Tag Archives: Twitter

Milo, Laurie Penny, the Lost Boys, and Toxic Masculinity

 

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Milo Yiannopoulos lost a book deal, a plum speaking gig, and his job this week. Photo: Flickr

I’ve spent a lot of the last three months calling Trump supporters and the alt-right monsters. I did so on this blog. I did so in The Independent.

But there is something missing from my analysis, and it’s something Laurie Penny touched on in a much praised and much derided piece for the Pacific Standard. Before I get into what Penny did and didn’t say, though, let me tell you a story.

When I was 22, I met a young 18-year-old straight boy. We’ll call him Jacob. Jacob was white, blonde, heterosexual, and totally lost in this world. Beyond anything, he was impressionable. Jacob only wanted to be liked. To belong somewhere. Gangly, bumbling, and painfully awkward, Jacob and I met through student government. I took an instant liking to him. He was sweet, goofy, and though intellectually inelegant (as 18-year-olds are apt to be), clearly intelligent.

Jacob looked to me as a mentor, and I to him as a kid I could help. I nurtured him and invited him to hang out with friends and go to parties. Eventually he pledged the fraternity I always hung out with (but didn’t belong to). I didn’t think this a good idea – Jacob was too sensitive, too vulnerable, and frankly too cerebral to really fit in with this hard-drinking, fast-fucking crew. I’ve written about my own college years drinking and fucking my way up and down fraternity row, and I was afraid that blend of toxic masculinity (which at the time I got a high off of) would kill poor Jacob.

Fast forward eight or so years, and he probably disagrees. I still don’t. Jacob was relentlessly picked on, though I must stress not hazed, by the guys in the fraternity. Most of it was the good-natured banter that twenty-something men tend toward. Some of it was a lot crueller. All of it proved too much for Jacob, who began drinking heavily and was prone to becoming violent when intoxicated. It got him banned from some fraternity parties and even, for a time, my house – unless he stayed sober.

Around this time, Jacob took a women’s studies class at my behest, and even began dating a lovely feminist woman. It seemed that he would sort himself out. But a year after I moved to Chicago, I got a call from him saying they’d broken up, and that he was in a very dark place. No stranger to dark places myself, I took a Megabus to see him. He rebounded, and I left.

As friends who live hundreds of miles away from one another often do, we drifted apart. It wasn’t really until last year when I drunkenly called him to catch up that I realised the boy I’d met who entered this world of toxic masculinity grew up into a misogynistic man and Trump supporter. We’ve not talked a lot since.

I’m from Kentucky, so the fact that people I know and even considered friends voted for Donald Trump isn’t all that surprising. But reading Penny’s piece, I thought specifically of Jacob and the strange, drunken, and desperate course he travelled from a dorky college kid to a self-identified feminist to the type of guy who, had he been born a few years later, could’ve been in that car with Penny and Yiannopoulos, evacuating UC-Berkeley.

I’m going to quote at length from Laurie’s piece here, because I think she makes two important points – one clumsily and one cogently. First, this:

It is vital that we talk about who gets to be treated like a child, and what that means. All of the people on Yiannopoulos’ tour are over 18 and legally responsible for their actions. They are also young, terribly young, young in a way that only privileged young men really get to be young in America, where your race, sex, and class determine whether and if you ever get to be a stupid kid, or a kid at all. Mike Brown was also 18, the same age as the Yiannopoulos posse, when he was killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014; newspaper reports described him as an adult, and insisted that the teenager was “no angel,” as if that justified what was done to him. Tamir Rice was just 12 years old when he was shot and killed in Cleveland for playing with a toy gun. The boys following Yiannopoulos are playing with a toy dictator, and they have faced no consequences as yet, even though it turns out that their plastic play-fascism is, in fact, fully loaded and ready for murder.

This is the bit that seems to have gotten Penny the most flack, and to be fair, I get it. Writer Mikki Kendall summed it up best in a Twitter thread, in which she points out that Penny building her argument on the bodies of dead Black martyrs is callous and insensitive. I take that point. (I’m posting the first tweet in the thread below; please read and consider it.)

Still, engaging with who gets to be seen as a child, or an innocent, or have their behaviour excused because of youth is a worthwhile intellectual exercise, because in our culture not everybody gets to have youthful indiscretions. That is, in fact, almost exclusively the purview of straight cis white men.

So while perhaps Penny’s word choice was unfortunate, I don’t think her point was far from the mark. And yes, impact matters more than intent, but I have always believed that intent should be considered when thinking of how we respond, because it does still matter.

