Recollections of Misgendering

Recollections of Misgendering

I was watching a video which has been doing the rounds. It is of a fracas in a shop when a customer feels they have been “misgendered” by a sales assistant. As I watched them argue about the use of “Sir” and “Ma’am”, and saw their emotions rise, I had the thought that this is a very modern problem. My instinctive response was another nostalgic thought of  “In my day we never .. ..  ..“and so on. I allowed myself to imagine that such problems never really occurred  when I was young, and that I, and my age cohort, had a much easier time. Though, in Britain, we would still have been upset it anyone had used the term “ma’am” as we would have felt they were being deliberately sarcastic. But later, when out running, I recovered the memories of when I had been “misgendered” in my youth. I had thought that times had changed but perhaps not.

About two generations ago, in the seventies, there was  a veritable frenzy of misgendering. I was an adolesecent, thin, and boyish. I was waiting for my facial hair to arrive and longing for  reason to shave. I knew I didn’t look manly or macho therefore I needed an alternative style to appear winsome and interesting to the opposite sex. It was the time of psychadelia and I leapt into this trend’s music, books, drama and fashion with gusto. Surely no one would fail to see that I was a mature man with knowledge and discernment when I immersed myself in this counter-culture. Surely no-one, or at least one person, at least one female person, could see how interesting I was and would want to start a relationship with me.

Unfortunately I had not thought this strategy through adequately. While knowing the music of Cream and Jefferson Airplane, being familiar with the books of Huxley and Thompson, and having sat through the films of Bunuel and Antonioni were valuable plus points. This knowledge did gain me entry to many conversations at parties. I was able to hang out with other wise and enlightened people. But the strategy did not work out as I had anticipated. Unfortunately the fashions amplified my problems. I grew my hair long (The hair on top of my head that is) and I bought bell bottomed trousers and cheesecloth shirts. Togged up in my purple bell bottoms, multicoloured tie-dye short, with my long freshly-shampooed hair dropping down the back of my Afghan coat, it was pretty difficult, especially at a distance, to know what I was – a boy, a man, a girl or a woman ? The psychedelic fashions rather than make me look like an adult manly-man had made me look like a young girly-boy. This was not the outcome I had planned.

I can recall many times, in queues, people behind me passing by with a jaunty “excuse me Miss“. Similarly  people in lectures calling out to the “girl up there in the back. Yes, you, the girl with the long hair“. These were mortifying events for a young man insecure in his masculinity. They were public and embarassing. However, the only anger I recall feeling was with myself for my lack of machismo, or at the world for the unfairness of having this late developing physique. I knew there was no malevolence from the person doing the misgendering. I knew they had made a mistake and could even entertain the possibility that they had a twinge of embarassment. I never argued with them, the sooner this episode passed the better. I had no desire to prolong the embarrassment or to invite more people to be aware of what was happening. The less people who were aware the better for all concerned. I am so glad this was before the days of social media where my discomfort could be spread around the globe in minutes

There were of course times when the misgendering was deliberate. I recall that the barmen in the harder city pubs would make a point of noticing the long hair that I and my friends sported (“Will you ladies be having Babycham then?”). Likewise, after arrest by the police at demonstrations I never doubted that the mistakes the policemen made (“Excuse me miss is this your placard ?“) were anything but deliberate. In this situation we would generally play to the audience as we were on ‘the right side of history’ and part of the countercultural revolution. We would play up to their errors as flamboyantly as Mike Jagger could strut his ambiguous stuff on stage. On these occasions their faux misgendering was just grist to the mill and a sign that we were winning. This was not upsetting, they hadn’t made a mistake, they knew our gender they were just upset that we didn’t play to their rules.

Although I can understand the distress caused by misgendering I presume most occasions occur by accident rather then design. In these circumstances tolerance and respectful apologies seem the obvious course of action. Between civilised people these errors need not cause more than minor momentary distress. When it occurs deliberately, and without provocation, then like any other insult anger and ire are the appropriate response. Though I would still wager that maintaining the civilised posture is more likely to win the day.

I never get misgendered now. Age came and took the dubiety away. Everyone, even at quite a distance and without spectacles, clearly sees an old man. I’d be flattered to be mistaken for a boy or a youth, or even a girl, but I’m fairly certain that this is not going to happen. However, I am also happy to know that now I have left the age where  I believe aspects of my identity should and do define me. It is no longer important to me whether you think I’m old or young, male or female, straight or gay, black or white, or any other distinction. The only thing that concerns me now  is what you think of what I say and do and whether I think, on reflection, I have said or done the right thing.

