Simulcast preview of Max’s new podcast, ‘Not Having Sex’, with co-host Bibi Lynch. Contains all the usual bad language, plus added Bibi.
Subscribe via your usual podcast provider.
Simulcast preview of Max’s new podcast, ‘Not Having Sex’, with co-host Bibi Lynch. Contains all the usual bad language, plus added Bibi.
Subscribe via your usual podcast provider.
In the wake of the harrowing news about kidnapping and murder of Sarah Everard this week, the responses on social media have been predictably and undeniably grim. Woman after woman recounting their terrible experiences of abusive behaviour at the hands of men, from inappropriate, sexually aggressive comments, to unwanted physical advances, to the heart-pounding fear of walking anywhere alone, all the way through to violent sexual assault and rape. Literally every woman you know has experienced one or more of these abuses on multiple occasions during their lives.
Our response, as men, to that outpouring of truth, was for #NotAllMen to be trending on Twitter for the best part of a day. How we railed at the implication that we may bear some collective responsibility for the perpetual fear women face just going about their daily lives. How we demanded that those speaking out about their experiences give us, the ‘good guys’, a pat on the head for managing not to rape them. How we persisted, so bravely, to once again make women’s trauma all about us.
I watched in horror as, even after Me Too, and all the subsequent revelations about how this kind of behaviour is allowed to take hold, so many of us failed (refused, perhaps?) to recognise the impact our own behaviour can have, searching desperately for anything that would give us a ‘get out’, to preserve our precious self-image as one of the good ‘uns. I saw posts from at least two gay men who were extremely upset that they were being ‘lumped in’ with the comments about male behaviour, when everyone knows it was the straight guys wot done it.
I tweeted the following this morning, and the responses to it were so revealing:
“It is All Men, actually.
All Men have the ability to cause harm to women.
All Men need to examine whether their own behaviour might be responsible for making women feel afraid or uncomfortable.
All Men could do more to bring about an end to violence against women.
Of course, there were the inevitable replies from men who were righteously aggrieved at this unconscionable attack on their impeccable character, but the thing that really stood out for me was the number of women expressing their gratitude that I’d tweeted it at all. Why? For what?
I did the absolute fucking bare minimum any of us should be doing. I don’t need thanks for that. Shit, I don’t deserve thanks for that, but it does serve to underline how much more we could all be doing to create a situation where the bare minimum is no longer considered cause for gratitude.
It is helpful, and often accurate, to think of any system of violence or oppression as a kind of pyramid. At its base rest the majority who, whilst perhaps not actively involved in the violence or oppression, provide the foundation for those who are. At each level above that, fewer and fewer individuals reside, until we reach the apex, where the most appalling atrocities are committed.
Taking homophobia as a brief example, the base might consist of those who don’t really think much about gay people at all, or how they can help to create a safer environment for us. Next up might be those who turn a blind eye when their friends or colleagues make homophobic jokes or comments. Next might be those who actually make those jokes or comments, or who use the word ‘gay’ as an insult. Above that might be those who say things like, “I don’t mind gay people existing, but I don’t think they should be allowed to have children, be spoken about in schools etc.” You get the picture: the individuals who reside at the top, the ones who beat and murder gay people just for being gay, are but a tiny minority of the overall structure, but they are held in place by those below, supporting them, providing the framework for their existence.
The same analogy can be applied to violence against women. Yes, guys, most of us are not rapists or murderers of women, but how many of us can truly, genuinely, say we’re doing everything in our power to dismantle patriarchal power structures, to call out borderline (or even more obvious) behaviour in our friendship groups and families, to examine our own behaviour and consider whether it might be contributing to the climate of fear in which women permanently abide?
We’re the fucking base, lads. We’re the foundation upon which the ‘nice tits, luv’ layer, the walking behind a woman on a dark street layer, the sexually coercive boss layer, the stalker layer and the rape/murder layer rest. Without us, the rest of the pyramid starts to look decidedly precarious. We can actively strive to take away that support, and bring the whole thing crashing down.
To labour the analogy just a little further, if I may, a pyramid is a huge structure, and of course no man can dismantle it alone. What we can do is to chip away at our own little corner, and encourage others to do likewise. We can create instability around us, even if there are those who refuse to join in. We can resolve, when women justifiably complain that it’s not coming down quick enough, not to respond with anger because we’re chipping as fast as we can, but to look for more efficient and effective ways of toppling those upper layers.
If we’re the ‘good guys’ we claim to be, it shouldn’t be a burden to adopt a position of hyper-vigilance in this matter. Hyper-vigilance is second nature to women. In the stock cupboard at work, in a car park after dark, in a quiet park, walking down the street, and all too often, in their own homes. They are conditioned to it from a very young age, and it’s time for us to join them.
Talk to your friends, your brothers, your sons and nephews. Refuse to join in with the sexist jokes and ‘banter’. Call out inappropriate behaviour when you see it. Think about the effect on a woman if you jog past her shoulder from behind, or walk behind her after dark. Yes, even if you’re gay. Unless you’re wearing glitter and rainbows and singing a Judy Garland medley, it might not be immediately obvious to a woman who has walked this road so many times that you do not present a threat. Recognise that what you see as ‘harmless flirtation’ can, if not reciprocated, be deeply unsettling to the woman concerned. These are only a few examples, but I’m sure those of us who really are ‘good guys’, will take it upon themselves to find more.