I say this not only as a defence of Penny’s own work and intentions, but because it plays right into the next very important point she makes. While, as she writes, “these are little boys playing games with the lives of others,” she also points out that Yiannopoulos

exploits vulnerable young men. Not in a sexual way. Not in an illegal way. Yiannopoulos exploits vulnerable young men in the same way that every wing-nut right-wing shock-jock from the president down has been exploiting them for years: by whipping up the fear and frustration of angry young men and boys who would rather burn down the world than learn to live in it like adults, by directing that affectless rage in service to their own fame and power. This is the sort of exploitation the entire conservative sphere is entirely comfortable with. What happens to these kids now that the game has changed?

If you think that centring white male Trump supporters is the antithesis of everything you stand for and the very thing both Penny and I have dedicated our careers to not doing, well, you’re right. So let me say before we go any further that I will absolutely side with any marginalised community over angry, privileged, adultalescent men – whether 17 or 70 – who leverage their power and privilege to harm the most vulnerable. As I’ve said many times, to many friends, and on many panels, I say now for the first time in print:

Explanations are not excuses

There is absolutely no excusing the behaviour of Yiannopoulos, his fanboys, President Trump, or any of the enablers, gatekeepers, or even voters who propelled them all to where they are today. None. But I do think the left, the resistance, and for that matter American culture generally could benefit from asking ourselves what brought them to this point.

If you read Penny’s piece, it’s clear that it wasn’t economic anxiety. If you look at the polling data on who voted for Trump, it’s clear too. But I think Penny hit the nail squarely on the head when she labelled these groupies “the lost boys.” Because I know a boy like them. I know Jacob.

Jacob graduated university in 2013 and moved to a mid-sized southern metropolis in search of the elusive American dream. He found dead end after dead end, working a sales job he didn’t like which (if I recall) he was eventually fired or laid off from. He found dating hard, impossible even. Women just didn’t seem interested in him.

At some point between 2014 and 2016 he moved back to his parents’ house in a small southern city and resumed working at the fast food restaurant he worked at while in high school. Last I talked to him, which was probably last spring, he was the manager. He was still living at home. He was still single. And he was noticeably and perhaps understandably angry about it.

It was at that time he told me that he thought, like Yiannopoulos, that feminism was a cancer on Western society. It had damaged the natural order of men on top and women subservient. All the social progress we made wasn’t working for him, so it obviously wasn’t working for anyone. Best to go back to 1956.

This is of course absurd. It is also straight up sexism.

Yet – consider one of the young men in Yiannopoulos’ posse, who told Penny that “I think a lot of people in this crew wouldn’t be part of the popular crowd without the Trump movement. I think that some of us are outcasts, some of us are kind of weird. It’s a motley crew.”

This quote gave me pause, and I reread it probably four times before going on, particularly the phrase “popular crowd,” which is one most often heard in high school cafeterias, not political discourse. That phrase in and of itself conjures up adolescence, immaturity, and a childlike longing to be recognised as part of the crème-de-la-crème of your social unit. That is not the phrase a well-adjusted adult uses unironically.

I have often times thanked God that I’m gay, because I think it saved me from going down this darkly bigoted path. Being openly gay in Kentucky from 2001 – 2011 did for me what it clearly never did for Yiannopoulos: it made me empathetic to other minorities. But if you read the essay I wrote for Salon about trying so desperately to belong to Greek life at my alma mater, you’ll see that I tried desperately to fit in with the oppressive class:

But from under them I could still obtain a certain level of social cachet. My reputation as someone who would fuck but didn’t talk grew, and with that, came a certain level of trust. “Put a cock in his mouth and he’ll shut up,” one of my buddies once joked. Suddenly, I was invited to the premier parties, not just from the fraternity I was hanging out with, but others. And I went, because it felt good. Being invited signaled acceptance, even if it was only on their terms. I might not be one of them, but I could hang with them, and that meant something.

I was a women’s studies minor. I knew better. Yet I still fell for the trappings of white heteropatriarchy, which as I said in that essay, is one helluva drug – especially to a working class gay kid who had never found any semblance of social acceptance anywhere else.

The sociologist Paul Kivel has a theory he calls the “act-like-a-man box,” which explains the pressures men feel to achieve, to provide, to dominate women, and to suppress their emotions and how these things can negatively impact not only their mental health but their politics. It’s basically a handy diagram to explain the theory of toxic masculinity, and square in the middle of it can be found Jacob and the Milo Yiannopoulos fan club.

