Why I’m not keeping calm

Keep Calm and Carry On posterA confession: I am nursing an instinctive, visceral dislike of Keep Calm and Carry On posters and merchandise. It contains some of the things I like least – the smug nationalism, the invocation of “our finest hour” of WWII, the assertion that “keeping calm” is a morally superior reaction and that there is no point in getting angry. The image it summons is one of plucky Brits doing their best to carry on as normal among the bombs and the rubble. That war merely gives British resilience and stoicism to shine through, rather than being devastating.

I cannot help but notice that this poster has flourished in these days of the coalition government.

In whose interests is it that we “keep calm and carry on”? That we don’t question, don’t think, don’t disagree or protest but simply trundle on? I don’t think it’s in mine, and it’s probably not in yours.

Instead, I prefer the suggestion offered by this poster. Get Angry and Fight Back? I think I can support that.

Pride is a….something

Yesterday I went to my second Pride. It was better than last year for a couple of reasons – we started marching from Market Square to Forest Fields so got plenty of visibility (as opposed to the extended tour of Nottingham’s back streets of last year) and this time I was at a stall, watched the acoustic stage, had the good sense to leave before I got irritable and wasn’t subjected to the Cheeky Girls. I was marching with Recreation, the local group I help out with, and that made it a good experience. One of the group members remarked that he felt he belonged, and it was good to meet new people who’d been looking for a group like ours. It’s why I call my involvement in this group activism – I might not be on the streets with a loudhailer, but for me, making this space possible, acknowledging the diversity of people’s identities, and offering solace and support is activism. It’s telling people they are not alone and that in itself is a powerful thing.

Marching through the city centre actually felt meaningful – not quite confrontational, but both unexpected enough and big enough to take people by surprise. One of the reasons I march is because visibility is important. It’s a reminder to other people that LGBTQ people exist – that we have families and work and are members of society too.

However, as last year, I had problems with Pride. Bisexual invisibility is a pervasive thing – bifurious is on the bi banner for a reason. This year, one entertainer invited the gays to cheer, the lesbians to cheer and the straights to cheer – completely failing to acknowledge bisexuals, pansexuals and queers, among others. It’s a reminder that often, it’s not so much LGBT as LGBt and that this comes from within the so-called gay community.

There’s also a danger that Pride gets too heavily involved with corporate sponsors. This year’s was sponsored by the owners and operators of Kingsnorth Power Station. At least Nottingham Pride is free – others, like Manchester and Brighton already, or have plans to, charge an entry fee. Pride Is A Protest campaign “against profiteering, exploitation and commercialisation of our Queer and LGBT community events and festivals”. It’s been criticised for being a protest about the lack of protest but at the same time, they warn of where corporate sponsorship can end up.

I have somewhat mixed feelings about this whole Pride business. Rather than being unambiguously celebratory, for me it highlights issues that still need to be addressed, particularly problematic discourses within the gay community and the role of corporate sponsorship in community events; however, simultaneously, it offers a form of challenging visibility and the chance to (for lack of a better word) connect with others.

when the internet stops being a playground

Last week, a post appeared on the Gay Girl in Damascus blog reporting that the blog’s author, Amina Arraf, had been kidnapped by security forces. People responded. They tweeted, they wrote to Syrian embassies, the news got picked up by LGBT and mainstream news.

However, there were doubts about whether this person existed. Liz Henry observed “I would hate to have my existence doubted and am finding it painful to continue doubting Amina’s. If she is real, I am very sorry and will apologize and continue to work for her release and support”. What if this person did exist and was in danger? Amina may not exist – but what if she did, what if she had been kidnapped and was being forcibly deported, beaten or abused? The stakes seemed too high to just dismiss it.

Liz Henry had her doubts, based on experience with other hoaxes, and wrote about them in two posts: Painful doubts about Amina and Chasing Amina. Ali Abunimah and Benjamin Doherty carefully examined what evidence they had to work out Amina’s identity.