The easiest way of doing this, of course, is to listen to women. Read their tweets, their Facebook posts and their articles, and consider – really consider – what changes you can make to help dismantle the pyramid of male violence they have to circumnavigate every day of their lives. Because, however uncomfortable it may be to hear, we all sit somewhere within its structure.
Lockdowns are shit.
That might seem like a ridiculously obvious thing to say, but there are those out there who seem to think that people exist who think of them as an extended holiday, a little jolly where we get to sit at home in our jammies all day watching Netflix, a chance to bunk off and collect that lovely, free government money, so it bears making this very simple point clear at the outset: lockdowns are fucking shit. They amplify inequality, damage mental health, place vulnerable people at risk, decimate businesses and isolate members of minority communities from the essential support networks on which they rely. They are so perniciously harmful that no one in their right mind would be suggesting any kind of lockdown, much less the strict nationwide lockdown so many are now calling for, if it wasn’t absolutely essential.
There are, of course, ways to mitigate the harms caused by lockdowns: locking down early enough and strictly enough that the duration is kept to an absolute minimum, providing adequate financial support to individuals and businesses affected by the measures, a comprehensive plan to provide distance or blended learning in the hope of minimising the deleterious effects on those in full-time education, effective test, trace and isolate programmes, and clear, honest communication designed to bring the public along with any unavoidable disruption to their lives, rights and freedoms. Not ripping the arse out of mental health provision for a full decade prior to the commencement of any such restrictions might also be helpful, but here we are.
The sad fact is, our government has singularly failed to adopt any of these mitigation strategies since the very start of this pandemic. Both the first and second lockdowns took place weeks after scientists were calling for them to be implemented. Financial support has been deliberately – maliciously, even – inadequate, with many people cut adrift from the limited help available, and the government having to be shamed into doing the bare fucking basics like feeding hungry children, on two separate occasions, by a footballer. Eat out to help out, the rush to reopen schools and universities, the steadfast unwillingness to close them again even after it became clear that they were a significant source of community transmission, the threats to ‘get back to work or lose your jobs’, the persistence with the tier system of local restrictions that scientists warned would be ineffective before it was introduced and which was later shown to be just that, the staggering, face-melting stupidity of the Christmas super-spreader event; this government has failed at every turn to protect the public from the virus, and to minimise the need for, and duration of, further lockdowns.
The situation with schools is particularly worrying. And again, before I go any further, let me be abundantly clear: school ‘closures’ are also shit. I used the word ‘closures’ in inverted commas because the reality is that the schools have never been ‘closed’. They have always been open to the children of key workers and vulnerable children, which is as it should be. But to keep them open to all students at this stage of the pandemic is an act of criminal negligence that will serve only to increase transmission and cause thousands more deaths.
Of course no one wants schools to close (or, more accurately, to move to distance learning for an extended period of time). My son, who is very vocally Not A Fan of school, would still rather be there than separated from his friends for months on end, learning from a computer in his bedroom. During the first lockdown, he became progressively more miserable and withdrawn, despite our best efforts to prevent this, and it was heartbreaking to see. He returned to physical school attendance in September, and from a social point of view, it was obviously a huge improvement. We took him back into a remote learning environment last November when it became clear that everything was starting to go very badly sideways again, and although we took this decision with his consent, he still fucking hates it. The thing is, however, he hates it considerably less than he would hate me or his mother, who both have underlying conditions, becoming seriously ill or dying.
Closing schools and universities now is a no-brainer. It’s a shitty, horrible option that is still considerably better than the shittier, even more horrible alternative.
We now stand at a precipice. A variant of Covid somewhere between 50 and 70% more transmissible than the original strain is now tearing across the country unchecked. The graph of confirmed infections is more or less a straight, vertical line and hospital admissions have already exceeded the level of the last peak in April. Due to a better understanding of the disease and greater awareness of how to treat it, the number of daily deaths hasn’t quite caught up to the horrendous levels of the first wave, but they’re not far off, and they will get there, whatever we do next. A full, strict, UK-wide lockdown will almost certainly be insufficient to prevent a recurrence of the horrors of last spring, and we could still reach the stage where the NHS is unable to treat some Covid patients, even with those measures in place. This will also have a knock-on effect to routine care and other critical care, causing an increase in excess ‘non-Covid’ deaths as a result.
The strain on NHS staff now is unimaginable. Many are off sick, either with Covid-19 or related exhaustion from having to work 80+ hours a week over an extended period to cover for their stricken colleagues. Some are reporting conditions akin to, or virtually identical to, PTSD, and beds, together with the human beings needed to staff those beds, are quickly running out. All of which is likely to create a domino effect that will claim tens or even hundreds of thousands of lives. This remains true even if we act now. Today.
