A tale of two stabbings

There was period at the start of the period of lockdown when there was hope that something good might follow all of this. People noticed the clearer air, the reduced traffic noise and smog, they discovered aspects of family life that had been lost to the daily grind of work, and noticed that many things which had once been seen as important were in fact frivolous and wasteful. But as the lockdown progressed we started to chaff against the restrictions and to desire top get back to our “old world” and its ways. It seems that, alas, we are rapidly doing this. The last days have seen the return of mass stabbings to our cities with killings in London and Glasgow. Horrible as this was to hear of the return mass murder; almost as depressing has been the realisation, in its telling of the events, of how debased and partisan our news media has become.

Throughout the lockdown the media has performed poorly. It was outraged and shocked when Dominic Cummings seemed to break the lockdown rules and warned that he was almost single-handedly creating a second wave of deaths. They lost this concern about the breaching of social distancing rules when thousands demonstrated for the Black Lives Matter campaign, only to rediscover their shock and horror about such behaviour when working-class city dwellers went to the beach, and just in time for Trump’s disastrous rally. At a time when we need to be given facts and details we can trust, when literally our lives depend upon it, we have a media that spends more energy in ensuring the correct political spin on a story than on its value for public health or safety.

The stories of the stabbings were unintentionally revealing. When the news initially broke in both cases the media’s call was initially for silence. The initial responses from the Scottish Government and the London Mayor’s office was to advice people to say nothing. There is always an awkward period just after an atrocity when the victims are not known and the intentions of the perpetrator are unclear. During this time, the media doesn’t know if this story fits the narrative or not. The range is horrifying to the media; it could range from “Islamic fundamentalist slaughters gays” to “White supremacist slaughters black men”. The media doesn’t know if the killers are the kind of people we are encouraged to hate (right wing, racists) or not and whether the victims are the right sort of people. There is during this time the great worry that killer could be one of the folk from ‘your team’ and it is best for everyone to be quiet until the correct story has been decided. Really there is no need for this. There is never a situation, outside of war, where the person doing multiple killings is the good guy, and, even in war, those killed are clearly the victims and deserve our sympathy.

Our initial responses should simply be our natural one’s; shock and horror that people have been killed and anger and outrage at the person who did it. We don’t need politicians to tell us to wait until they know the details so they can tell us if we are angry or not. It is our anger which worries them. They are worried that the conclusions we draw may lead us to be angry with the wrong people. We might be angry that our communities are breaking down, that our police force is underfunded, that our involvement in foreign wars has brought echoes of these wars to our high streets, or that there are groups promoting intolerance and division with impunity. These might not be the story as it is meant to be told, so we should shut up and wait.

The media wants to keep to its narratives, and this can prove awkward. What if the man killing the asylum seekers in Glasgow was another asylum seeker and not a rabid local bigot? Where is the story then? What if the killer in Reading did kill the three gay men in the park because of his own Islamic intolerance of homosexuality? What about the view of the religion of peace then? To control the narratives the media must either alter the attacker or the victim. It will either convert the attacker into a “madman”, so that insanity is the cause of their evil, or remove the features of the victims (“The police report that the victims were not attacked because they were gay”). Anything to remove discordant facts that might make the overall stories being told less consistent. In London the gayness of the victims was less important than the refugee status of the attacker (as they were also white, middle-class men) so it is more important to avoid the possibility of increasing islamophobia than it is to avoid appeasing homophobia. This is intersectionality at work; weighing up our value on the victimhood scale and seeing where we sit – sometimes our victim status is too low to be worthy of attention.

Thankfully, most people can see past this. Most people know that every person has the right to life and that any ideology which results in hatred and killing is shameful. We see past the reports that we receive to the truth behind the headlines that groups exist which wish to divide us up and control our lives. Sometimes we only see it “through a glass darkly” and it takes us time to appreciate what is going on. In difficult times, like the present, we need facts and open discussion so we can grope our way out of this dreadful situation. The same old stories that got us into this mess do not help.

My preferred pronouns are .. ..

My preferred pronouns are .. ..

I read a very interesting article by Rachel Mankowitz on the problems that languages have with the changed views we now hold about gender in society. This an interesting read about language, religion and gender focussing mainly on Hebrew and it is well worth a read. It certainly made me think about the muddle we have created for ourselves with the issue of pronouns.

There are areas that I think have been clearly problematic with pronoun use. This I when they have been used to promote gender roles inappropriately. Sentences like “The nurse felt her heart race as the doctor raised his scalpel to make the first incision” are potentially harmful to society, as they portray, and foster, job stereotypes – nurses are women and surgeons are men. As a society we have really progressed from the idea that a certain chromosome mix, or specific genital anatomy, is important for a job or a task (other than the realms or childbirth, breastfeeding or possibly types of prostitution). We should be careful when we use gendered pronouns to relates to large groups as they create assumptions we may not intend.

However, most of the time we use pronouns it is to try and use a shorthand to identify an individual by reducing the options but without unnecessary specificity. The sentence “Alan left Alan’s clothes in Alan’s house” sounds far too hectoring or emphatic compared to “He left his clothes in his house”. Describing gossip or arguments with “he said, she said” is much easier than “Mr. Smith said, Mrs. Smith said“. We use pronouns to reduce the likelihood of errors in communication often by using one of the most basic of differences we notice about people. Often apparent gender is enough but sometimes not (e.g. “Her, her on the left with the red hair”). If one was to look at a group of 10 men and be asked “Who took the ball ?” to answer “he did” will not be adequate. We all use pronouns and adjectives instinctively like this; we use words to convey what we want to communicate as clearly as we can.