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Paul Kivel’s “act-like-a-man box”

Yiannopoulos first came to American prominence through GamerGate, which was a sexist backlash against women playing video games masquerading as being about journalistic ethics. He built his cult following of basement dwelling, Red Bull chugging nerdy men by tearing down the women who many of them felt were invading a space where they could live out their misogynistic, violent fantasies without retribution or critique. Games were all they had, because for many of these men, they were social rejects. (I can say this with some certainty, as the gamers I know who are well-adjusted adult humans reject GamerGate, Yiannopoulos, and Trump without hesitation.)

Yet these are men who were, for a variety of reasons – whether because they were nerdy, or more effeminate, or overweight, or socially awkward – emasculated by the patriarchal norms described in the act-like-a-man box. Instead of burning the box and liberating themselves, they retreated further into it, where they found Donald Trump and Milo Yiannopoulos waiting to exploit their anxieties and insecurities for profit and for power.

Jacob wasn’t a gamer, but he was in the act-like-a-man box too, and Trump and Yiannopoulos found and converted him too. These Lost Boys, as Penny calls them, were lost because they – for whatever reason, or for many reasons – couldn’t live up to the pressures of socially constructed toxic masculinity. So they turned to people who could help redefine that.

This is probably key to why Milo Yiannopoulos so appealed to these young men. Sure, as Penny points out, they weren’t gay, but Yiannopoulos simultaneously defied the norms of masculinity – camping it up, wearing his pearls, openly talking of sucking dick – while being embraced by the patriarchy. If he could do it, they likely thought, so could they. It actually makes perfect sense that Yiannopoulos was the standard bearer of these Lost Boys. He accessed the social currency they desperately want to possess.

Of course key to all of this is how they viewed what it means to be a man. The toxicity isn’t only what it does to them, but what it does to others. That to them being a man meant dominance, violence, and sexual control of women is exactly what enables rape culture to thrive and domestic violence rates to stay abysmally high. It’s patriarchal, white supremacist bullshit that keeps women, racial minorities, LGBT people, and other marginalised groups oppressed. But – and this is a fact many leftists don’t want to grapple with – it also hurts white cis straight men who are denied agency unless they fit these narrow parameters of what it means to be a man.

It has been pointed out numerous times that Yiannopoulos was brought down not by his bigotry but the bigotry of others, whose homophobia was so triggered by what he said about the pederastic paradigm (and I do believe that’s what he was trying to say) that they exiled him from Trumpland. Whether his Lost Boys continue to follow him remains to be seen. Judging from the comments on his Facebook page, I think many will. I also think, as someone who has followed Yiannopoulos’ career since 2009 (which is around the time Penny and I first followed one another on Twitter), that we’ve not seen the last of him. His career has at least six lives left. What the next one manifests as, though, is anyone’s guess.

If Yiannopoulos can’t rehabilitate his image in the alt-right and even mainstream conservatism, someone will surely rise to take his place. As Penny’s article shows, there are plenty of Lost Boys waiting to play Peter Pan. One of them will assume the mantle in due course.

When they do, though, I hope we have a better understanding of who they are and what they’re all about. Because I think understanding the toxic masculinity – and the denial of it – that gave rise to Yiannopoulos and his cult following is important. Besides the obvious “know thy enemy” trope, if we’re ever to successfully deconstruct white heteropatriarchy, we have to know how it harms men too, and also what it can propel them towards. I chose feminism, socialism, and queer theory, opting to burn this shit to the ground. Yiannopoulos, Jacob, and others chose instead to find alternative means of accessing the power and privilege they felt they were denied. That is the more pernicious and dangerous path, one which has undoubtedly led us to where we are today – an era where the progress we’ve collectively made over the past 50 years is in its greatest peril.

We need to think about how we can reach, maybe not these men who are already lost causes, but other boys and men who could become them. And to do that, we need to grapple with toxic masculinity. We need to include it in our analyses and activism.

That doesn’t mean we stop centring women, people of colour, LGBT folks, disabled folks, immigrants, or any other marginalised group. We can’t. That work is too important – more important – and frankly more pressing. Lives are at stake. When you’re in the middle of a war you don’t ask the soldiers to think about how they’ll rehabilitate the enemy after victory. But for those of us who have the currency to spare, we should start examining these questions and considering how to raise principled and purposeful boys into feminist men.

None of this is to excuse any behaviour. “I was just following orders” wasn’t an excuse at Nuremburg, and it isn’t an excuse here. These assholes need to be held to account, full stop. And they cannot be let off the hook. Again, explanations are not excuses. But to not examine how they became who they are is to risk raising the next Milo Yiannopoulos.

