Monthly Archives: August 2014

It gets better

One of the many bullying-survivor initiatives out there is It Gets Better. I have a mixed emotional response to this site and its name. The premise is a sound one: it aims to give hope to LGBT youth and let them know that life may suck now, but it will get better when you leave school and enter the big world. That’s great, but whilst it’s not an out-and-out lie like sticks and stones, pinning a teen’s life on the vague hope that it will get better at some indeterminate time in the future is a little bit rubbish. Sure, there are resources on the site for dealing with bullying now and the idea behind it is to maintain hope, without which we are all lost, but again and again, the site’s very title tells me that there is nothing you can do to fix your situation: you must simply endure it and wait for it to resolve on its own.

This wait is too long for some. Just Google for “bullied to death” and you will see many, many stories from and about people for whom the here-and-now proved too much. It did not get better for them, and suggesting that all they had to do was hang on for a little while longer (“a little while” could be your entire lifespan to date for some people) is not particularly helpful in my book.

Not only is the endure-for-years model bad for people who are bullied, it is bad for the bullies and society in general, too. The Wikipedia article on school bullying cites a Lisa Garby study that suggests that as many as 60% of people who bully at school will have a criminal conviction by the age of 24. If bullying is allowed to continue and the victim urged to simply hang in there, the life of the bully is on a poor trajectory, which will harm that person and also leave them in a place where they continue to harm others and, possibly, land them in jail. There has to be a better way.

The cure for bullying is for figures in authority to engage with the bully. A victim of bullying has had their power taken away, and the vast majority of people in this situation simply cannot take steps on their own to make it stop. The onus is on the school (in the case of bullying in school, of course, school is not the only venue) to address three issues:

  1. The victim: the victim must be supported and be told that bullying is never justified, that no behaviour justifies bullying, and that a victim does not bring it upon themselves (the same can be said for rape, of course).
  2. The bully: people are not naturally hateful to one another. As we have seen, the default position for most of us is blithe indifference. It takes a deliberate action on someone’s part for them to cross from indifference into negative action. People who make this choice must be taught that such decisions are a) decisions and b) harmful. Causing harm to others is not acceptable.
  3. The underlying cause: when someone takes the decision to harm someone, there is a reason why they are doing it. You can guarantee that the person doing the bullying wouldn’t want it to happen to them, so authority figures must work out why it is happening, what is causing that person to take that decision. It could be that the bully is acting out a horrible home situation: the school has a duty to identify children at risk and to involve the relevant child protection bodies.

I guess that I’m advocating a holistic approach to this. Separating the victim from the bully is often not practically possible, and can be counter-productive, as it can send the message that the bullying is justified but we’d rather not have to deal with it. Counselling the victim is good, but doesn’t go far enough. Ignoring the problem costs lives. The only way is to deal with the whole problem, to support the victim, to learn about the bully’s life and to work to support them too, to emphasise that bullying is not an appropriate response to your own life situation, and also to promote an environment where people are accepted in all their difference. If the school accepts and celebrates everyone from all situations with all presentations, there will be no characteristics that can be used as handles for bullying.

For Jane Lynch, the handle was her sexuality; for Laverne Cox, it was her transgender identity; for me it was the fact that some people decided that I was gay. In an environment where all of these things are celebrated, they cannot be used to justify bullying, and bullies-to-be will learn that we are all people.

Having bitched for 800 words, I will return to hope. It Gets Better aims to spread hope, and I will never say that is a bad thing. In the words of the great J Michael Straczynski,

G’Quon wrote, There is a greater darkness than the one we fight. It is the darkness of the soul that has lost its way.

The war we fight is not against powers and principalities – it is against chaos and despair. Greater than the death of flesh is the death of hope, the death of dreams. Against this peril we can never surrender.

Something Positive

I promised something a bit more positive this week. You could do worse than start here, but that’s off-topic…

Bad news is normally the only news that finds its way onto our screens, and there is plenty to go around at the moment, with the human race never seeming to tire of inventing new ways and new reasons to kill and oppress itself, but I feel strongly that there is hope for us as a species. That is one of the reasons I started this blog in the first place: to point out some of the things that are wrong so that we might do things a bit differently in the future. Today, though, I’ll look at some of the good things that are piling up on my desk.