The Amina blogger turned out to be Tom McMaster – a 40 year old male Masters student studying in Edinburgh. He apologised, claiming that he did “not believe that I have harmed anyone — I feel that I have created an important voice for issues that I feel strongly about”. LGBT bloggers in Syria were understandably furious. Contrary to McMaster’s claim that he did not harm anyone, they describe tangible ways he has made their lives and online activities less safe – drawing authorities’ attention to their activism, forcing them back into the closet, caused people to doubt their existence or the authenticity of their reports. As Brian Whitaker says, “[l]iving a fantasy life on your own blog is one thing, but giving an interview to CNN while posing as a representative of the region’s gay people appears arrogant and offensive, and surely a prime example of the “liberal Orientalism” that MacMaster claims to decry”.

In a weird twist, the editor of “Lez Get Real”, Paula Brooks, has also turned out to be a straight man. He said that he “didn’t start this with my name because… I thought people wouldn’t take it seriously, me being a straight man”. I have to admit, with some annoyance, that I have not noticed straight, cisgendered, white men as having a particular problem with “not being taken seriously” – this is privilege 101 stuff.

What this seems to be is a clash of internet cultures. On one hand, the internet is perceived as a playground for identities. As Liz Henry notes, people may have good reason “to conceal their identity and to develop relationships online under a screen name. They might like to express an aspect of their personality that would not mix well with their professional life. They might have gender identity issues they are working through. They might be in a family situation that makes it unsafe for them to come out as gay. They might write fiction using characters whose stories are under copyright”.

However, on the other, citizen journalism and minority blogging relies on authenticity; of you experiencing something that mainstream media doesn’t cover. It relies on telling your truth, shining light into areas where top-down media does not, or cannot, reach. It can be incredibly powerful – Baghdad Burning was just one example. There’s a tension between the internet as a consequence-free playground for identity, and the fact that sometimes these identities have very real consequences.

I also note that it’s straight white men doing this, and I’m finding it difficult to interpret this in isolation of that. @paleblurrr observed, in a series of tweets, “straight and/or white men not getting automatic respect/authority afforded to them in mainstream society in queer and/or poc communities, instead of respectful engagement from a place of privilege, fake identities to infiltrate and feel “powerful”. that’s all about power & control, ensuring they dominate conversations & are centre of our attention at whatever cost to others. can’t ever not be about them. Ever.”

I think what bothers me is the deliberate lying, manipulation and deception. Not stating your identity and allowing people to make their assumptions is one thing. Experimenting with different voices and persona in a setting where that’s acceptable and acknowledged is another. But creating a persona that is a member of a minority group and using that to speak on behalf of people when you do not share their lives, experiences or oppressions, and putting real people in danger when they cared about your created persona? That seems different, and makes it a much more complicated, uncomfortable and deeply problematic situation.

Edited to add: A few links which I thought were interesting – Said says Amina Hoax MacMaster-mind is Orientalist, Identity drag: Amina, appropriation and accountability and Men masquerading as lesbians online: allies or cowards?.

Religion, Youth and Sexuality

Today I went to the Religion, Youth and Sexuality conference at the University of Nottingham. I’ve been closely involved with a the project but not as a researcher – as a participant. I answered a questionnaire which was followed up with an interview, then they deemed me sufficiently interesting to keep a video diary for a week.

It was a really interesting opportunity – firstly, as a researcher, it was a valuable experience seeing how other people in a different field and with a different theoretical and methodological background conducted research. Secondly, and somewhat unexpectedly, it was valuable as a participant. I went into the project thinking that I’d do some people a favour – they needed people to fill out their questionnaire and as a researcher, I like helping other people out with their research. Part of this is blatant and unfettered curiosity, part of this is the acknowledgement that research often depends on people willing to fill out questionnaires and one day, I might be soliciting data in that way. Part of my special interest in this project was the chance to get some representation; I do not see people like me represented in papers or magazines or TV, and perhaps my participation would help address that.