If we do not act now, if we delay or prevaricate or dither for another moment, we risk this disease getting completely, irretrievably out of control. Every day we fail to act is another day where more than 50,000 people (that we know about) contract the virus. Given that, in most areas, you can only book a Covid test if you are displaying symptoms, the real number is almost certainly significantly higher. And with the R-rate well above 1, this 50,000 symptomatic cases will grow to 100,000 and beyond in a very short space of time. If the hospitalisations and deaths grow proportionately alongside that, we will be in a very dark place indeed.
We have a vaccine available. Two, in fact. That is the only good news to emerge out of any of this, but vaccines alone are not sufficient to prevent what undoubtedly awaits us should we fail to take the drastic action needed to reduce the unrestrained spread of this lethal new variant. The government must act now, in partnership with devolved administrations, to implement a full lockdown of the entire UK, to move schools and universities online, to ban most flights in or out of the country, to close all non-essential retail, hospitality and entertainment venues, and, crucially, to provide the support, financial or otherwise, needed for us to emerge safely at the other side when the vaccine rollout is complete.
It’s going to be shit because, as I think I mentioned, lockdowns are really, really fucking shit. But when you’re faced with an inescapable choice between a kick in the balls/minge (delete as appropriate) or a bullet in the head, all you can do is spread your legs, brace yourself, and look forward to the day when you’ve recovered from the damage in a way that would not be possible if you opted for the alternative.
I don’t really know what this piece is yet, or how it will look when it’s finished. I usually have a plan formed in my brain before I sit down to write: a message I wish to convey, a start point, an end point, and some kind of imprecise mental map as to how I’ll join those two points together. I have none of that this time, just a bunch of feelings I need to get out of my head in the hope that they’ll stop fucking shit up in there, so please bear with me if it lacks the coherence you’ve hopefully come to expect.
I think the main thing I feel is lonely. And isolated. And a bit sad. On top of that, there’s a huge dollop of guilt gnawing away at me because I’m surrounded by a supportive and loving family, and I have no right to feel any of those things. There are millions of people who, over the past nine months, have lost loved ones, incomes, homes, and careers they’ve worked for decades to build. There are those who live alone, or who reside in a household with an abusive partner or parents. There are countless individuals who have been abandoned in care homes by a government that has singularly failed to protect them from the ravages of this pandemic, even as it shamelessly lined the pockets of its already obscenely wealthy donors. Sure, I’ve had a few financial struggles since March, but who hasn’t? Objectively and comparatively, I know I’ve had it ridiculously easy.
Most regular readers of this website will already know my story, but for those who don’t, I’ll give a brief recap. I am a 41-year-old gay man who didn’t come out until the age of 37. After I came out, unusually, I suppose, my wife and I decided to remain married. We did so for a whole number of reasons, but primarily because we recognised that there was more than one way to love a person, more than one way for a relationship to be successful. We still had (and have) a huge amount of love for one another and, together with our son, we remain a close-knit family unit.
The benefits of this decision are, I hope, fairly obvious, and I wouldn’t change it for anything. But it’s not without its drawbacks either. Living in a northern city with a relatively small LGBTQ population, in what, to the casual observer, is a regular old straight marriage, leaves me faced with a choice between being my whole self and attracting a lot of unwanted, intrusive questions (for me and my wife), or continuing to hide part of myself to ‘fit in’. Unfortunately, I always seem to opt for the latter: the path of least resistance. And it’s not even necessarily a conscious decision. It’s a thing that happens automatically as a result of more than three decades of conditioning.
Before the advent of All This Shit, I had a way of offsetting this propensity to fall back into old, destructive habits. My regular visits to London, where lots of my friends reside, and where huge numbers of The Gays may be found, would give me the chance, for a few precious days, to feel completely comfortable with who I am, to be surrounded by others like me, and to free the repressed homosexual who has been hiding inside me since childhood.
My wife would always remark upon how happy I seemed on my return. How relaxed I would appear. How proudly and unapologetically gay I would be, like the spark in my eyes had been reignited. It was like there was a big old ‘RESET’ button somewhere inside me, the pressing of which returned me to the factory settings that were installed at birth, but which have been relentlessly corrupted, year on year, by the Gay Shame malware.
This system wasn’t perfect – what is? – but it worked to a large extent, and I know it would be unrealistic to expect that I could emerge from the closet this late in life without having to make some sacrifices. I have a million ‘what ifs’ in my head, but we can’t undo the past, and I couldn’t honestly say I would undo it even if I could. Maybe things would have turned out better if I’d realised some truths about myself earlier, but I could never wish away my best friend and the not-completely-terrible human we created together. We have to play the hand we’re dealt, and this situation was the best available to me under the circumstances, for all its imperfections.
So when The Bad Thing happened earlier this year, it pulled the rug out a little bit. At the time, I knew it would be difficult for a few months until things got back on track, and I was prepared for that. What I wasn’t prepared for was this interminable omnifuck to stretch out for what will be well in excess of a year by the time things return to whatever the fuck normal looks like when it’s over. I wasn’t prepared – even with my rock-bottom expectations for this shit-dribbling clown car of a government – to be nervously eyeing the 2021 calendar wondering how much of it we’ll have chewed through before I can safely enter a gay bar again. At this point, it feels like not only has the rug has been pulled out, but like I’ve subsequently been beaten with a yard of pipe, wrapped in the rug and unceremoniously dumped off the edge of a dock like some kind of racist statue.