I’ll lead with the Equality Act 2010. As the name suggests, it’s a law that received Royal Assent in the UK in 2010 with the aim of consolidating a raft of older laws like the Race Relations Act, the Sex Discrimination Act and so on and bring all equality legislation under on single Act.  It is far from perfect (laws never are), but it is a huge step in the right direction. Its aim is to make it illegal for any entity (person, group or company) that provides services to the public to discriminate against people, and to try to make everyone’s lives a little easier.

The Act defines a number of “protected characteristics“, namely sex, sexuality, disability, ethnic origin, religion, gender-reassignment, age, maternity and marriage/civil partnership. It then goes on to state that it is illegal to discriminate against anybody on the grounds of them having one or more of those protected characteristics. It is legal to take positive action to support a group that is disadvantaged in order to level the playing field, so women-only groups are still allowed and the not-all-men brigade needn’t throw their toys out of the pram (although, I believe that it is unlawful to prevent transgender women from joining such groups, which is good as, historically, transwomen have not been made welcome in many women’s groups).

For me, one annoying part is that gender reassignment is only truly covered when a person has stated their wish to transition, so a boy who likes dresses, for example, isn’t directly protected if he’s happy identifying as a boy. That said, one local expert I spoke to recently suggested that the Act does cover gender-nonconforming youngsters, because it is possible that they might seek transition at some point in the future. I guess that the courts are being left to decide on this particular issue.

The act also defines the Public Sector Equality Duty which, amongst other things, puts a requirement on public bodies (including schools) to foster good relations between people with protected characteristics and those without. When I first read this, I thought that it was gloriously wooly legalese that would have no actual impact beyond making some people feel warm and fuzzy inside. Further reading and personal education, however, leads me to believe that this is one of the most powerful sections of the Act. Most relevant to my family, it places the duty on schools to educate their children and staff that people who are different from average are people and need to be treated as such. It requires schools to educate their children that people from different ethnic backgrounds, people from different religions, people with different gender expression, people with disabilities, people from different family backgrounds (children with two daddies, for example) and so on and so on are people. If implemented enthusiastically, this provision has the power to wipe out tribal hatred in the UK in a single generation.

It’s not going to happen, of course, but it’s a positive step, and I am making sure that the school my children attend is embracing this duty. I admit that I have a very specific approach to Catholicism but, in my view, I believe that we Catholics should be leading the charge in proclaiming the equality of all people, including groups historically oppressed by Catholicism. What can I say? I’m an incurable optimist.

Enough on that: there’s more good news.

The Church of England recently voted to allow women to be ordained bishops. Wooyay. The title “bishop” means “successor of the Apostles”. One (Catholic) bishop shared a child’s explanation of his position: “you know someone who knew someone who knew someone who knew someone who knew someone … etc … who knew Jesus.” So, bishops are what Jesus’ closest friends left behind when they got old and started dying, teaching their friends all that Jesus had taught them, and passing on the faith. But that was only the guys, right? Well, there is one person with one very specific title who holds a place of honour within Church history. The Apostle to the Apostles helped and comforted the men when they were down, ministered to them when they needed support and was generally awesome. Her earthly reward, naturally, was to be maligned and called a prostitute. There is no biblical evidence for this reputation, but I digress.

Two thousand years after Jesus walked the Earth, one of his bigger churches has finally noticed that St Paul might have been right about one thing.

This is significant to me, because the Anglican Church is closer to the Catholic Church than most other Protestant denominations and, therefore, has (a little) more influence over the direction it takes. The RCC, of course, announced that the Anglicans ordaining women to the episcopate was a problem, but hey: it’s a great step and I’m celebrating it.

And one more thing before I let you go: historically, Baptists have gained a reputation for themselves as being on the more conservative end of the Christian spectrum (and famously, the Westboro crowd (no, I’m not providing a link) have taken it so far as to smash the definition of Christianity, stamp on it, crap on it and throw festering, pooey shards in the faces of everyone they can reach), yet here we are in a world where a Baptist church in the US has actually ordained not only a woman, but a transgender woman as a pastor. Story here.