Skylar Baker-Jordan is a journalist and essayist based in Chicago. He writes about British and American politics and pop culture. His work has appeared at The Independent, The Huffington Post UK, The Daily Dot, and Salon. Follow him on Twitter @skylarjordan.

Donald Trump’s tweets matter

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Donald Trump likes to tweet. As a candidate, many of us looked on bemused as he ranted about non-existent sex tapes at 3:00 AM. Since winning the Electoral College (but not the popular vote), that bemusement has turned to abject horror as the President-Elect of the United States has continued to tweet like a 20-year-old loner in his parents’ basement. Some, such as Kate Maltby at CNN, have suggested that Trump’s tweets are a “dead cat” meant to distract us from the true issues at play, like his fraud settlement in the Trump University case or his overseas business interests.

I disagree, and wholeheartedly cosign what ProPublica’s Jessica Huseman said to the Washington Post on Monday:

If he had said something similar in a press conference, no one would be concerned that journalists are getting distracted by his absurd language. But because it was a tweet, that’s somehow different? Unfortunately, this president-elect has decided to make Twitter his main means of communicating with the American public, and the American public listens deeply to things that he says on Twitter.

Given Trump’s distaste for the mainstream media and reluctance to sit down for rigorous, adversarial interviews, Twitter is likely to become the primary mode of communication between the President-Elect and the American people. As such, we should listen deeply to what Trump is saying on Twitter, because it tells us a lot about his character – and how he will govern.

For example, let’s look at four tweets he’s sent since 8 November:

These sample tweets all demonstrate Trump’s contempt for the First Amendment. The first Tweet, sent just this morning, calls for criminalising flag burning. We can debate the ethics or morality of burning the American flag, but the act—the speech—of burning a flag is protected under the First Amendment. Flag burning has long been a jarring act of protest used to demonstrate profound disagreement with the government of the day. None of us should want to criminalise an act of demonstrating opposition, no matter how repugnant we may ourselves find it. And certainly no reasonable person believes Americans should be stripped of their citizenship for burning a flag. Stripping people of citizenship isn’t what America does; it’s what the Third Reich did.

The second and third Tweets illustrate Trump’s complete disdain for peaceful dissent. The protests that organised in cities across the country were largely peaceful and a normal, rational reaction to the campaign promises Trump made on the trail. They were representative of the majority of Americans who didn’t want Trump to be president. But beyond that, they were a perfectly lawful and constitutional assembly. Similarly, Trump’s tweet about the cast of “Hamilton” shows, in his own words, that he thinks dissent is harassment. This is a dangerous characteristic for a president, who has the vast resources of the Executive Branch to survey and punish opponents and dissidents. If you think this can’t happen, I need only remind you that President Obama is leaving a massive surveillance apparatus to Trump, and that in our history, we’ve seen J Edgar Hoover gleefully violate civil liberties for Presidents Johnson and Nixon.

The fourth tweet is about the fourth estate, and it shows a deeply troubling penchant more reminiscent of autocracy than democracy. Trump thinks that any coverage that is less than fawning is biased, corrupt, or unfair. There is no law that says the White House must brief journalists, and autocrats routinely refuse access to reporters and news outlets who they deem opponents. It is incredibly difficult to do your job as a journalist if you don’t have access, but it is not out of the realm of possibility that Trump could deny access to the Times, the Washington Post, or any other outlet critical of him. Hell, it’s already happened on the campaign trail. Even when he doesn’t outright deny access, he sends his hordes of followers after journalists he doesn’t like; MSNBC’s Katy Tur had to be escorted out of a Trump rally by the Secret Service after he lambasted her at a rally.

Given the fact Trump is likely to continue communicating primarily in 140 characters or less, at least for the foreseeable future, covering his tweets – and taking them at face value – is deeply important. This isn’t a distraction from other important stories, but rather an important story in-and-of itself that should be covered along with policy and personnel decisions. For the time being, at least, we will have to walk and chew bubblegum at the same time.

We should also pay close attention to how Trump’s Twitter habits change (or don’t) over the coming weeks. Following his election in 2008, President Obama was made to give up his Twitter and Blackberry for national security and legal reasons.  Obama does now have his own Twitter, which I assume will be turned over to Trump come 20 January. How he uses the official presidential Twitter, though, remains to be seen. So far, there’s no reason to believe that Trump will temper his tweets and rise to the occasion of the office he holds.  Which means soon, the President of the United States could be a man who officially endorses curtailing the freedoms that have made this country great.

