convicted abusers I’d gladly volunteer to be the one to wield the pitch.  However, this was not it.  I was getting increasingly heated about what the organisation I was there to support was doing.  They were the Good Guys, and they were making me very, very angry.  It made no sense.

I seethed quietly, rather confused, for a little while.  Then the speaker finally came out with a sentence that explained to me what was going on in my head: “We must help women feel safe.”  That was my problem.  They were dealing more with the FEELING of fear than with the cause of it.  They were not giving women tools; they were handing out talismans.  By doing so, they might have actually helped put women in greater danger.

Let’s look at the facts.  Your partner is an abuser.  S/he enjoys hurting you.  S/he does not care that hurting you is illegal, socially unacceptable or even evil.  S/he has already hurt you; s/he hurt you enough, in fact, that you have been able to get the help of the authorities.  The dark fact is that s/he could probably hurt you again, and may well want to.

You want to remain in your home and retain your life, which makes perfect sense.  However, what that means in practice is that your abuser knows when and where to get you so you are at your most vulnerable – alone, unable to get help, or with dependants whose welfare you put above yours.  Running off to Patagonia would eliminate the risk of the abuser getting to you, but you don’t want to do that, and that’s more than fine by me.  However, in order to give you real protection, firstly we need to admit that you have a real problem; one that cannot be dispelled by waving talismans at it or chanting about your “rights”.

Talismans, however, appear to be the main items on the menu, both from the legal system and from the various support groups out there.  From the legal point of view, you may be issued with a restraining order, which is a mighty piece of paper you can wave at your abuser if s/he comes too near.  If they bother you again, the law will come down upon them.  That may give you a warm, fuzzy feeling inside, but there is a glitch with it.  Abusing people is not precisely legal in this country.  If an abuser was already willing to break the law to indulge his/her fancies, what is to stop them breaking the terms of the order?  While I understand that fighting to get a restraining order is an important legal step to take, I can’t say that the order itself would make me feel any safer.

If you choose to access victim support groups, you’d hope you’d get more practical help.  After all, supporting victims is what these groups are all about.  Some of the suggested “solutions” are eminently practical and sensible.  For instance, you may be advised to install a door chain and door viewer so that you do not open your door without checking who is trying to get in – not that you ever should, but as a higher-risk person this is really the time to deal with this.  Provided you have a half-decent door, this actually reduces your risks of a physical confrontation by hopefully keeping your abuser outside while you call in the cavalry.  Increasing the level of security in and around your house, taking practical steps which would also protect you from all sorts of other crime, is a very good idea.

Far too many of the solutions, however, are nothing but talismans.  A prime example of them is issuing recovering victims with personal alarms which are not connected to an emergency system.  All the alarm does is make a racket.  I am rather sceptical of its practical applications.  The way I look at it, most people can make a racket by simply screaming.  If the noise you can make on your own is not going to deter the predator, then mechanically-created noise is not going to make much of a difference either[2].  However, alarms “help victims feel safer”, and that is good, isn’t it?

I’m sorry, but I disagree with that.  Yes, feeling safe is extremely important.  Unless you have been in a long-term situation when you have felt UNsafe, I can’t begin to explain to you how much that colours every aspect of your life.  However, if the feeling of safety is not accompanied by an increase in actual safety, then what we are doing is feeding victims into the meat grinder. 

This approach makes the victims feel safer without actually decreasing their danger.  While it is important to get them out of a fear-induced paralysis, this should only be a part of the process.  It is important inasmuch as it motivates them to take steps to address the problem at hand.  If they are sitting there quaking in fear, it does not matter how many tools you hand to them, because they will not have the power to use them against their abusers when the need arises.  What often gets bandied about as “empowerment”, however, is rhetoric without content, because it only addresses the feelings, not the abilities to deal with the situation.  It tells you how to feel, not what to do. 