I close with a special hello to my readers in Brazil, Australia and New Zealand. You are all very welcome. Please drop by and say hello in the comments…

Have a wonderful week, everyone.

Monday bonus: even sweeties objectify women

This tin of sweets recently arrived in our office.

I’m not a huge fan of rhubarb and custard, so I’ve not tasted them yet, but I find myself astonished that someone decided that that particular combination of image and text, albeit a throwback to a more misogynistic time, was appropriate for a tin of sweeties sold in the 21st century.

We have a bare-chested woman, with a chequered-flag miniskirt sitting behind the text “jump in and enjoy the ride”.

  1. She has no relevance to the product in the tin
  2. She is being presented as a sexual object
  3. Her body is being advertised as something to be used for our enjoyment, something we can “jump” into without regard for consent or mutuality
  4. The goal of the race, as denoted by the chequered flag, is her genital area

This is a tin of sweeties, for goodness sake, not some kind of scratch-and-sniff porn show.

Happier topic tomorrow. Meldrew out.

Victim blaming

Another cheery topic this week, with another rape trigger warning (and one for domestic violence too). Gosh, what happy times we live in. I promise a more positive post next week.

Victim blaming happens when the victim of a crime and/or harassment is deemed to have, somehow, caused the attack. In its most recognisable form, it is the simple question “what were you wearing” when a woman tells you that she has been sexually assaulted. The person asking the question is expecting the answer “a skirt short enough to be a belt and make-up applied with a trowel.”

There’s a petition at change.org (sign it, please, if you haven’t already) to get a poster removed from hospitals that carries the message “ONE IN THREE REPORTED RAPES HAPPENS WHEN THE VICTIM HAS BEEN DRINKING”, apparently without irony. I have seen various versions of this poster with the text altered down two main tracks.  The first is “TWO IN THREE REPORTED RAPES HAPPEN WHEN THE VICTIM IS SOBER: STAY DRUNK, GIRLS, YOU’RE SAFER THAT WAY” and “THREE IN THREE REPORTED RAPES HAPPEN WHEN SOMEONE DECIDES TO RAPE”. Suggesting that getting drunk somehow gives permission for criminal behaviour is a bit ridiculous, really. As I discussed a few weeks ago, being drunk takes away one’s ability to consent, it doesn’t give consent. In a nutshell: DRUNK MEANS NO.

I am in two minds about recommending self-defence classes specifically for women. On the one hand, as a practitioner of martial arts, I am hugely in favour of everyone learning and training in the arts of combat. It’s great fun, enhances strength and fitness, and it improves confidence. That said, suggesting that women need to learn how to defend themselves, up to and including the application of violence, is suggesting that it is her responsibility to not be attacked. It isn’t. It is the responsibility of every member of society not to attack anyone. This is part of the social contract.

Back to the Steubenville case, I found this article, yesterday, which summarises it quite beautifully:

Regardless of the strength of your GPA (weighted or unweighted), if you commit rape, there is a possibility you may someday be convicted of a sex crime. This is because of your decision to commit a sex crime instead of going for a walk…

It doesn’t have to be sexual violence, either, of course. I am a fan of Robot Hugs, the author has some very good points to make about what they observe in society, and how that affects their life. One that seems relevant here is this one. The antagonist in this little scene took issue with the author’s desire to exercise her right to be left alone on public transport, got angry, threatening and abusive, and attributed all of that rage to the author. It was the author’s fault that the antagonist was enraged: the author was entirely to blame for bringing the abuse down upon themselves.

Sir Patrick Stewart has some choice words to say about that attitude. His mother suffered terribly at the hands of his father. Attending services (ambulance, police, etc.) used to say “Mrs. Stewart, you must have done something to provoke him.”

Wrong.  Wrong!  My mother did nothing to provoke that. And even if she had, violence is never, ever, EVER a choice that a man should make.

Sir Patrick makes a very good point here. Doing violence is a choice. It is the choice of the person doing the violence. That person always has the option of, well, you know, not doing the violence.