On top of all this, there was no Pride this year. Now, I realise there are lots of very valid criticisms of large Pride events – corporate pink-washing, admission charges, lack of representation for black and brown LGBTQ people, a failure to adequately raise trans voices at a time when it’s most necessary – but for all their failures, I do believe they are essentially a force for good. As a late-out gay who has hidden for most of his life, they’re an intrinsic part of my mental wellbeing. They’re a chance to be fully and unashamedly out, to be immersed in queerness, and yes, to embrace and promote those parts of our community that white cis gays have so often failed to support after they fought unflinchingly alongside us. There’s been a lot of talk about Christmas in the press and media over the past couple of weeks, how awful it would be if we had to cancel it etc, but I suspect Pride is at least as important to huge numbers of queer people, and its cancellation has barely registered in the mainstream discourse.
And I want to make it clear that this isn’t a sex thing. Sex is, to the best of my recollection, great, but it’s far from the top of the list of reasons I’m feeling all of the feelings. The opportunity to belong for a few hours, to be able to present freely in a (relatively) safe environment without looking over your shoulder and having to perform a thousand real-time calculations about whether The Way You Are is likely to lead to verbal or physical harassment, the chance to actively celebrate who you are, fuck, even just the opportunity to have some sort of affectionate physical contact with another man – I feel their loss. Keenly. Sharply. Increasingly.
I know this isn’t a permanent situation. One day it will be over. But in the meantime, it feels like a mental battle I’m not sure I’m winning. Maybe that’s what I wanted this piece to say: I’m not ok. I hope this doesn’t come across as too self-pitying – I recognise that we’re all going through it in different ways right now, but I suspect if you’ve never been part of a minority community, you’ll probably find it difficult to understand the impact of being cut off from that community. And maybe, hopefully, this weird stream of consciousness will have helped in some small way to further that understanding.
I’m always immensely grateful for the support I receive from strangers on this site and on Twitter, and I hope you’re all finding a way through this horror show that causes the least amount of damage possible. I share your anxieties about Covid and Brexit and all the other shit, and like the rest of you, I’m also missing my loved ones. The thing I’m most struggling to deal with, however, is missing part of myself.
Max talks about the US Election, the UK’s response to Covid-19 and the recent court ruling relating to trans healthcare. Contains frequent strong language.
As the crowds took to the streets on Saturday to celebrate the demise of Donald Trump’s presidency, it was hard to not be swept along on the tidal wave of euphoria. Many of us, myself included, shed tears of relief for black, Latinx, Muslim, gay and trans Americans who have endured four years of torture at his hands.
A few commentators remarked that the victory party was akin to scenes witnessed in other countries when a dictator is overthrown, and with good reason. Trump ruled by executive order, by diktat, by decree. His rhetoric, whilst largely incoherent, was very deliberately designed to sow division, to endanger the lives of those he despises. He wrought chaos for his own ends, as any dictator would, and his removal from office can only be a cause for celebration.
In the cold light of day, however, as the jubilant masses return to their homes, this election once again reveals the ugly truth about the good ol’ US of A. Despite Biden’s margin of victory in both the popular vote and the electoral college, there’s simply no hiding from the fact that more than 70 million people left their homes on 3 November, headed down to a polling place, and proudly voted for more of the same.
70 million people looked back at the past four years – the division, the hate, the full-throated support for white supremacists, the violence, the unrest, the criminal, wilful mishandling of the Covid-19 crisis – and decided that, yes, they would like to see another four years of this carnage.
And that, for all his ills, cannot be laid at Trump’s door. Donald Trump did not make America racist. He didn’t even make America more racist than it already was. What he did was to embolden the bigots, to validate their hateful views on the largest possible stage, to tell them that it was ok to think terrible thoughts and to express them openly, because their President was with them all the way. And it bears pointing out he didn’t do so without warning. He first rose to power on the back of a promise to give voice to racist ideals, and just under half the country could not have been happier. That his presidency came immediately after eight years of the Obama administration provides a jarring contrast, but it shouldn’t be surprising given how many Americans loathed the idea of a black man in the White House. Donald Trump is the symptom, not the disease.
A look at the breakdown of 2020 voting by demographic tells a sobering tale. It is estimated by the University of California that, nationally, 57% of white people voted for Trump. Just less than 6 out of every 10 white Americans voted for a further four years of a presidency under which black people and other minorities lived in a state of more or less constant fear for their mental wellbeing, their physical safety, and even their lives. Figures from 2016 show that if only white men had been allowed to vote, Trump would have won in all but a couple of states. These statistics reflect badly on all of us, whether we voted for him or not. It’s simply not enough to say, “I didn’t vote for him so my conscience is clear,” and to do so is an abdication of responsibility.