Making the victims feel safer gives them a greater ability to enjoy their lives, to be sure.  At the same time, it may cause them to drop their guard hence putting them at greater risk.  What this approach ignores completely is the fact that the victims are not fighting shadows; they are in clear and present danger.  Their feelings of fear are both natural and justified because abusers are a very real danger, not bogeymen. 

It’s easy and comfortable to talk about “empowering victims” by making them feel better.  We can get a warm, rosy glow thinking about how we are helping all those poor little victims march bravely onwards, trusting in their talismans.  And that’s just grand - until someone gets killed, because talismans are not tools; because the feeling wasn’t connected to any actual, practical increase in the victims’ ability to protect themselves; because when you are trying to keep safe from vampires a cross may help you, but when you are in danger from a prowling tiger you might want to choose something rather more practical.  

Telling someone that a key chain alarm will stop an aggressor is the equivalent of handing them a placebo weapon; a toy gun to protect themselves from tigers.  This is particularly the case when that aggressor has already violated a restraining order.  In fact, the alarm may escalate what may have been a purely verbal confrontation into actual physical violence.  The fact is that there is no universal panacea, no magic bullet that works against all people all the time.  True, effective personal safe-protection cannot come out of a one-size-fits-all kit.  However, we are not dealing with practical solutions here.

The support system is often dealing with "empowerment" through addressing feelings rather than the actual issues.  This worries me greatly.  When did we start caring more about people’s feelings than about their physical welfare?  When did people’s rights become more important than their survival?  It’s got to be a lot easier to exercise your right to the pursuit of happiness when you are alive and breathing, and ideally out of hospital and with all major limbs and organs present and intact.  But no, we focus on “awareness” without real understanding and “empowerment” without any real power.  We are handing out victims a lot of hot air.  Some of them seem to be buying it.  Meanwhile, the scared little girl inside my head keeps reminding me that nobody seems willing to talk about handing victims a cosh.

[1] Yes, there is a gender bias.  Yes, I know that Domestic Abuse can and does also affect men.  The bias was put there by the organisation in question, not by me.  And yes, it that annoyed me greatly, too.

[2] Alarms can be louder than screams, but particularly in urban settings we can be exposed to so many artificial alarms that most people fail to respond to them.  I reckon the increase in volume is probably counterbalanced by the decrease in the perceived significance of the noise.  Furthermore, unless you have actually dealt with the victims’ fear paralysis under adrenal stress, they might never get to push the button.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

My close brush with date rape. 31/10/13.

Last summer I narrowly avoided becoming a rapist.  Before you start shouting, the whole horrid event wasn’t premeditated in any way, shape or form.  I was minding my own business dancing in a beer tent when this Sweet Young Thing rolled in and commenced to bounce.  Bounce, bounce, bounce – it wasn’t the best dancing I’d ever seen, but it did it for me.  I couldn’t stop gawping at it, and it only got better.  Bouncing is hot work, you see, so off came the jacket, and that was good.  Then off came the t-shirt too, at which point I felt compelled to manifest my appreciation.  I wasn’t up to reciting sonnets, what with my jaw being sore from having hit the ground, but apparently that wasn’t a problem.  A generic “oh, that’s NICE” accompanied by vague hand waving to qualify the areas I thought particularly noteworthy seemed to do the trick, as the Sweet Young Thing latched onto me like a limpet and proceeded to suck my face.

Things were getting a bit crowded, so we retired to a secluded dark corner where we could get to know each other better in peace.  It was there that I realised that, on close inspection, the Sweet Young Thing was even prettier than I’d thought, but very young indeed.  We weren’t talking illegal, but we were definitely in the realm of “if that condom had burst back in high school…”  It felt a bit, well, creepy.  Nice, don’t get me wrong, but creepy.  It got worse, as the Sweet Young Thing was also clearly very, very wasted.  I was drunk enough to think that I could dance, but I was by far the most sober person there.  In fact, I was sober enough for a rather unpleasant question to pop into my head: had the Fine Young Thing been less plastered, would I have found myself enjoying the same reception? 