 

 

 

Guardian Angel

I am not really sure why I bought this book.phillips-195x293 Certainly it was not for any affection towards Melanie Phillips who I often find rather strident and dogmatic in her television appearances. My instinct might well have been to avoid her autobiography. However, I am aware that she has become one of the bogey-men of the left, whatever she says is dismissed outright, and she receives a degree of venom and hostility which is usually reserved for the Daily Mail and Margaret Thatcher. Perhaps this is why she needs to be so strident and forceful during her media appearances.

But I had an uncomfortable feeling that, often, what she was saying concurred with my feelings at some level and it was unpleasant watching someone attacked for views that I felt were, at least in part, reasonable. She worries about the education system failing our young, she feels family life is changing for the worse with regard to the needs of children, she has concerns that through multiculturalism we are developing ghettos rather than a more diverse society, and she thinks that there is a strand of anti-Semitism in the anti-Zionist posturing of much of our politics. Though my analysis of why such changes are occurring may differ from hers I too share these concerns and feel we need to discuss them. It has been the failure to discuss these issues which has fostered the growth of right-wing populism. We have seen the effect of marginalising debate on these issues in the election and referendum results in America and Britain and in many of the changes in the political landscape in Europe (As I write the Italian election results suggest this trend shows no signs of burning itself out).

When I was a young man and viewed myself as a “left-winger” my house journal was The Guardian newspaper. Well, to tell the truth, it was my second, or third, house journal after the Socialist Worker and Morning Star which were more important to me at this time as they were more likely to hold strictly to the party line. I remembered Melanie Phillips as one of the Guardian’s regulars from those days; in her youth, although no Trotskyist, a fully paid up member of the left and can recall watching her drift away during the late 80’s into the sunset on the right followed by a barrage of catcalls and name calling. It was probably this memory that prompted me to buy her autobiography, this and my suspicions that, when somebody is attacked to vehemently and their character decried so vociferously, there is usually some ulterior political motive for the character assassination.

The book details the her working life. There is some information on her early and family life which is interesting but not very revealing. The book is short and written as one would expect a journalist to write being easy to read and engaging. In essence it is a short read, a couple of evenings, describing her conversion from the left to the right. She would not agree with this usage of the left-right spectrum. However, like many other “apostates of the left”  (See Nick Cohen,  Dave Rubin,  and many others) she largely feels that she has been consistent in her views while the left has abandoned these and drifted away from her. She has always held the liberal, enlightened position which is no longer held to be appropriate to the politics of the left which is in the thrall of identity politics and intersectionality. During the book she describes her political views and the principles which act as her moral lodestar. Anyone familiar with her work will know and recognise these but, if you haven’t read her work or heard her speak before, this would be a good place to find a summary of her views.

All in all I find I have warmed to Melanie Phillips after reading this book. It is clear that she still has the same concerns for the poor and disadvantaged as she always did but simply sees the dangers facing them as coming from a different source. I see her now as less the shrill harridan warning us of our moral failures and rather more as the Sybil trying hard to warn us of future calamity should we fail to correct our course. We need engage more with ideas like hers and find ways to meet the concerns she raises. We need to find how to maintain the best aspects of our civilisation and culture as it changes and evolves.

 

 

 

 

The public is a ferocious beast; one must either chain it or flee from it.

The public is a ferocious beast; one must either chain it or flee from it.

There are many unanswerable questions; “Which came first, the chicken or the egg ?”, or “Do we get the media we deserve or does the media the change public opinion ?”.  While it almost certainly true that no-one will publish  things for which there no existing appetite, it is also true that the media can create appetites which were not there before.

We have been aware, for a long time, of the effects of the media on public opinion and attitudes. Sometimes the changes that the media encourages are benevolent and beneficial. For example the displays of tolerance, and the portrayal of bigots in a bad light,  on television, in films and in other media outlets  has made our society less racist and has led less of us to become bigots. The portrayal of women in active, successful and independent roles has helped counter the aeons of inequality in the opportunities for women and society’s attitudes towards them. In the world of cinema, for example,  the 1961 film Victim helped to start to change our attitudes towards homosexuality and lead us to a less prejudiced and censorious way of thinking.