In memory of Christina Annesley.

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Christina Annesley. Photo: @chrstinadarling on Twitter

 

As many of you will know, my friend Christina Annesley passed away yesterday from natural causes. She was on a prolonged holiday in Thailand and southeast Asia. I’m not going to focus on the sensationalised media coverage of her untimely death, nor do I want to write about Christina the politico. She was more than that. She was a diamond, a Whovian, a wine aficionado, and a warm and compassionate human being who made friends across the political spectrum. The outpouring of grief from every corner of the British political twittersphere illustrates how beloved our Christina was.

Was. Feels perverse referring to her in the past tense.

I never met Christina in person, something I will forever regret. I was meant to, back in November, but our schedules never synced up. Still, she invited me to stay with her. She was that kind of person. A stranger she knew only online, from an ocean away, was invited into her home cos kindness. Like I said. A diamond.

My thoughts and (oh, she’d hate this) prayers go out to her mum and dad, her mates, and Olly, her beloved. I can’t imagine the utter pain you must be experiencing. Light and love to you all.

But this isn’t a mournful post. Where I’m from, in Appalachia, we have a tradition of wakes, where we stay up all night around a coffin, remembering the good times and celebrating the life of the person we’ve lost. With that, I give you what is, in a way, Christina’s best bits, at least with me. These are a series of tweets between Christina and me over the past year, tweets I will forever remember, smile at, and cherish.

Christina, we will forever miss and mourn you. You were a rising star, a rock star, and simply darling. This world is not as bright now you’re not with us.

And I know you’d hate this song, but it’s basically been playing nonstop in my ears today. I apologise in advance for all the God and religion and stuff. I’m American. I can’t help myself.

But ma’am… rest well. Sleep soundly. We love you.

Skylar’s Naughty and Nice List 2013

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It’s Christmas Eve, which means Santa’s making his rounds. While I expect coal-and hopefully some condoms-in my stocking, not all of us have been quite so naughty this year. With that, I revive a holiday tradition, and give you my naughty and nice list for 2013!

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5. Katie Hopkins

Whether calling X Factor winner Sam Bailey “a fat mum in a tracksuit,” expressing her belief that Scots will do “anything to avoid working until retirement,” or slagging off ginger children as “harder to love,” this may well be Katie Hopkins’ naughtiest year yet-and that’s saying something. Despite a litany of inane ramblings throughout 2013, it was her controversial classist statement that she wouldn’t let her children play with other kids called “Chardonnay” or “Tyler” because their names imply a working class background which propelled her from annoying gadfly to unbearable git. Maybe I’m just taking this personally, as I am a chubby gay ginger called Skylar, but seriously, I need her to sod off in 2014. As that’s unlikely to happen-she’s tipped to enter the Big Brother house next month-I think I’ll just get a tattoo to spite her. Maybe one of Russell Brand.

4. Russell Brand

Just kidding, that man’s a dick. I mean, I know you did a lot of drugs Russell, but Ozzy Osbourne is more coherent and decipherable. This year’s verbal masturbation champion, Russell Brand has suggested a revolution of…? He’s rambled on and on about the need to have a banker-bashing orgy and the needlessness of voting, but here we are at Christmas Eve and I’m still waiting for his point. His talk is pretty and makes you feel good, but much like the Justin Bieber blow-up doll, there just isn’t much depth.

3. Justin Bieber

Speaking of the Biebs, much like his inflatable doppelgänger, he needs to take a seat. Seriously boy, what have we done to you? The first time I ever heard of Justin Bieber he was 3 years old talking to Chelsea Handler. That’s where it began. Nothing good can come from talking to Chelsea Handler. And then we let Usher raise him, and look what happens. From pissing in a bucket while sneaking out of a restaurant to visiting Brazilian brothels to playing naked guitar for his gran, it’s been a bit of a year for Justin. His worst act, though, was by far stepping on the Blackhawk head. Unless you’re a Chicagoan, you won’t get this; if you are a Chicagoan, don’t let the reminder ruin your Christmas. This boy needs to check it before he wrecks it.

2. Robin Thicke

Another man who needs to check something-his privilege-is Robin Thicke, the End Violence Against Women’s coalition Sexist of the Year. The only acceptable “blurred lines” are the ones the cops will likely make me walk tonight after my eighth eggnog. I just can’t.