For white liberals, Trump’s divisive language is unconscionable. We don’t like these brash, overt displays of racism because they make us uncomfortable. We rail against such distasteful public celebrations of white supremacy because they might force us to confront some unpalatable truths about ourselves. Like how often do we speak out about the structural, systemic racism from which we all have gained an advantage? How much noise do we make about the barriers faced by black people to education, to housing, to healthcare or to equal employment prospects? How willing are we to overlook racist jokes or comments from our friends and colleagues because we don’t want to have a difficult conversation? How readily do we examine the reasons why US prisons are disproportionately populated by young black men, often on relatively minor charges, while the young white man gets away with the brutal rape of an unconscious teenager because he has a better than average time in the 50m butterfly?
I saw a young black man interviewed on US cable news on Saturday evening, and he made the point that the street in which he stood, surrounded by gleeful revellers, was the same street in which he and his friends had recently protested the extrajudicial murder of people who looked like him. He went on to point out that those protests were considerably less well-attended than the joyful victory party unfolding around him.
Another interviewee, a black woman, made the point that in each of the key states in this election – Pennsylvania, Georgia, Michigan – the result was swung in Biden’s favour by majority black communities mobilising and voting in record numbers. White people were all too happy to celebrate Trump’s removal from office, but most of the hard work that went into making that happen was someone else’s.
This is, without doubt, the biggest challenge facing President Biden when he eventually takes office. A return to the pre-Trump days solves nothing for black people and other marginalised communities. Throughout the eight-year term of the USA’s first black president, unarmed black men were routinely murdered on America’s streets, often by police, and with near-inevitable impunity. Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Eric Garner – the list of names is virtually endless – young men or children murdered in cold blood for carrying a toy gun, selling cigarettes or being in possession of a faulty tail light.
There’s been a lot of talk over recent days about ‘reaching out’ to Trump voters and listening to their concerns, and honestly, this frightens me. Pete Buttigieg tweeted yesterday that we should call those people in our lives who voted for Trump and ‘remind them why we love and care about them’, as though it’s the responsibility of those affected by Trump’s evil policies to ease the pain of those who enabled their oppression. Others on both sides of the aisle have called for a new era of ‘bipartisanship’, even as Trump’s minions and acolytes are refusing to accept Biden as the legitimate President, straining every sinew to make evidence-free claims of large scale voter fraud, sowing distrust in American democracy that will last for a generation. Putting aside the fact that ‘fuck your feelings’ has been their mantra for the past four years, and would undoubtedly have been their mantra for the next four had he been elected, the idea that future policy decisions should be taken with consideration for the concerns of racists is fundamentally repugnant.
Of course, there are those who argue that not every Trump voter is racist, but on that, I would have to call bullshit. Even if we were to take a ridiculously generous view of events and accept that a proportion of 2016 Trump voters didn’t know what they were getting, attempts to make a similar argument about 2020 voters are utterly preposterous after witnessing the unremitting horror show that has been his presidency. Anyone who voted for the man who spent nearly half a decade stoking racial divisions, characterising Mexicans as ‘rapists’, referring to literal Nazis as ‘very fine people’, inciting violence against black Americans, and using the police as his own private militia to savagely quell protests, is a racist. It’s an act of intellectual dishonesty and moral cowardice to state otherwise.
The way to deal with bigots is not to ‘meet them halfway’. It is not a noble act to tolerate intolerance. I’ve lost count of the number of straight, cis, white ‘progressives’ who have replied to me on Twitter saying that we need to listen to people with abhorrent views, seek to understand them, work to find a mutual understanding. It’s a position that’s much easier to adopt if you’re not the one facing oppression, and it invariably betrays the blind privilege of those making the argument. And in reality, how the fuck is this even supposed to work?
“I notice that you wholeheartedly support the systemic abuse of black people, but have you maybe considered not doing that?”
“I see you just referred to trans people as ‘mentally ill sex pests’. I have an alternative view that you might find really interesting.”
The fact is, it’s nigh-on impossible to reason away any opinion reached without reason. It is incumbent on those holding hateful views to give ground, not on the rest of us to compromise our morals so they feel included. I just hope that doesn’t get lost in all the talk of ‘bipartisanship’ from the Biden/Harris administration.
For those of us who do find racism repellent, we now have a moral duty to examine our own behaviours, our friendships and our complacency to ensure we’re doing everything we can to eradicate intolerance in all its forms. If you have friends or relatives who say racist things, challenge them, rebuke them, and if necessary, cut them out of your lives. If you employ someone who makes bigoted statements, discipline them, sack them, make your company a safe place for everyone, regardless of colour, gender, gender identity or sexuality. If you look around and see that your own workplace or friendship circle lacks diversity, examine why that might be, and what you can do to change it. If you see laws or policies being suggested that serve to promote inequality, write to your representative in the appropriate legislative body and tell them ‘not in my name’.
There’s no doubt that the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris is an important step back from the precipice, but it’s really not the end of anything other than the perpetual horror of having to call a vicious, perma-tanned rapist ‘President’. All the problems that brought him to power still remain, and if we raise the ‘Job Done’ banner now, we’ll end up back in exactly the same position at the end of the new administration’s term in office.
