16 December 2013

Respectful Rappers

Original Lyrics:
And if you want beef, then bring the ruckus
/ Wu-Tang Clan ain’t nuttin ta fuck wit
Hey, you know that joke where you take something you wouldn’t normally associate with really stilted, overly formal Standard English, say, for example, a genre of music mostly made by black people, and instead of leaving it as it is, you say it in really stilted, overly formal Standard English, and that’s funny, and also makes you feel quite clever and sophisticated for laughing at it without being outright unironic snobbery?

Are you bothered if substituting in long, high-register words and Queen’s English comes at the expense of any actual eloquence, wordplay or poetic skill there was in the original version?

And would you mind if it eventually degenerated into just saying what you think they should have said, because you find it easier to challenge other social groups’ outright misogyny than your own pretend-friendly, pedestal-building iRespectFemales misogyny?

Oh, and are you a white person who finds it really admirable how Macklemore really challenges his genre?

Well, you’ll just love Respectful Rappers.

27 October 2013

Why Is There a Fat Man at a Food Bank?

Saw this in this week's Spectator.


Thousand words and everything, cartoons like this give you an amazing insight into the Speccie's mentality. The message of the joke itself is a fairly simple one:
  • 'Food bank' contains the word 'bank', which normally refers to the money, or occasionally blood, variety.
  • There is a potentially humorous incongruence between these two senses of the word 'bank'.
  • 'Mash' (an abbreviation for 'mashed potato', and therefore a foodstuff) sounds near-identical (to the point of the two being minimal pairs) to 'cash' (i.e. money).
  • 'Mash point' (a meaningless phrase) and 'cashpoint' (a real, existing, concrete object) therefore also sound similar.
  • By adding 'sausage and' to the beginning, not only does the phrase become humorously unwieldy, we also now have the name of a meal which, it is easy to imagine, could be dispensed and withdrawn through such a machine.
  • The similarity between 'mash' and 'cash' and between 'food banks' and 'banks' as in the financial institution can be combined, with amusingly absurd implications. (This, notably, recalls the 'Jobs, Hope, Cash' hypothesis of recent years.)
  • Since the connection between signifier and signified is arbitrary, it is absurd and incongruent (and therefore pleasantly amusing) to imagine that similarity in the sounds of the two words can result in any similarity in meaning, even if - as in this case - two sets of phonological similarities seem to match up.
But in most jokes, the interesting part is not the punchline but the feed-line. In setting up the absurd and illogical punchline, the feed-line often needs to be based on either obvious or indisputable truths or, failing that, things the listener assumes to be true. This is not the joke. This is not the bit we're meant to laugh at. This is the bit we're meant to gloss over and assume is true so we're ready for the silly absurd bit we're about to hear.

So my question is, why the fuck is there a fat guy at a food bank?

There are two ways this cartoon could have panned out. Either way, to draw someone withdrawing from the mashpoint the cartoonist had to ask themselves "what sort of person uses a food bank?" and the two main criteria, obviously, are:
  • Poor
  • Hungry
I don't think this is a particular controversial statement. But since it's hard to show a person's bank balance and the contents of their stomach in one line drawing that's mostly about mashed potato, you need to use symbolism. The second quickest way to do it is:
  • Stereotypical dolechav (working and/or shirking-class, conveyed efficiently through the clothes in the picture)
  • Greedy person who eats a lot of food (and must therefore always be hungry)
Both of these point to 'fat'. Weirdly though, the first quickest way to symbolise poor and hungry is a thin person, since
  • Poor people often do not get enough to eat - and these tend to be the ones who need food banks.
  • Insufficient calorie intake can, and often does cause weight loss and thinness.
The problems with this shorter, more realistic version are, however:
  • It's less funny, as fewer people enjoy laughing at thin people than enjoy laughing fat people.
  • It fits less with the target audience's (Spectator readers) imagination and assumptions about who uses food banks, and their aesthetic objections to certain types of people.
  • It makes food bank users seem unhappy and sympathetic, rather than fat and round and funny and well-fed, and therefore makes food banks a sad indicator of the economic conditions of poor people, rather than a pleasantly diverting play on words.
Now, either the cartoonist never considered that a food bank user might be thin/average-sized and poor instead of fat and greedy, or at some point an editorial decision was made, and either a real editor or, more likely, a hypothetical editor in the cartoonist's head said "no, don't draw him thin, draw him fat, for the reasons listed above".

The reason the food bank man is fat and happy is because the cartoon is not meant to resonate with any kind of actual objective reality, but with the imaginations of Spectator readers. Now, we all know that know the Spectator isn't there to provide people with facts but to give them that warm, fuzzy feeling you get when you know James Delingpole and Rod Liddle share all the idiotic prejudices you were a bit anxious might be wrong. We also know that, as a demographic, these people are worthless turdscum unworthy of even a short break from being hit in the balls with a crowbar. But today we learn what their problem with poverty is - firstly, it leads to people who aren't them getting free things, and secondly, it causes unsightly fat people.

06 August 2013

Nice Hat Nice Guy

I wrote this around the time the Nice Guys of OKCupid tumblr was taken down, largely because a stake through the heart doesn't really work on websites. Part of my motivation is I'm personally invested in this. I've never thought the "Nice Guy" thing was anything but bollocks and would never call any of my past disappointments "friendzoning", but they resonate with me as reasons to be miserable.