1. That guy who kissed me by the Serpentine under a pale moon

😉

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5. Tom Daley

He’s Britain’s sweetheart, isn’t he? I mean seriously, how can you not just want to give this kid a pat on the back (or the bum)? Sure, he didn’t cure cancer-another LGBT kid did that-but in coming out, Tom not only gave hope to countless kids around the world, but blazed the trail for other high profile LGBT athletes to follow. Make all the jokes you want about diving being the second gayest sport in the summer Olympics (after gymnastics, duh), but sport is rife with homophobia, and Tom’s decision was makes him one brave little toaster.

4. Kellee Terrell

Journalist. Activist. Filmmaker. Kellee is a jill-of-all-trades, and has done so much in the past 12 months to further causes of social justice. Her short film, Goodnight My Love, takes a nuanced look at the last few minutes of a black lesbian couple in a zombie apocalypse, which in itself is awesome enough to land her on this list. But beyond this, her outspoken advocacy for HIV awareness has helped further break the stigma of the disease, and her unwavering support as an LGBT ally has helped shed light on the plight of queer people of colour. Kellee is the only person on either list who I can also claim as a personal friend, having met her at an Oscar viewing party last winter, and her wisdom, guidance and encouragement have been instrumental in my return to writing. I can’t thank her enough.

3. Jennifer Lawrence

God I just love this woman. She’s a feminist. She’s from Kentucky. I mean we’re practically besties right there. But seriously, Jennifer Lawrence has been eschewing conventional stardom for something with substance, taking on Joan Rivers and Kelly Osbourne for tearing into women’s appearances and telling the Guardian it should be illegal to call someone fat on tv. She’ll say what she wants, do what she wants, eat what she wants, and no shits are given. I fucking love her.

2.The British Twittersphere

You lot. Nothing sums up my experience on Twitter better than the time Louise Mensch and Laurie Penny teamed up to take down transphobic tweets. My followers aren’t many, but they’re proper quality, and my return to commentating on British life and politics has been met with a warm welcome home. Despite being an American and living in Chicago, y’all have welcomed my input and opinions as valid and, in some cases, worthy, never dismissing me or critiquing my imperial American privilege. I’m well aware that a foreigner constantly commenting on your politics can seem condescending and presumptive, but you have willingly engaged me and encouraged me. As one follower said, and I’m paraphrasing, “you know so much about what’s going on I forget you’re not here!” It’s tweets like this that make getting up at 3:00 AM to catch the British morning news cycle worth it. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.

1. Caroline Criado-Perez

Whilst my followers are cracking, the same can’t be said for all the Twittersphere. For her resilience and sheer tenacity, Caroline Criado-Perez is the nicest of the nice this year. When the Bank of England decided women weren’t worth £5, Caroline led the campaign to keep a woman on banknotes-and to officially recognise the contributions of women throughout British history. Owen Jones has called her “a brilliant fighter,” which might well be the understatement of 2013. Caroline has put up with threats of rape and violence all year, but her voice is louder and clearer than ever before. When Caitlin Moran organised a “twitter silence” to protest, she acknowledged the show of solidarity but said that she would not be silenced by anyone. A true role model to all of us campaigning for social justice, Caroline has inspired me beyond most anybody this year.

I hope you made Santa’s nice list, and that all your Christmas wishes come true. To all of my readers, both here and at The Columnist, I wish you nothing but joy this Yuletide season. Thank you for making my return so rewarding. See you in 2014!

Why James Arthur’s apology is bullshit

James Arthur

James Arthur

I can’t believe I have to tell straight people not to say “fag” and “queer.” Seriously y’all? The words themselves send shivers down my spine, taking me back to my years spent in southeastern Kentucky, where they were regularly spewed in my direction, dripping with the vitriol of threats and intimidation. For three years I was terrorised, and I never once went to school in the morning convinced I’d make it out alive in the afternoon. It was a daily crucible of homophobia.

My story is sadly reflective of so many young gay men and women throughout the Western world. And that’s why, when James Arthur dropped his diss against some unknown rapper, my palm and forehead had a kiki. But if his use of “queer” wound me up, his apology really pissed me off.

James Arthur has sought forgiveness without contrition. He “has gay friends,” he says. Rylan Clark is his bestie! I mean for Christ’s sake, the man likes “Little Britain.” He can’t be homophobic! His backhanded apology betrays a nasty bigotry at worst or, as I truly suspect, an unabashed ignorance at best:

What the hell? There’s no “mistaking” the homophobia here. We’re not misconstruing anything. Does he really think that because he called a (presumably) straight rapper a queer that it’s not homophobic? Apparently so:

 

In fairness to James Arthur, it’s an easy mistake to make. “Faggot” and “queer” are dropped in rap battles like IEDs in real battles. Eminem made headlines earlier this month for the homophobic lyrics on his latest LP, taking me back to the my own high school hell by both using homophobic slurs and releasing new material. He was quoted in his recent Rolling Stone interview as saying “it’s more like calling someone a bitch or a punk or an asshole.” Similarly, South Park made a similar argument several years ago, saying that “faggot” isn’t a homophobic word anymore because the definition has changed.