Black people don’t get to take four years off from racism. It pervades every minute of every day of their lives. A simple trip to the grocery store could result in verbal or physical abuse, a routine traffic stop in death. It’s time for us as left-leaning white people to recognise that this cancer doesn’t cease to exist just because it’s no longer being belched in our faces from a podium in the White House briefing room.
Max catches up with infectious disease doctor and presenter of CBBC’s ‘Operation Ouch’, Dr Chris Van Tulleken, about recent developments in the Covid-19 pandemic, children returning to school and what we can expect to see happening with C19 in the future. This episode contains no strong language, and is suitable for younger listeners.
It hardly needs saying that freedom of expression is important. The introduction of free speech laws allowed us to criticise the King or the government or the church without fear of arrest or imprisonment. They allowed scientists like Charles Darwin to propose radical new theories that would previously have been censored as heresy, driving forward independent thought, and with it, our understanding of the world.
Without this fundamental principle underpinning modern society, we might never have seen the decriminalisation of homosexuality, the end of Section 28, the Gender Recognition Act or the introduction of civil partnerships and, later, equal marriage. Our Muslim friends would not be able to practice their religion, celebrate its festivals or wear their traditional dress. Women would not be able to work or vote or ‘disobey’ their husbands.
But whilst the good that has come of this principle is fairly obvious, in the social media age, free speech is all too often corrupted to serve as a shield for those disseminating divisive, dangerous and damaging ideas that target the most vulnerable among us.
To take but one example of this, the current onslaught against trans people in the press and on social media, the deliberate misgendering, the fear-mongering, the egregious mischaracterisation of trans people as sexual predators hell bent on grooming young people, the recycled, reheated homophobia, barely altered from 30 years ago and re-weaponised to direct at people who are, sadly, now seen as a more socially acceptable target, all dishonestly cloaked in the language of ‘legitimate concerns’ and their right to be expressed.
But freedom of speech, like any other right, is not, and cannot be, absolute. There are numerous necessary limitations that exist in order to prevent one person’s ability to speak, write or publish freely causing harm to others. Libel, slander, copyright violation, food labelling, national security, perjury and incitement to violence are all examples of valid and appropriate ways in which free expression is limited.
In all but a tiny minority of cases, the line between what is and is not acceptable is perfectly obvious. ‘Nigel Farage is a toad-faced Hitler tribute act who should yeet himself into a fucking skip’, for example, falls well within the definition of acceptable free expression, whereas ‘this is Nigel Farage’s home address and here are detailed instructions on how to make a shit-infused petrol bomb’ almost certainly does not.
Now, of course, outside of the legally proscribed exceptions, anyone is free to express themselves however they see fit, but in doing so, they must be prepared to face the inevitable consequences of voicing opinions that are injurious to the safety, dignity and mental wellbeing of vulnerable communities. It is not reasonable to expect that you should be able to proclaim a racist, homophobic or transphobic mindset, and the only negative ramifications be those visited on your victims.
David Starkey is a relevant and topical example of this. He was perfectly at liberty to appear on a podcast and say, “Slavery wasn’t genocide or there wouldn’t be so many damn blacks,” but he could not expect to do so without facing widespread public condemnation, professional censure and loss of income.
Maya Forstater, the researcher lauded in JK Rowling’s recent manifesto of prejudice, is another such example. Forstater had a contract with the CGD, which they failed to renew in light of her persistent transphobia and misgendering of those she didn’t consider worthy of the title ‘woman’. She subsequently sued the CGD, and lost.
The judge concluded:
“It is a core component of her belief that she will refer to a person by the sex she considered appropriate even if it violates their dignity and/or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.
The approach is not worthy of respect in a democratic society.”
As both of these cases show, the right to free speech was both available and exercised by those who were later ‘cancelled’. Neither Starkey nor Forstater were imprisoned for their beliefs, but they were made to face the eminently reasonable personal repercussions that arose as a result of their actions. Any organisation with which either of them were affiliated had to make a choice between supporting them and, by extension, their harmful ideals, or severing ties to protect both the reputation of the organisation and the dignity of its employees, stakeholders and patrons.
In neither case was anyone silenced. Starkey is free to continue being racist, and Forstater is free to continue being transphobic. It is their right to do so, but they have no divine right to a platform for their bigotry, or to continued employment in an organisation that does not share their discriminatory views.
And this is what the whole ‘free speech’ argument comes down to. Those who spend their days shrieking about being ‘silenced’ (usually on Radio 4, on Newsnight, or in their nationally syndicated newspaper column), are actually upset that others have exercised their right to free speech to decry whatever offensive belief they have sought to promote. It is not mere freedom they seek, but the right to punch down with total impunity at those who already subsist on a daily diet of abuse and intolerance.