The sad and humbling truth is that it was seriously unlikely.  In fact, the words “not on a bet” sprung to mind.  Having been involved in a number of discussions about date rape, I decided I was entering what was plainly a danger zone.  Had I carried on, knowing that the most likely reason I was able to was my partner’s alcoholic intake, I would have been committing a despicable act.  I hurriedly extricated myself, made my excuses, and bravely fled back to my lair.

You might think this is a resounding result on the part of the rape awareness campaigners.  Unfortunately, you’re wrong.  Apparently I got the whole drunken sex thing wrong.  And the reason I got it all wrong is that I failed to consider a key factor in the equation – he was a guy, I’m a girl, and different rules seem to apply.

I discovered the error of my ways when I got involved in a discussion about the “all rape is about Power&Control” dogma, which never fails to boggle me.  It may be the accepted wisdom of the age, it might be published in books, and people with a lot of letters after their name might hold it as truth.  However, it just doesn't tally with what I've seen.  For my sins, I have spent a large proportion of my formative years in the presence of people off their faces on alcohol and drugs.  I have seen a lot of regrettable sex resulting from a combination of raging hormones and people’s brain being out of order.  The motivation behind the sex was not to injure or exploit the victim in any way.  It was purely a case of people whose brains were temporarily turned into mush really wanting to get off.  It was the result of biology and chemistry clashing into a horrible train wreck, but there was no premeditation or malice to it.  This does not make that sort of behaviour any more acceptable, but it does make the Power&Control explanation not fit.  And yes, I know that "the plural of anecdote is not data", but when you have to discount evidence to make a theory work that, to me, raises some serious issues.  

Well, I tried to raise those issues and got shot down.  The conversation got bloodier as it went on (and it seemed to go on forever), but these are the main points I picked up:
  1.     How can rape NOT be about power and control? The weak don't rape the strong, do they?  If I can't overpower another person and/or control that other person, how could I rape them?
  2.     When someone's under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and another person can do things to them that, in a normal state of mind, would be against their will, that's control – even if both parties are under the influence, and even if the only motivation is sexual gratification.
  3.     The very act of getting off, taking advantage of another for sexual gratification is a manifestation of Power&Control (so, sex for sex’s sake could be classed as rape).
  4.     Female rapists are apparently an unknown species (“how many female rapists do you know, and where do they hold their meetings?” I was asked).  This is despite admitting to the existence of women happy to exploit the knowledge that if you go to a drinking establishment after a certain time of night you can pick up men who, sober and in the clear light of day, would run a mile from you (so, point 1, 2 and 3 don’t quite apply if you’re a chick).
  5.     Sooooo, if you carry out the activities described in point 4 and you are a man, you are definitely a rapist.  If you are a woman, not so much.  This is apparently kosher, though, because “comparing male and female rape is disingenuous”.  (No further explanation provided.  I am not sure if it’s about plumbing differences and/or penetration – but if it is, it does not make much sense to me as coercing people into giving oral sex is still considered rape.)
  6.      The bottom line was: Why would I, as a woman, want to muddle the issue?

Muddle the issue.  As a woman.  That was the statement that brought home to me what bugs me about what is going on here.  Firstly, we have reached a situation where trying to clarify the understanding of this issue by raising instances that do not fit the current zeitgeist is “muddling the issue”.  To me, that is a clear indication that we’re stopped dealing with theories and we’re firmly into dogma territory.  Secondly and more importantly, the “as a woman” bit is thoroughly correct.  The issue has become gender-specific, and not just because anecdotal experience and statistical evidence show that women get raped more.

As a woman, I have been given, quite literally, a “get out of jail free card”; I can freely engage in behaviour that could send my male associates to jail, because I’m a chick.  While the law does not support this in theory, it supports it in practice.  It is far easier for a woman to report a man after a night of drunken debauchery.  Her statement is likely to be taken far more seriously and gain her professional support, even if it does not lead to a conviction.  Men reporting a similar event are more likely to be met with very little support, veiled contempt or even ridicule[1].