What followed really pushed me into thinking about how I conceptualised religion and sexuality and forced me to examine my beliefs. Sometimes the best way to sort things out in your own head is to talk to someone else; the questions were never intrusive or aggressive but I found myself reexamining things and realising that, for example, no, I didn’t actually have a problem with X but actually Y was a really important issue for me. It made me think through the various inconsistencies and really try to reconcile sometimes very different beliefs and attitudes. I’d grown up keeping these two aspects of my life pretty separate but this was an arena where I could acknowledge these two facets of my identity and how they informed each other, think about the links between them. I wasn’t prepared for how validated this made me feel – not just in terms of acknowledgement and acceptance, but that my daily life was of interest to the research project and worth investigating.

When I volunteered as a participant, I wasn’t really expecting to gain much from it. Instead I found it an interesting and rewarding experience, so much so that I hope they get the funding to following us up in a few years.

Activist linguistics

Activist linguistics, as I see it, does not mean that the researcher skew her or his findings to support one group or one ideology or another. Nor does it mean that a famous linguist use her or his fame to support causes. Rather, an activist linguistics calls for researchers to remain connected to the communities in which they research, returning to those settings to apply the knowledge they have generated for the good of the community and to deepen the research through expansion or focus.

O’Connor, P. E. (2003). “Activist Sociolinguistics in a Critical Discourse Analysis Perspective”. In G. Weiss and R. Wodak (Eds) Critical Discourse Analysis: Theory and Interdisciplinarity. Basingstoke: Paulsgrave Macmillan

Me, at dawn, holding a placard reading "Save Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences" in International Phonetic AlphabetThis is something I’ve been thinking about.

In some ways, my PhD research area is a deeply personal thing. It might be about a social movement and people and events a hundred years ago, but it encompasses areas that I care deeply about: gender equality, the theory and practice of protest, marginalised and disenfranchised groups, the interaction between ideology and practical legislative change. The photo is one of the more visible acts of protest I’ve done recently – it was taken on a cold winter’s morning before I went to London to protest about cuts to arts, humanities and social sciences. That experience led me to write this post.

I worried quite a lot about whether my personal politics would affect my research for the worse. Would it make me too sympathetic, unable to see the flaws in direct action? Would I end up hopelessly over-identifying with the subjects of my research? Would my thesis become a paean to the suffrage movement? Would I, too, end up setting fire to a boathouse? Worrying thoughts indeed.

But now I’ve started wondering about neutrality. Is actual neutrality even possible? I’m not convinced it is; to me it seems that you can simply not know enough about an issue to have an opinion, or that your apparent neutrality is itself a stance. I’m reminded of debates within feminism where those allegedly objective about it are actually hostile – there are some things it’s hard not to have an opinion about, and if you’ve chosen to distance yourself from an issue you’ve still made a choice about how you’re going to engage with it.

As I said in my post on direct action, being a protester has given me an insight into the kind of things the suffrage movement encountered. When I wrote that post it was police violence; as I write now, it’s the tensions between different groups and factions who are (roughly) campaigning for the same things.

As O’Connor suggests, things like this are going to inform one’s research whatever I do and my issue is one of how to allow it to do so, how to acknowledge it and be honest about its influence. There are different ways to engage with one’s activism and individual politics, and it’s clear which she thinks is best. As well as making for better research, I think the researcher also owes something to the community in which they’re embedded. As an undergraduate I was staggered by Jennifer Coates’ admission that she covertly recorded her friends for material. At the time it was an acceptable methodology to make such recordings; now it is most definitely not. I’m not studying NSAFC (if I was I’d tell them!) but that earlier post was still an attempt to apply my research to my community, to give back something – kind of connecting my experience as a researcher with my experience as a protester, and trying to synthesise them in to sort of whole I think O’Connor is talking about.

As a tangent, I stumbled upon Emily Davison Blues by Grace Petrie a couple of months ago. There’s a research paper in contemporary reimaginings of the suffrage movement, I know it.