This not where the problems lie. The problems occur when people feel the need to select their pronouns. The statement “My preferred pronouns are ..” is problematic.

The first problem is minor. This problem arises when someone expressed this statement completely unnecessarily. Someone, often a stale white guy in a position of authority or a celebrity with falling ratings, will announce “My preferred pronouns are He/Him” as if there had been any prior doubts whatsoever. There was no need to advise us, we knew what pronouns to use, and the only reason this statement is made is to attract positive attention. The hope is that we will now think “He is a cool and aware dude not the boring old fart I had thought“. This actually rarely works in any event, most people can see through this, it is about as effective as a elderly vicar wearing jeans and a Limp Bizkit T-shirt saying ‘Yo ! I’m gettin’ down with the kids‘. Unless people have transitioned, or are in the process of doing so, there must be relatively few times this is necessary. I don’t like this but it is a minor irritation.

It is often felt that this statement is used to avoid hurt and insult during future conversations. Thankfully most of us have no intention of being insulting or disrespectful to others and in our conversations we will try and be polite and friendly. I am sure that if I met Trump or Boris I’d probably have a conversation that didn’t use the terms buffoon or egotistical maniac even once. Even when we disagree, we rarely insult people face to face; it is counter productive. But even if one actively wanted to be hurtful pronouns are not the issue here, because in English the first and second person pronouns are not gendered. If you refer back to the statement “My preferred pronouns.. ” it is clear that my pronouns are “I / Me” and the second person pronouns are “You / Yours“, so in any conversation there is no need to use a gendered pronoun at all. Unless you are unpleasant and nasty enough there is unlikely to be any accidental misgendering or insult – “Shall I pass you your clothes ? When did you start your job?” – you would have to work at being unpleasant to do it through the medium of pronouns. This statement about pronouns is rarely to prevent hurt or insult.

The real reason behind this request, and the reason for my objection to it, is that it is compels others to speak in a specific way about a third party. This is the insistence that, when a first person speaks to a second person about a third person then, the first person must use specific pronouns. This compulsion is rarely necessary ; if somebody looks as if they are living in the female gender role, or have told us they are, then we will probably use “she/ her”, and apparent occupant of the male gender role will likely be referred to as “he/him”. If the situation means we don’t know the gender , or feel that the situation is ambiguous, then we will probably use non-gendered terms such as “they / their” or “person/ people”. We are lucky in English that the third person “they/ their” can be used in the singular and plural. This is not always easy in other languages, in Welsh for example ‘they/their’ ( nhw/ eu) is always plural and requires plural noun forms. But again there are non-gendered placeholders that can be used.

Nobody has the right to insist that others talk about them in a specific manner. No minister of religion can insist on being called “reverend”, no politician can insist on being termed “the respected”, no one can insist on any particular adjectives or pronouns. Unless we threaten or slander or libel others we are free to communicate as we wish. Thankfully nearly all of us speak clearly and kindly. However, we would be foolish if we thought that the answer to racism, misogyny, homophobia, or any other hateful idea is to ban the speech that people can use. These ideas will die when they are confronted and exposed not when words are banned or specific pronouns are demanded.

A final irritation I have about this trend is that it appears a further step on the road to defining ourselves by a very limited aspect of ourselves. This statement tends to say that “The most important thing about me is where I fit in the current range of genders“. Now, unless I am thinking of wooing you to capture your sexual favours, this may be the least important aspect of you to me. I might prefer to think of you as “the vet” or “the lawyer” rather than as “Xi / Xim” or “She / Her”.

If I can see the gender role you present I’ll probably use the apt gendered pronoun, on the other hand it if it is very ambiguous I’ll probably be cautious. The third person, under discussion, by their words and behaviour will be able to help me choose. Conversations let us navigate these difficulties and find ways to talk to each other civilly. It is better to find this out together than to think we can prescribe what language other can use about us.

I could imagine that if I heard my overheard my neighbours talking about me and saying “Have you seen the state of the sheep on dickhead’s farm ?” then I might be upset. I would have two strategies I could consider. I could try to stop being a “dickhead” or I could insist that they called me “the wise one”; I know which strategy might have some hopes of success.

Southwest of Salem.

Southwest of Salem.

These documentaries are the stuff of modern horror movies.  Innocents are wrongfully convicted of child sexual abuse and incarcerated and mistreated. No matter what evidence they provide to show their accusers wrong, no matter what lies and falsehoods they can reveal, the legal machinery rolls on as they see the world of reason, logic and justice desert them as they descend further and further into their nightmare.

This time it concerns four women from San Antonia. They did nothing out of the ordinary, tried to be helpful and good, but despite this were wrongfully convicted on the gang-rape of two of their nieces. Their only crime was to be homosexual at a time when bigotry against homosexuals still was a powerful force in the legal department and media, and to have been young lesbians at the time that fears of satanic cults were deranging the logic of the public and professions alike.

While it is distressing to watch these events unfold and one feels ashamed to be complicit in a society which treats people like this;  there is a positive side. The strength of character of these women, who fought on for their exoneration, and defied the system’s attempts to destroy them, is rewarding to watch. To know that some of us, in the face of dreadful adversity, can still act with integrity and dignity allows you to retain some respect for humanity.

It is a shame that we still periodically have to rely on films like this or others (Capturing the Friedmans, The Thin Blue Line, etc) to correct our legal mistakes. But hopefully these films will increase awareness of the dangers of blind faith in the legal system and its agents and perhaps make errors like these less likely to happen.


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