Social media, for all its many (many, MANY) flaws, has been a tremendous force for good in this sense. Ordinary people who, for so long, were denied a voice, may now speak up in forceful opposition to those who would seek to denigrate, disparage and dehumanise them. If, before the advent of Twitter, a high-profile author had published a dishonest and unreferenced attack on a marginalised group of people, they would have had virtually no right of reply. Now, they can raise their collective voices to condemn their oppressor and offer detailed rebuttals of her hostile rhetoric. Unsurprisingly, those who have been used to wielding virtually unlimited power in the sphere of public debate fucking hate this.
This is why we’re hearing howls of anguish about ‘cancel culture’ and ‘stifling debate’ from those who disable comments on their own articles full of malicious untruths and well-worn tropes. They’re not at all concerned about debate being ‘stifled’, they’re simply enraged because they no longer have free reign to propagate their bigoted ideas unchallenged.
People who have spent decades howling about the need to slash foreign aid budgets on the basis that ‘charity begins at home’ were united today in the opinion that feeding hungry children in the UK does not satisfy their definitions of ‘charity’ or ‘at home’.
As schoolchildren across the nation face the prospect of a summer holiday without their nutritional needs being met, the heartless fucking ghouls who inhabit the comments sections of Daily Mail articles were immovable in their belief that hunger is both ‘character-building’ and ‘not the problem of the UK taxpayer’, despite the fact that six weeks ago they were enraged to the point of incontinence about the prospect of ‘sending money overseas when people need help in this country’.
The intervention of black footballer, Marcus Rashford, who has asked the government to reconsider their stance, has served only to enrage these definitely-not-racist individuals further, though this elevated anger has nothing to do with him being black, because none of these people are racist.
“Michael Ratchford needs to stick to bloody football and stay out of politics,” railed Denise, a Karen from The Cotswolds.
“People shouldn’t have children if they can’t afford to look after them, and it’s utterly inconceivable that a person’s financial circumstances might change after they have started a family, in response to, say, a global pandemic that shuts down the country’s economy and causes hundred of thousands of jobs to disappear.”
Darren Twatt, a chartered surveyor who has spent the past fortnight tweeting ‘ALL LIVES MATTER’, agreed:
“I don’t see why my taxes should be used to ensure that vulnerable young people who have no control over their family’s income are properly fed. That is the job of the parents, and if they are too feckless and work-shy to provide for their children, it is only fitting and correct that those children should suffer as a result.”
Following Rashford’s plea to the government to ‘make the U-turn’ on their decision to allow children to starve, the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, issued the following statement:
“Lol, he’s having a fucking laugh, isn’t he? I don’t even bother to provide for most of my own indeterminate number of offspring, so it’s taking quite a lot of the piss to expect me to provide for ones I care even less about than that. If people are worried about their kids lacking essential resources, the only reasonable course of action is for them to pretend they don’t exist.”
Forensic Labour leader, Keir ‘Forensic’ Starmer, hit back forensically, however, saying, in the most forensic way imaginable:
“We are committed to working with the government on their important child-starving initiative, but wonder whether, in the spirit of cooperation and cross-party consensus, they wouldn’t mind considering, if it’s not too much trouble, starving them a bit less.”
We live in an age of absolutism. Everything is binary: right or wrong, black or white.
There are times when this approach is helpful. Necessary, even. My ‘never fuck a Tory’ policy, for example, has served me well for many a long year and will no doubt do so for many years to come.
But when we try to apply this way of thinking to bigotry, or rather, to judging whether a person is or is not a bigot, it all starts to unravel. There seems to be a popular, and arguably deliberate, misconception that a person may only be considered to be intolerant of a particular group if they have a history of screaming epithets in their faces and/or committing acts of physical violence.
Modern bigotry, however, is altogether more subtle than this. It’s a suggestion, a nudge, a nod or a wink. Nigel Farage doesn’t go dropping the N-bomb on Question Time, as much as we all know he’d love to. He’s fucking thinking it, of course, but he never says it out loud. At least, not on the telly. Instead, he couches his racism in phrases like ‘illegal immigration’ and ‘protecting our borders’, like the worst kind of Pavlovian shithouse. And obviously, the stench of racism wafts off him like the smell of stale chip fat (along with, almost certainly, the actual smell of stale chip fat), but his supporters will argue to their dying breath that he’s ‘not racist’, purely on the basis that they’ve never heard him say the P-word.
That’s not to say there aren’t bigots who are rather more explicit in their intolerance. One of them, weirdly, for such a famously non-racist country, actually managed to get himself elected to the office of Prime Minister, but for the most part, they’re a little more sophisticated. Some are so sophisticated that they get to utilise their massive celebrity status and huge social media platforms to target hate at one of the most vulnerable minorities in the world, and still, somehow, manage to emerge looking like the victim.
Step forward, J.K. Rowling.
The piece published by Rowling on 10 June was an absolute masterclass in the art of manipulating the narrative to suit a particular agenda, while maintaining plausible deniability for the damage that would inevitably ensue. This is unsurprising given that she’s amassed a billion-pound fortune from her use of language. She knows better than most how to tell a tale in a way that will elicit the desired emotional response in the reader, and that’s what makes the piece – and its author – so extremely dangerous.