I can only think of two possible explanations for this disparity.  In the sexual realm, either men are perceived as inherently predatory, borderline evil, or women are perceived as inherently defenceless.  Either belief seems grotesquely sexist.  Yes, men are, on average, stronger than women.  I am not discussing the sort of situation in which physical strength or any sort of coercion are a factor, though.  In fact, I'm not even talking of situations when a "no" is uttered.  I am purely talking of those situations in which one party benefits, whether by design or not, from the other party wearing “beer goggles”.

I thought one of the achievements over the last century was that women had gained the right to embrace their sexuality.  I thought we had moved on from the view that getting laid gave young men extra worth, whereas it brought young women shame.  Not so long ago, in my mother’s days, by engaging in the same activity men became studs, women became sluts.  I thought I was better off, but the current view of man-the-predator vs. woman-the-victim seems just as disempowering to women.  By giving men all the responsibility within a sexual interaction and all the guilt when things go wrong, we are also giving them all the control.  They are in the sexual driving seat and responsible for our welfare and happiness, seemingly because we can’t take steps to manage that ourselves.  How is this empowering us?  Yet, this line of thinking is supported by people who are, allegedly, fighting for women’s rights.

I don’t get that.  One of the key rights that the feminists of the past have won for us is that of EQUALITY UNDER THE LAW.  I am writing it in caps because IT IS A BIG DEAL.  If you don’t agree, look at the lives of women in those foreign countries where that equality has not yet being gained; where women can be arrested after a rape, because they are guilty of extramarital sex; where unmarried mothers do not have the right to register the birth of their children under their name; where divorced mothers can have their children taken away by their fathers; where women can’t vote, own property, go to university, drive cars – and the list goes on.  Equality under the law is such a crucial achievement – are we willing to give it up so readily?  And what are we giving it up for?  If you think we are getting some form of superiority, think again.  Yes, we are getting preferential treatment, but that is because we are being granted some form of diminished responsibility because of our gender.  Personally, I find that concept hugely offensive.

Human sexuality is an infinitely complicated subject.  I don’t know what the answer to this riddle is.  What I know is that, unless someone can conclusively explain to me why my mental faculties are less than that of the average male, I refuse to be treated as an inferior person on the basis of my gender.  I don’t care if this implied inferiority gives me extra freedom or it gets me out of trouble; I find it repugnant.  I can’t see how we can advance the cause of equality and fairness between the genders by embracing precisely the opposite – inequality and unfairness.  Until we agree that an action is equally objectionable regardless of the gender of the perpetrator, we are supporting a deeply sexist view of the world.

[1] Then again, if they recounted the event to their friends, it would most likely be treated as worth of jovial mocking at worst, added glory at best.  It would be seen as a mildly amusing slip, rather than a life-changing trauma.  When I told my male friends about my decision to not engage with the Sweet Young Thing, I was chided for “depriving him of an essential learning experience”.  The same would hardly have applied had I been an older man luring in a young girl.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Anatomy of a tragedy: Victim Factoring in the suicide of bullied children. 14.10.13

This week saw yet another child suicide in the UK, with an 11-year-old boy killing himself allegedly as a result of on-going bullying[1].  This is not an isolated event, being part of what is being presented as a near-epidemic, with children allegedly living lives of quiet desperation[2].

When I read this kind of article I feel incredibly sad and angry, although, as per usual, for all the wrong reasons.  Yes, it is tragic that a young child is gone forever.  What is equally tragic for me, however, is the underlying cause of the tragedies.  If you dissect the events into their core components, it wasn’t bullying on its own who killed these children.  It was powerlessness – that of the children, of their parents, of the school, and of their communities.  It is a systemic powerlessness, all-pervasive, because, as a culture, we choose to look at childhood bullying completely the wrong way round.