Okay, I was going to go to bed at least an hour ago. Tomorrow brings more narrative theory and newsworthiness, yay?

creating a history

I don’t remember where I first came across the suffragettes. I was an avid reader as a child, the sort whose parents attempted to ban reading at the table because their beloved offspring would become so engrossed in a book they’d forget to eat, and the sort whose parents were thwarted in this ban when their beloved offspring would read sauce bottles and milk cartons and cereal packets pointedly and out loud. I had certainly come across them by secondary school, and I remember being frustrated when my GCSE history textbook contained a few pages on the suffrage campaign but it wasn’t on the syllabus.

The textbook had the sort of information you’d expect – women chaining themselves to the railings, suffragettes, an image of a poster of a large, evil-eyed cat with the limp, helpless body of a long-skirted woman in its month, photographs and a short case study of Emily Wilding Davison at the 1913 Derby. It wasn’t much, but I was fascinated.

Some ten years later and I found myself actually researching the suffrage movement. In some ways, not studying the movement as presented by my GCSE textbook was perhaps beneficial; it meant I had fewer preconceived ideas about the movement. The more I read (and continue to read), the stranger the focus of that textbook appeared. Why the focus on women chaining themselves to railings, when my reading suggests that was a fairly minor part of suffrage activities – things like large demonstrations, deputations and window-smashing seem more prevalent both in the literature and in the texts I’m studying? Why the focus on the Women’s Social and Political Union rather than reflecting the diversity of the movement and the myriad groups involved? And why the consistent use of the term suffragette, rather than the more inclusive term suffragist?

It’s remarkably persistent too – I’ve lost count of the times people have asked me if my research focuses on these popular representations of the suffrage movement, and I’ve had people email me back to ask if I meant to write suffragette instead in my abstracts. I don’t think it’s a lack of interest – far from it. People seem intrigued by the movement, its actions and figures within it. This event, called “Remember the Suffragettes: a Black Friday vigil in honour of direct action” was held in November 2010 and clearly acknowledges suffragette direct action and its consequences.

I don’t have answers about why this simplified portrayal of the suffrage movement exists, why the Pankhursts and the WSPU and women chained to the railings linger in people’s memories and have this resonance. The cynical feminist in me says that we like our women feisty but not dangerous, that chaining oneself to railings is provocative yet non-threatening, that we are more comfortable with women’s martyrdom that we are with their bombs and arson. We like equal rights and are a bit shocked that women couldn’t vote less than 100 years ago, but we’re a bit scared by what it might take to attain those rights. We’d rather hear about action and grand gestures than endless rounds of legal and political debate and scrutiny. My thinking here is almost certainly simplistic, but I rather suspect that our focus on these particular aspects of the suffrage movement (and neglect of others) says more about our concerns than theirs.

Thoughts on direct action

In my research, it’s impossible not to come across issues of direct action. Earlier this year I was looking at words derived from Mutual Information for suffragist, suffragists, suffragette and suffragettes. A category for direct action terms emerged from this data, and I started to look at disturbance*, outrage*, violence, crime*, disorder and incident? in more detail.

To quote from a draft of this chapter:

The terms examined in this chapter can be paired – two relatively high frequency, non-specific terms disturbance* and outrage*, two low frequency, specific terms violence and crime* and two terms, disorder and incident?, which are both used to describe suffrage campaigners’ interactions with non-suffrage supporters, but differ in which groups they are used in conjunction with. Reports shy away from using violence and crime* to describe suffrage campaigning and instead use more ambiguous terms such as disturbance and outrage; the actions encompassed by disturbance and outrage include the disruption of meetings and heckling as well as more destructive acts such as ‘fire outrages’ and bombs.

The damage and destruction was largely confined to property. If there was physical aggression, it was nearly always faced by the suffrage campaigners than posed by them. The Times describes “large hostile crowds”, “active hostility to suffragists”, several “scenes of great disorder” and meetings broken up by “young roughs”. The texts I am working with at the moment describe “disorderly scene[s]” at suffragist meetings, but on closer examination the meetings themselves seem to have been highly organised and the disruption was due to members of the public, who formed a “hooting and jostling mob”, hassled the speakers and attempted to hustle them out of the park.