For fuck’s sake. Let me break this down for you. Where do you think these words get their power? Why are they so insulting? If, in the context these men are using them, “fag” is used to question someone’s masculinity or humanity, it’s because the word is rooted in homophobia. To call someone a fag or a queer is to say they are less than a man, the subtext of which is “gay.” These words are so popular in disses because they cut to the bone, and that blade drips with the blood of martyred gay men.

Likewise, let’s entertain that “faggot” has evolved to mean “bitch,” as Eminem and the South Park pricks have both argued. Terrific. You’ve stripped it of its homophobia and instead varnished it with sexism. Suddenly “faggot” means “woman” and not “gay man?” You’re still using the word to emasculate your opponent, and because sexism and homophobia are so intricately connected, you’re essentially saying the same damn thing.

But beyond this, the fact remains that these words are still used to intimidate, bully, and harass gay folks. It happened in Chichester this month , in South Yorkshire just last month, and in the armed forces, too. It’s not just in the villages and towns, though; it’s happening in the cities too, like this case in Edinburgh and even right in the middle of Trafalgar Square. In so many of these attacks, homophobic slurs (like “fag” and “queer”) were used as the victims were ruthlessly and brutally attacked. And it doesn’t seem the were attacked for being “punks” or “assholes.”

Or, to put it blatantly enough for James Arthur and Eminem, they were called faggots and then physically assaulted for being gay.

So don’t tell me that word doesn’t mean what I know it means. Don’t tell me that the guys in high school were threatening my life because I was a dickhead. Don’t tell me that these words mean something they don’t. The meaning is obvious.

And, because I’m nice like this, I’ll make a deal with y’all. As soon as “fag” and “queer” are no longer used to harass and terrorise LGBT people, we’ll be sure to let you know. Until then, kindly shut the fuck up.

EDIT 18 November 2013 at 12:49 GMT: I just read this on the use of LGBT slurs in schools , and it’s relevant and worth a share.

#NNSexism: Newsnight illustrates the rise, Twitter the need, of digital feminism

Last night, Fi Glover had an excellent piece on BBC’s Newsnight about digital feminism and the future of women’s liberation in the 21st century. She profiled Laura Bates’ “Everyday Sexism Project”, the media’s fascination with and objectification of breasts, including Amanda Palmer’s Glastonbury nip slip, as well as the objectification of black women’s bodies. The prevailing theme was that technology and social media is changing the face of feminism, promoting the democratisation of the women’s movement.

So perhaps it was inevitable that a story about feminists online would prompt a storm of controversy on the Twittersphere. Using the hashtag #NNSexism, the Twitterati engaged the masses in their own experiences with everyday sexism while a debate erupted over the role of feminism and, indeed, women themselves. One of the biggest debates I had was the tiresome, redundant, 20th century debate over the difference between sex and gender, as illustrated below:

Now, for those of you who aren’t aware, the difference between sex and gender is quite simple. Sex (male/female) is physiological. It has to do with your reproductive organs, your hormones, and your pelvic bone. Gender (man/woman), on the contrary, is a social construct. It’s the set of characteristics we are assigned, even before birth, based on our sex. Think of it as blue for boys, pink for girls. Dolls for Linda, trucks for Liam. It’s not a radical notion; it’s been debated pretty heavily for the past sixty years, certainly since the advent of the third wave feminism in the United States.

My position sparked a lot of vitriol, mostly from conservative (small c) men. Some of it was quite nasty:

Others took to calling out the “sexism” of the Newsnight piece:

What was most poignant, though, were the women (and some men, like myself) using the hashtag as a sounding board for their own experiences with everyday sexism:

What was most disappointing was the number of men trying to trivialise or completely write off sexism and misogyny:

To say there is no evidence of real sexism is laughable. It certainly shows, at the very least, that one hasn’t been paying much attention to, well, anything. Just this month we’ve had Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis speak out on the fear many women have of being “found out” or labeled a “fraud”, the United Nations showing just what the internet thinks of women (and it isn’t pretty), and The Great British Bakeoff finalist Ruby Tandoh defending herself against allegations that she flirted herself to the top. I mean, cos, you know, pretty women can’t bake well. Only male chefs and your nan.