Whenever something like this takes place, the general response seems to be to become collectively horrified and demand that bullying be eradicated, usually via legislation or education.  From a certain point of view that makes good logical sense.  If bullying did not exist then bullying-driven suicides would also not take place.  I have only one problem with this vision, and it’s the fact that I don’t see it becoming a reality anytime soon, if ever. 

In our culture, we treat bullying as an aberration – but is it, really?  It seems to me that bullying, regardless of the fact that we consider it unpleasant, unfair and socially unacceptable, is a natural human behaviour.  It is a dominance game, much like those played by other mammals.  A certain profile of human, in certain types of circumstances, will seek to increase his/her social status by lowering that of somebody else.  I am not saying that we should learn to just put up with it, but that we have to admit that it dwells within us, particularly when we are dealing with amoral beings – and by this I don’t mean criminals. 

Children, particularly young children, are little savages, born with very little in the way of innate values.  Morals are neither universal nor inborn, which is why as parents and as a society we spend so much time inculcating our morals into our children.  If you disagree with me, just consider how the children of Sparta might have been brought up to view bullying and conflict in general.  What, they were “wrong” and “uncivilised” and our point of view is much better?  Do feel free to believe that.  The reality is, however, that children’s minds can and need to be moulded.  You cannot rely on being able appeal to children’s morals because they are still busy forming them.  A moral campaign against bullying may work, in time, but does nothing in the short-term to help the children suffering now.

The flipside of children’s amorality is that, by and large, “-isms” are not the real reasons for victimisation.  Unless they have been indoctrinated by adults, young children’s harassment is not motivated by underlying ethics.  Children will pick on people for two simple reasons: because they can and because they want to.  The “reasons” for picking someone are nothing but excuses, although they do focus on differences.  The reason for this, though, is that doing that is easy.  Whether the focus is skin colour, a disability, the clothes you wear, your smell, your habits, it does not matter to them.  If they want to harass you, they will find a “reason”.  Dubbing playground bullying as “racist” and so on is disingenuous.

As adults, we forget all this.  We live in a world where we are guided by what is “right”.  Bullying is “wrong”, so we approach it as a moral crusade, a social issue, rather than a personal problem.  The problem is that bullying is, in essence, a form of abuse, which is not a crime that strikes at random.  Not everyone has the exact same chance of becoming a victim of abuse, with a number of physical, psychological and social factors contributing to one’s chance. 

The bottom line is that bullying is a relationship between two parties.  Both parties have to be suited to the relationship.  Bullies will not tend to pick on unsuitable victims – and, if they do, the targets’ reactions will thwart their aims.  The bullying relationship will only become established if the target is a suitable victim.  This does not mean that the victims are “to blame” for being bullied, but it means that there are Individual Factors that increase the risk of somebody becoming a victim of bullying. 

The concept of “Victim Factoring”, as opposed to “Victim Blaming”, was recently introduced to the self-defence world by Erik Kondo in one of the most helpful blogs I have read in a long while[3].  What it boils down to is that for non-random crimes we can look at the Individual Factors that increase or decrease our chances of becoming victims.  If those factors are under our control, we have the ability to decide whether we want to alter them.  This will decrease our Personal Risk of becoming victims of a crime.  Reducing the Societal Risk (the average risk of being victimized) requires us to change the world we live in.  Reducing the Personal Risk requires us to change ourselves.

As a society we focus on stamping out bullying.  This, if it worked, would reduce the Societal Risk of a child being affected.  Unfortunately, it has not worked yet.  It may not work within our lifetimes.  While we are campaigning for it, if we want to protect our children our only option is to try and reduce their Personal Risk, and that is where we seem to fail spectacularly, for two main reasons.  Firstly, we seem to be unwilling to admit that Personal Factors are in play and that they can or should be altered.  Secondly, we value peace, love and understanding. 