And then the Browne Review was announced. As a young researcher in arts, humanities and social sciences (I might declare which area I’m in if someone decides to fund me), I am worried about what this might mean for these areas. I’m worried about the Education Maintenance Allowance, AimHigher and Lifelong Learning UK being scrapped with no clear information on what will replace them. I’m worried about the privatisation of Higher Education. These cuts to education take place against a background of cuts to public services, and it’s difficult not to interpret them as ideological.

I was not the only one to feel like this, and direct action began to seem rather closer to home. Students marched on the 10th November, 24th November and 9th December. The argument that “the broken pane of glass is the most valuable argument in modern politics” began to be heard again and yet again, damage to property was positioned as worse than damage done to people’s lives.

With other students at my university, I engaged in peaceful direct action. I made my placard, marched, chanted, and was duly kettled for around six hours. I’m pretty sure that this video is from where I was kettled. Protesters were injured – a woman beaten and racially abused by police, a man nearly died after being beaten and Green and Black Cross has an appeal for witnesses. People found being inside a kettle a “shocking experience”. There are photos of the day (link 1, link 2) but I’m not sure how well they capture most protesters’ experience – the vast majority were not hurling paintbombs and setting benches on fire.

Parliament still voted to allow an increase in tuition fees.

There are criticisms of the focus of reporting, criticism of kettling tactics and outrage over the state (and state-sanctioned) response to these protests. I am confident that more criticisms will emerge.

There are things I will take from this on a personal and political level, but at the moment I’m trying to work out what I can take from this as a researcher in direct action.

One of these things is the sheer courage it takes to engage in direct action. I can understand why people may be ambivalent towards militant direct action in the suffrage movement – at times it can come across as misdirected or petty. But it takes bravery to demonstrate when you know this could lead to police violence against you.

A second point is about disenfranchisement. Many of those on the demonstrations were young and without a political voice. Demonstrating – being physically present at the gates of Parliament – was one of the few ways open to them to get their demands heard. While these people are excluded on the basis of youth – a temporary condition, rather than the more fixed one of sex – it still shows how easily those not able to vote can be ignored by government.

A third is about the nature of direct action. There is a fair amount of discussion going on about what direct action should encompass. There are calls for peaceful demonstrations, candle-lit vigils, writing to MPs…but these have been going on for years with no demonstrable effect. There’s a sense of frustration amongst protesters. I was marching against top-up fees in 2003 and I think these protests have partly come about because people have tried to be nice and polite only to be ignored. Suffragists, too, tried a peaceful approach – they had demonstrations and rallies, they lobbied MPs, they sent deputations to members of the Cabinet, they organised petitions. If I can feel frustrated after a mere seven years of campaigning, it makes me more sympathetic to women who’d been campaigning for over 30 years with no real progress.

A fourth is a about the fractures in a movement that can result from direct action, and the willingness for some parts of the movement to disown those who do take part in property damage. You can almost hear the ‘respectable’ protesters scrambling to distance themselves from the balaclava-clad youths clutching spraypaint and lighter fuel. No one seems to be asking why they’re engaging in such actions, yet these “bainlieue-style youth from Croydon, Peckam, the council estates of Islington” are well aware of what university will cost them and are one of the most vulnerable groups: “We’re from the slums of London, how do they expect us to pay £9,000 a year uni fees? EMA is the only thing keeping us in college, what’s stopping us from doing drug deals in the street now? Nothing.”

While direct action within the suffrage movement was organised by a different demographic, there still seem to be the same split between those urging peaceful direct action – such as the NUS’s Right to Recall campaign – and those engaging in different forms of protest.

What I’d take to these protests from my research is an understanding that there’s room in a movement for lots of different forms of protest. It’s not an either/or decision between things like the Right to Recall campaign and more confrontational things like occupations, and it’s important not to fracture along these lines.

I didn’t really expect to be a participant-observer of direct action when I started my PhD, but I hope it makes me a better researcher – a less judgemental one, and one better able to understand the pressures that lead to direct action