Bullying is another place where victims are routinely blamed for being assaulted. Chandler Elementary, in North Carolina, hit the news a few months back because it decided to take a firm hand when one of its students, Grayson Bruce was being bullied because he had a My Little Pony backpack. The problem was the backpack, of course. The fact that some of the kids in the school were choosing to assault Grayson was neither here nor there. The solution was simple: ban the backpack. Because nobody ever continues to bully the kid they used to bully just because the school has taken away one excuse. No, that never happens. The school reacting to limit the victim’s behaviour is doing the bully’s job for them.

Of course, none of this would ever happen if we only treated each other as people.

The sell-out

A number of years ago, my wife and I visited her mother, at home, in Trinidad. It was a wonderful visit, filled with beautiful sights and beautiful people. And Richard’s Shark And Bake on Maracas beach. Yummy.

It wasn’t completely perfect, however. One day, we’d just got out of our shared taxi at Mum’s house when the guy we were sharing the taxi with told the driver, in a voice deliberately loud enough for us all to hear, “That’s a sell-out, that is. A sell-out.”

There were ways we could interpret it, but he clearly meant that my wife had sold out by marrying a white Englishman. She should have married a black guy. Should she marry the guy she fell in love with? Naah. She should marry a black guy.

Closer to home, we’ve had very very little problem. Once, however, when we we’d visited London one night, a black guy walking the other way gave me a stare that could shift burnt scrambled egg off a saucepan. Again, clearly because I was a white guy with a dark woman on his arm.

Both of these incidents were, of course, racist. In their eyes, I had no right to be falling in love and marrying a black woman. I was stealing her away from black men who should have been allowed to have her. My wife was selling out and getting ideas above her station, having the audacity to marry a white foreigner.

The racist aspect is clear. Lurking just below the surface, though, is the fact that both of these incidents were deeply sexist too.

In both situations, my wife had been reduced to property. My property. The implication was that I had no right to be shopping in their market and acquiring for myself an object that should be left for black guys, and I should be ashamed of myself for parading around in public with her hanging on my arm like cheap bling. I should get out of their faces and go find myself a white woman and leave the black women for black men.

Let’s break open some of the points being made:

  • A woman is property to be acquired and displayed
  • Skin colour is an important consideration when falling in love
  • White men need to keep their hands off coloured women
  • Foreign men need to keep their hands off local women
  • A woman has no role to play in the selection of a husband
  • Coloured people have lower status than white people

Racism and sexism curl around each other like the twin strands that form the argument’s DNA.

On the race side, the last point is important, not least because it is the assumption that the other guys were working from when looking at me. With that attitude in place, a white wife is aspirational for a black man. Should none be available, you have to settle for a black woman. I had taken a black woman out of the pool and those guys were angry at me for reducing their choice. In addition, my wife was seen as seeking to raise her status by marrying me, and we all have a special bucket of contempt for people with ideas above their station.

The sexism strand says that I, as a man, have done my shopping, on the wrong side of the market, and have picked myself a bargain, and lowered my status by doing so. One thing guaranteed to get a sexist guy’s back up is to see another guy lower his status. Had I been a black guy with a white wife, I’d have got high-fives all round, because grabbing my self a handful of white flesh would raise my status. A poor man with a Harrod’s shopping bag, rather than a rich guy with an Aldi bag.

Another incident in the same stable took place before we were married. My wife visited family in New York. One night, her cousin dropped in and demanded that she change out of her pyjamas and go out on the town with him, whereupon he took it upon himself to try to set her up with a “decent” black guy, to save her from the indignity of marrying her white fiance. She was unimpressed. He was treating her like an object to be sold to his mates, he was completely disrespectful of her choice to marry a white guy, he was utterly fine with ignoring her preference to stay at home and go to bed, he didn’t see the relationship with the white guy as valid. He had put his choice for her life before her own and hadn’t even asked her for her opinion on the matter.

The only way out of this tangled mess is to treat everyone as people. I, this person, fell in love with that person, and she fell in love with me. As people, we decided to marry and spend the rest of our lives together, charting a course that neither would have taken alone. We both chose this, for reasons utterly unrelated to the perceived status of sex and skin tone, we did it because we love.

So no, I didn’t marry my wife in order to raise her status, or to lower mine; she didn’t marry me to raise her status or to lower mine. Viewing our marriage though the eyes of status demeans you, for you are treating your sex and skin colour as more important than your humanity, and that harms us all.