If we analyse some of the recent tragedies objectively, we can identify a number of Individual Factors that contributed to the creation and continuation of the bullying relationship:
·         The victims were identified as “different”.  They stood out, sometimes admittedly in ways that could not be helped, such as race.  However, being different on its own doesn’t make you a victim unless other factors are in play.
·         The victims did not have the personal skills to protect themselves from the bullies.  As a consequence, the bullying relationship was successfully established and maintained.  There was no mention as to whether the victims had any hopes to be able to end the relationship, but their decision to end their lives instead seems to suggest that this was not the case.
·         The victims lacked sufficient social support in their schools or amongst their peers.  They did not have a “tribe” behind them, or the tribe they had was unable to protect them sufficiently.  This may be because the victims were new to the area or because they had just not managed to bond with their peers.
In essence, the victims not only stood out, but they stood alone and unprotected.  These factors are largely personal, rather than societal.  Yes, it would be lovely to live in a world where they would not make someone a likely victim.  Unfortunately, we don’t.  If we want to avoid being targets, the only likely way in which we can hope to eliminate them as factors in the short term is to change ourselves.  By learning how to be assertive and increasing our social skills (which is not the same as “blending in”) we can decrease those factors. 

Self-defence training can be a part of this, but it can also miss the point altogether unless it is the lack of actual physical skills or of confidence in our physical skills that is at the root of the issue[4].  Being able to thump people into the dirt may work short-term, but it is a strategy with serious limitations and repercussions.  The sad truth is that by being well-liked, well-connected people we can decrease our chances of being targeted, and it is up to us to develop the skills to achieve those results whilst maintaining our individuality.  We cannot change the bullies, but we can change how they see us. 

There is another significant factor, though, which is both personal and societal.  The adults responsible for the victims’ welfare were also powerless to help them.  According to the reports, the parents’ response was generally either doing nothing or limited to reporting the situation to the authorities.  The authorities were unwilling or unable to resolve the situation.  The victims were left to deal with the bullies, again, alone and unprotected.  Not only that, but they were forced to continue to go to the same places where the same people would torture them in the same way.  This, to me, is monstrous, but it is a result of the type of society we have created. 

What tools do we give the parents of bullied children to protect them?  They cannot opt for avoidance.  Even if they were happy to deprive their children of the public schooling that is their right, they cannot just keep them at home.  It’s not legal.  Home-schooling arrangements are not simple to make and, for working parents, can be simply impractical.  Parents are forced to send their children into the fray, regardless of how unhappy they know they may be.

The schools ought to be able to protect all pupils, but they can only use a very limited set of tools, and often counterproductive tools at that.  For instance, whereas detention has a chance of working directly on the kids[5], sending them home from school only works if their parents become engaged in the disciplinary process.  Unless that happens, suspension is less of a punishment and more of a holiday.  Shock, horror, but a lot of children would rather be at home in front of computer games than at school.  Furthermore, schools can only protect the children whilst on their property and under supervision.  They cannot do a single thing about bullying to and fro school.  They can also do very little when there are no supervisors around, as intervention then relies on someone reporting an incident.  Given that being a “snitch” is often sure-fire way of losing friends and alienating people, it doesn’t work that well as an anti-bullying strategy.

As a society, we have completely taken out of the equation the right of parents to confront the parents of bullies or directly confront the bullies.  I am not advocating physical violence here, but the establishment of the fear of repercussions.  Bullies are far less likely to target you if they fear that there will be hell to pay afterwards, whether from your parents or their own.  And again, I do not mean violence here.  We used to be able to discipline children, as parents and as members of a community, without beating them – what happened?  If we let the bullies carrying on unhindered, fearing no significant repercussions, why should they stop? 