Or they attempted to turn the conversation away from women and onto their own perceived grievances:

Which Laurie Penny succinctly put down to actual, perhaps stealthy, misogyny:

And of which I stand guilty:

I’ll be honest, it hadn’t occurred to me that by sharing my own experience I was steering the conversation away from sexism against women (which is 99% of sexism, after all). In fact, I thought Laurie Penny was calling me specifically out when she tweeted that, and it made me reevaluate my personal approach to the hashtag. After all, regardless of whether or not I identify as a feminist, gay men are still capable of sexism, and we have a notorious entitlement to womanhood and women’s bodies.

In the end I forgave myself. My feminist credentials are fairly well known, and while it was perhaps rude to change the subject in the middle of a conversation, it wasn’t entirely off-topic. In fact, I challenged Laurie on this point (and got no response, I should mention-though I do hope she’d agree):

For as the men who couldn’t grasp the difference between sex and gender prove, we (as a society) can’t even seem to get the vocabulary, let alone the conversation, right. So the men who actually acknowledge not only the merits of feminism but the hindrance patriarchy places on their own existence ought to be not only allowed but encouraged to freely contribute. At the very least we’re acknowledging sexism is real and tangible, which is more than can be said for a great lot of us.

That’s not to give us a pass, though. Patriarchy manifests itself in all sorts of ways, and the internet has proven that even those of us with the best intentions can sometimes stand accused, and even slightly guilty of, inadvertent sexism. In the end, Newsnight did a commendable job of highlighting the rise of digital feminism, but Twitter itself illustrated the dire need for it. Social media makes it possible, in real time, to illustrate tangible examples of blatant and even unintentional sexism and misogyny, and the Twittersphere was not lacking either yesterday. The rise of sites like EverydayFeminism and Jezebel give voice to women (and men) who may otherwise lack one, and perhaps it’s only a matter of time until we have a Feminist Spring.

Until then, let’s all brainstorm it a catchy hashtag.

Louise Baldock and the Case of the Shoddy Speller

There was more bullying on Twitter last night than on an episode of “Glee.”

Just a quick word on the Louise Baldock brouhaha. See, I was actually a minor part of this skirmish, trying to be a voice of reason in an otherwise trivial melee.

It all started when a Labour campaigner tweeted something about the Tories, and the local Conservative Future group responded attacking his spelling.:

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Of course, Labour supporters rallied to his support, and a massive exchange began which you can read here: https://twitter.com/CameronBrownUK/status/394499685412790272

Now, I don’t support bullying, regardless of where it comes from. Especially a classic example of classism, where lack of education, poor grammar, what have you is used to discredit an opponent’s argument. This is a basic ad hominem, used to discredit working class opinions as barely worth acknowledging, unless with derision. It’s unacceptable in the 21st century, and it honestly makes the bully look more foolish than the victim. You don’t have a better counter than “oh nice spelling, mate?” Clever, you. I’m sold. Tories FTW. (This is where we should collectively roll our eyes.)

So then, Gareth Anderson, a Conservative councilor from somewhere or another, starts tweeting examples of Labour bullying of Tories. I tell him that yes, I’m equally appalled. The bully can strike from the right or the left. The victim is still left battered.

Anyway, this goes on for probably about an hour, before Louise Baldock tweets the following:

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Isn’t it just as much a logical fallacy to label the Tories the “nasty party” (not to mention trite, tired, and redundant)? Of course it is.

Louise says she has no more to say, and that’s that. I figure the conversation is over.
Well, flash forward to this evening, and Guido Fawkes has picked up the exchange. Say what you will about Guido Fawkes, but he’s pretty clever when it comes to digging up dirt on Labour. So naturally, he found an example of Louise Baldock, who criticised the Tories as elitist for bashing someone’s spelling, doing just the same. Unbelievable.

Except that it isn’t. We shouldn’t be shocked. Political discourse on both sides of the Atlantic has fallen to septic levels. British politics have typically been a bit more vitriolic than American politics, largely due to the structure of debate being more formal and restrictive in the US Congress. But this is just outrageous. Instead of attacking one another’s policies and offering their constituents a healthy debate, the Labour PPC and her Tory opponents launched into an argument that was tantamount to “I know you are, but what am I?”

No wonder Russell Brand wants a revolution.

(Note: apologies for the crude formatting. I’m having issues with WordPress this evening.)