If you’re not familiar with the cases she cites, if you don’t know the pressure points transphobes routinely exploit to demonise their targets, if you haven’t heard these same, tired arguments recycled and reheated time and time again over a period of 30-odd years, you might come away from Rowling’s essay thinking it all sounded perfectly reasonable. That was certainly the intention, and in a great many cases, it worked like a charm.
She begins, of course, like any halfway competent bigot would, by painting herself as the victim. The first couple of paragraphs are all about her being abused, threatened or ‘cancelled’ by those who object to her harmful rhetoric.
Now, to be clear, threats are always unacceptable. And I would never condone a man calling any woman – not even Katie Hopkins – a ‘bitch’ or a ‘cunt’. It’s misogynistic, unhelpful, and provides easy ammunition for anyone seeking to promote a narrative of victimhood. That said, it’s not for me to judge women who use those terms in anger, or for me to police the tone of the victims’ responses to the abuse they face.
We have a big problem in this country with ignoring the content and the intent of what a person says, and focusing instead on the language used.
For example, if someone said to me, “Respectfully, sir, I believe that all homosexuals are an abomination unto the Lord and destined for Hell,” and I responded with, “Go take a flying fuck at the moon, you Bible-shagging twat,” there are a great many people who would think I was the one who should be censured.
The same applies here. Rowling tweets out barely disguised transphobic bigotry to 14.5 million followers, but because she does so ‘politely’ and some of the responses are, to say the least, extremely impolite, she somehow gets to occupy the moral high ground, and in doing so, tar an entire group with the same brush as its most abusive members. She must accept, however, that if she’s going to take that approach, she must assume responsibility for all the truly appalling vitriol directed at the trans community as a result of her interventions.
So with the victim narrative firmly established, she goes on to profess her undying love for the trans community, and all her many trans friends, like an infinitely more articulate Donald Trump pointing to the African-American guy he’s just appointed to some role or other as proof that he’s definitely not racist.
Then come the tropes:
Any cis man can readily obtain a Gender Recognition Certificate to access women’s spaces for who knows what nefarious purposes, trans teens are simply confused gays or lesbians, children are being rushed into irreversible treatment options that will destroy their lives, ‘trans rights activists’ deny that biological sex is ‘real’, veiled ridicule of trans suicide rates, and, most insidiously of all, the mischaracterisation of trans women as sexual predators.
This last one, as ought to be obvious to anyone who lived through that time, has its roots firmly in the homophobia of the 70s, 80s and 90s. This is hardly surprising given Rowling’s proximity to noted homophobes, and her selection of a pen name that matches the actual name of a high-profile proponent of gay conversion therapy. It’s also, it should be noted, absolute fucking bollocks.
Rowling even introduces her own experience of domestic abuse and sexual assault to underline the idea that trans women are a threat to cis women and girls, despite the fact that her abuse took place at the hands of cis men. I can only imagine the pain that such traumatic experiences must still bring her, and my heart goes out to her and any woman who has had to live through this ordeal. There is absolutely no reason, however, to mention this in a piece about trans people, unless you’re trying to promote a very particular idea.
The fact is that men have been raping, abusing and sexually assaulting women for millennia, and it’s extremely rare that they’ve ever felt the need to pretend to be women to carry out these despicable acts. Does she really think that a man hell bent on forcing himself on a woman will refrain from doing so because they’re not supposed to be in the women’s toilets? Or that they’ll go to all the ultimately pointless trouble of obtaining a GRC, which they don’t legally require to access those spaces?
The vast, overwhelming majority of trans women just want to get changed after their swim, or go for a piss at the shopping centre, then quietly go about their day. They’re not lurking in darkened corners waiting to catch a look at your genitals, or to show you theirs. Trans people have had the legal right to use the facilities of their choosing for well over a decade, and there have been very few reported incidents involving trans women during that time. Countries that have already introduced Self ID have had no reported increase in sexual offences as a result. Of course, that’s not to say no trans woman is capable of being a sexual predator, just that they’re no more likely to be than an equivalent sample of cis women.
But still this narrative persists. The subtle nods, the plays to our primal fears, the gentle, persistent reinforcement of the idea that our wives and daughters will be forced to undress in front of ‘male-bodied’ individuals intent on causing them harm. And this is where so much of the the anger towards Rowling and other transphobes is rooted. I know, because I felt (and still feel) the same anger every time the ‘gay men are paedophiles’ trope rears its head.
The fact is, we have to get better at spotting the falsehoods, the dog-whistles, the misdirections and the fear-mongering, and highlighting them to those who remain blinded by the ostensibly reasonable tone of the ‘legitimate concerns’ crew. Rowling herself would no doubt ridicule the idea that all Muslims are part of some ‘rape gang’ or other, but yet she’s happy to point her readers toward the conclusion that trans people – trans women in particular – present a threat to the safety, and indeed, the very identities, of cis women and girls.
By hiding the iron fist of her transphobic attacks in the velvet glove of her professed ‘love’ for trans people, she has managed to pull off a great deception, and it’s one that will inflict untold and widespread damage on a community that was already at breaking point.