The sad truth is that we have rendered ourselves, as a society, powerless in front of the bullies.  We value tolerance, harmony, altruism and co-operation, which is great.  Unfortunately the bullies don’t share our values – or they would not be bullies.  We also value the right of people to be just as they are and not have to change to suit the people around them.  At the same time, we expect the bullies to change because they don’t fit our view of how a society should function, which shows a degree of inner contradiction.  The bottom line is that we are so protective over our values that we have grossly restricted the range of tools we allow ourselves to use[6].  The ones we have left only work if the other party plays according our rules and values, and bullies – again – just don’t do that.  While we are busy feeling good about how good we are and campaigning for societal change, they are left to operate largely unhindered.  If I wanted to be melodramatic, I would add “…and children are left to suffer and die.”

Sure, we can educate and campaign.  We can strive to evolve, as a culture and as individuals, to a point where this issue no longer presents itself.  Until that point, however, if we truly want to protect our children all we can do is give them the tools they require right here, right now, to protect themselves.

[2] The repeated “allegedlies” are, unfortunately, a necessity.  The papers seem to be struggling to report these facts with any degree of accuracy.  The recent death was hailed as “the youngest” of the kind.  This strikes me as bizarre, since last February a victim who was two years younger was labelled by the same paper in the same fashion.  I appreciate that the word “allegedly” gives you an element of wiggle-room in your reporting, but I still can’t find it in my heart to exonerate them.  The death of a child seems to me an event tragic enough without needing to hype it up with lies
[4] The spread of zero-tolerance policies in schools makes self-defence skills even less user-friendly for the victims:
[5] Provided that it is made a chore, not a fun place to hang out with other like-minded individuals, as it often is.

[6] The proliferation of zero-tolerance schools, where all parties involved into a physical confrontation are punished, seems to me the extreme manifestation of this phenomenon.  I personally find it terrifying, as what we are doing is adding an extra layer of fear to that already experienced by bullied children.  Not only do they have to worry about bullies, but also about societal retribution if they need or choose to defend themselves.  If I were in that position, I would be experiencing abject terror.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

My Martial Art is better than yours, and that's FINAL. 31.09.13

"Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own"
B. Lee

Once upon a time I had a little pony called Bob.  Bob was, obviously, the best little pony the world had ever seen.  He was friendly, kind, determined and brave.  He was “the little engine that could” and always did his very best for me.  He was, however, built like a normal horse that had been left in the heat so his legs had melted, with most of the mass ending up in the hooves.  He looked more like a hippo than a thoroughbred.  As for his gait - you know how certain horses seem to glide above the ground, only putting their feet down to pay lip service to the law of gravity?  Well, Bob didn’t do that.  Bob stomped.  When Bob put a foot on the ground, the ground knew about it.  Clomping his ginormous hooves, my little pony carried me towards many fine adventures.  Rather unsurprisingly, however, none of these adventures involved winning any races.  Dressage and show jumping rosettes never graced his stable.

The horse was built like a tank and was just about as graceful.  I loved him to bits, but I knew his limitations.  Would you try and teach a hippo to tap-dance?  Had I pushed him into disciplines to which he wasn’t suited, he would have been unlikely to succeed, however hard he tried.  He would have been soundly beaten by horses better built for that particular activity, who could achieve more with less effort.  Happily, being a chilled-out kind of individual with no aspirations beyond his home comforts, he would not have cared in the least.

Why am I prattling on about horses in a blog mostly about self-protection and interpersonal conflict?  Because what’s true for good ol’ Bob is also true for me.  I am as graceful as a sack of potatoes, although marginally less co-ordinated.  My body shape is more suited to carrying a small pig under each arm than to ballet.  I am, most definitely, built for comfort, not for speed.  If I cut weight I don’t look willowy; I look ill, and my friends grow concerned and bake me pies.  Yes, with dedication and determination and a hell of a lot of training and effort I could change a lot of that, to a certain degree, but the bottom line is that I’m made the way I’m made.  The way I’m made makes me more suited to some activities than to others.  Realising this, I grow mightily puzzled by a lot of self-defence and martial arts debates.