So we all know that the media can change our attitudes and politics. Every businessman and advertiser knows this when they pay for their bit of media space. Every state know it when it either bans media it disagrees with or when it promotes it own.  The totalitarian states under Hitler, or subsequently under the communists, were  the most active in controlling the media as, they knew, through it they controlled the people.

Perhaps as a consequence of our recognition of the damage that totalitarian states could do through media manipulation we are now more cautious and alert to negative or damaging media interventions. We know that it creates unrealistic views of society in order to manipulate our behaviour. We know that it tries to make us wish to buy things we had not intended to purchase, to want things we didn’t feel we desired, and to need things we were unaware we required.

There has been much written on the harmful effect that advertising,  the fashion industry, celebrity culture and others have on young women through their promotion of unrealistic physical ideals of beauty and the physical form. Similarly there are real concerns about the effects of pornography, and its distorted portrayals of sexual life, on the development of young men.

These are not, however, the things that make me want to flee from modern society. These are obvious and easy to spot and to ignore, or counter. The problem I have is with the unintended consequences of the media’s agenda. The unfortunate result of their inept, but frequent, virtue signalling.

In the world of television dramas, soap operas, theatre, advertising, newspapers and periodicals it is held to be important to promote the diversity agenda. It is a valuable positional good for many people as it is a easy and cheap method to express your good nature and moral credentials. If you want to whiten the brand image of your company, blackened by some scandal of cheap child labour, or chemical dumping, or somesuch, then put out an advert supporting gay marriage. Has your company been found out avoiding paying its tax, but you still want the public to buy your coffee ? Then a high profile support of cultural diversity is what you need. It is just a modern version of the old trick of greenwashing.

The unintended consequence of all of this is a misrepresentation of our society. We are presented with a picture of our society in which a larger group are gay than the 3% who self report as such in surveys, more are of BAME origin than the 13% in the last census, for example. Loving couples in adverts are much more likely to be of mixed races rather than the more prosaic, and more common, same race relationship. In dramas the head of the police team, or the successful politician is likely to be a woman, unfortunately not representing the world as it is, but rather as it is wished to be.

But what is wrong with this ? Surely it will no no more than promote further beneficial change ? I fear that it won’t. It is as much about what is missing as it is about what is said.

What is missing is the white, heterosexual male. If he is in the drama he will be the villain. Indeed, it spoils British crime  drama just now as, no matter how statistically unlikely, you can always guess who the killer will be in the first episode – it is the middle-class male in a suit (You might have guess the black guy, the gang member with the drug problem is a candidate, but no it is the 55 year old solicitor driving the Volvo).  Any traditional character, anyone portrayed as having religious sentiments, will prove to be the moral leper.

Outside the dramas, in the media world of culture and politics the white-male  is the “problem”. A problem that is doubly compounded if the white class male has the misfortune to be working class. White working class males, those who didn’t go to university, seem to the focus for the blame for most things that go wrong in the world. Recently he has been held responsible for Brexit and Trump on either side of the Atlantic.

So what is the outcome of this ? When the world is presented in a way that is quite different to how you know it to be.  When you are not shown as present, as having any part, in the world as it is wanted to be. When you are described as the problem rather than as part of the solution. What do you do ? I think you start to see this aspect of society as alien to you. You start to feel that their lives are far removed from yours. You start to think they must be in some removed group which has interests antithetical to yours. The idea of a “metropolitan elite“, which acts against your interests, seems to be a credible way to make sense of the of the cultural war that you find yourself.

The unintended consequence of these benevolent, but inaccurate, portrayals and this wishful thinking is to push people into reactionary positions and to make them hostile to they very changes you tried to foster. The consequence is that you create the very problem that you thought you already had. We have as people become more tolerate and welcoming over the years. As we become more familiar with our fellows we can only presume that this tendency will continue and improve. Any recent upsurge in bigotry and intolerance is likely to be due to the media’s cack-handed attempts at social engineering.

Voltaire (quoted in the title) was wrong, left alone, people tend to seek out others, they tend to cooperate and form relationships. Our instincts are social, they need to be as we are a social animal. The dangers arise when we are masses goaded or tempted into action. The horrors of our history are the results of the state encouraging us to to think en masse. The killing fields of Cambodia or the ovens of Auschwitz are examples of states altering how peoples think of their friends and neighbours, these nightmares need the individuals’ thoughts to be overridden to be possible. The dangers may be just as great when the results are unintended. Many in the UK and USA should be reconsidering whether their strategies to promote change are having the effects that they wished.