So many people seem completely immersed in endless arguments about how their art or system is the ultimate, final and best answer to the problem of violence.  Their art is THE best.  All other arts are inferior.  I don’t get it; I really don’t.  I have dabbled here and there, and what I have found is that – shock, horror – some arts just suit me better than others.  I found them easier to pick up and I could achieve a degree of competence in less time, because they play to my strengths.  Conversely, I know that in some arts I could never hope to be more than passable, however hard I tried, because I’m just not made for them.  Putting in the same amount of time and effort, I could be half decent at Wing Chun or Krav Maga, or terrible at Tae Kwon Do or Karate.  What matters, the “universal” best or what’s best for me?

Now, it’s possible that I’m missing a trick and I’m an inferior human being.  Maybe everybody else has the ability to learn whatever they want at the same speed and with the same ease.  Maybe everyone else is limitless.  Unless that’s the case, though, a lot of the debates are incredibly short-sighted, because they are effectively comparing apples and oranges.  People seem to forget that the systems have to be actually learnt and used by people, and not all people are created equal.  The best move in the world won’t help you a bit if you can’t learn it because your body won’t allow you, or if, once you’ve learnt it, you can’t use it effectively because of your size or shape.

Let me present to you an extreme example: my mother.  She is elderly, unfit, barely over four-feet tall and has severe osteoporosis.  Now, is the system that is “the best” for a tall, fit, strong man in his twenties going to be the best for her, too?  She can’t kick as high as most people’s knees.  Hard impacts cause her to break.  She also has a deep aversion to any kind of violence and faints at the sight of blood.  Ok, so most systems aren’t designed for people like her[1], but that’s the point: they are designed with a certain type of person in mind.  Just because they suit that type, it doesn’t mean that they’ll suit another.

It’s not just about physical limitations, either.  Different systems cater to different personalities.  This becomes painfully evident when you spend enough time people-watching at martial arts conventions.  If what you are studying doesn’t suit your personality, there is a greater chance that you will not be able to use it effectively when you need to.  For instance, if you have a dread of injuring people too much it is utterly and completely pointless to learn a lot of ├╝ber-brutal moves that you would never apply – and a lot of people feel like that.  It would be far more constructive for them to learn a “less effective” art that they would actually put to use with no hesitation if needed.

Furthermore, some systems take a long time and a lot of effort to give you functional skills, whereas other systems can give you something within a very short period of time.  Again, who are you teaching?  Will they be sticking with you for the length of time that it takes to master that killer move?  Because, if that’s not the case, you should be asking yourself what you are sending them home with today.

I am very fond of the British expression “horses for courses”.  It comes from the horse racing world, where it is widely believed that some horses race better on certain courses than on others (e.g., damp vs. dry).  The expression means that it is important to choose suitable people for particular activities because everyone has different skills.  It seems to me painfully obvious that the opposite is also true: that it is important to choose suitable activities for a particular person.

There are arts and systems out there that are clearly bogus and only survive through refusing to be tested against people who are not indoctrinated into believing that they work.  There are also a lot of instructors in a lot of arts who really aren’t up to standards.  I am fully behind spending time and energy in fighting these charlatans, partly because the public could do with the help but also because, let’s face it, it’s fun to make them eat crow pie.  As for all the systems and arts that have something that can be of use to somebody, though, how about we left them alone?  Instead of trying to prove how our system is Ultimate Best Devastating Martial Art System Ever, we could spend more time learning from and helping each other, regardless of our allegiances to an art.  Instead of being defensive of our arts, we could be open to learning where their shortcomings are so that we can overcome them.  We could focus on working out what works best for us and help others learn what’s best for them.  Hell, we could just spend more time training, because smacking stuff is fun...  With all that free time and energy, the sky’s the limit.

[1] If you think no system could help her or anyone like her, check out  No, I’m not on commission.  It’s just the best I found so far for someone who simply can't do 99% of the physical stuff.