I'm now in a very happy relationship, but whenever I've been single I've been miserable, atrocious at Talking to Girls and prone to hopeless crushes on friends. Sometimes I've been terrified to tell them but managed, once she noticed and had to sit me down. Sometimes (when I was younger) I was an entitled prick about it, sometimes (as I've got older) I've tried not to be as unassuming as possible. Sometimes I've pretty much known what the answer would be and just wanted it confirmed to get it over with, sometimes I've only been 50-60% sure what was coming. Sometimes we've not continued the friendship and at least once due to me being an arse, sometimes we have a while later and I've really enjoyed not caring about my former broken heart. But every time I've been devastated when it happened, and increasingly so as I've perceived it as a pattern, increasingly terrified as I expected this more and more to be the entirety of my love-life. More to the point, I found it difficult to talk to anyone except a few people about my general lack of success with finding a partner, partly because I was embarrassed about it, partly because I was embarrassed about how much it pained me, and I still put off letting the internet read this for well over six months.

A lot's been written on Friendzoning (Tribbiani, 1994) and Nice Guy Syndrome (Cooper, 1973), either explaining the problems with the concepts and the sort of people who buy into them. Stavvers and RopesToInfinity both have neat explanations of the problems of sexual entitlement, reformed misogynist and shitehawk Hugo Schwyzer explains to Jezebel not only that, but why they should be ridiculed. Special mention to GirlOnTheNet and especially SlideRulesYou for sensitive explanations of how not to be a dick about it. Ally Fogg and The Good Men Project raise objections, but miss the point by simply focusing on the colossal mean-spiritedness and awful bastardism of the project. But Ally Fogg's second attempt and Laurie Penny's pleasantly sensitive and also fucking brilliant effort are probably the best explanations of the problem with the site. Penny points out that a lot of men on the blog, unlike the thoroughly bloody nice blokes who rant about superficial bitches or blithely assert that no can be a yes in disguise, "haven't actually said anything overtly sexist – they're just a bit overweight and ungroomed and feeling sorry for themselves". Sorry for themselves is key. Stavvers writes
If hearing a “no” is soul-crushing, or enraging, or likely to cause resentment, then you really need to work on your own issues before attempting to connect with other human beings in a non-coercive capacity.
My two major objections to Stavvers's post are these: Firstly, like an awful lot of criticisms, it talks about reaction to a one-off disappointment, when the complaint is far more often about a persistent string of repeat rejections. Secondly, it conflates soul-crushing with enraging, despair with resentment. While they're all extreme reactions, they're not the same. Being internally unhappy with yourself, to yourself is not immoral in the same way as externalising your resentment on other people or blaming them for failing to fulfil your demands. It's not the extremeness of the reaction that's the problem but the attitudes it reveals. And if you've never been genuinely terrified that nobody will ever want to fuck or even kiss you for the rest of your life, I'd be wary of limiting how upset a person can be by rejection or demanding soul-uncrushability from them.

My objection to this isn't just that it's mean and unfair though. Ally Fogg sees the problem as
There is a danger in labelling men like this as misogynists or creeps, and it is not just the emotional harm to the men themselves. As feminists will be the first to explain, our culture polices masculinity. Those who deviate from an assertive, even aggressive masculinity are shamed as wimps or with homophobic slurs. The shaming of the sexually reserved man is the converse of the shaming of the sexually assertive woman, both are defying the same norm.
While also this reminds me of the effeminacy implied by "creep" (see: any effete, cowardly villain in the entire history of film), I think a lot more is going on than just "the sexually reserved man", and I want to explain why we should tread very carefully when we decide, as Laurie Penny puts it,
How are we supposed to handle common-or-garden sexist dickwaddery when it puts photos on the internet and asks to be loved?


Collateral Splatter
There are already a lot of websites and tumblrs making fun of people on OK Cupid. Some publish creepy or nonsensical messages, some publish offensive or hypocritical profiles, some publish stupid pictures, some are grouped by theme, some aren't, some anonymise them, some don't. Nice Guys of OKCupid, despite some top-drawer gags, is part of this, and contributes to this. Yes, the men who claim women don't want them because they're Too Nice while saying awful, awful things, or wonder why they get friendzoned while being obnoxious and entitled are funny. But so are the men who claim women don't want them for being Too Nice while being really whiny and self-pitying. And the men who wonder why they get friendzoned while being fat, ugly or badly dressed. The joke works on several levels and we shouldn't be comfortable with all of them.

The overall joke on these blogs is basically two-pronged. You can laugh at the hypocritical misogyny, and you can laugh at the awful profiles, photos and appearances that they actually hoped would get them dates. I'm not convinced that laughing at the one rules out laughing at the other, or even that you can ever laugh at the two separately when they're shown, intermeshed, as one joke. I'm also not convinced that men who aren't thin, passably attractive, neurotypical and wholly content with their ability to talk to girls will see it purely as critique of misogyny, and not an attack on them. That's definitely how I personally felt it, and despite being stupidly happy with my life at the moment, I found it really upsetting. For all the protestations that it's solely a criticism of opinions, attitudes, words and entitlement, if you found yourself on that tumblr it would be equally easy, possibly more so, to feel mortified and embarrassed for your rubbish profile, or your weight, or your self-pity. Even if you'll never be on there because you're not on OKCupid, don't believe stupid shite and the site is down anyway, it's easy to imagine yourself on there, being ridiculed for your looks, social skills, emotional fragility or the risky choice of sharing your insecurities with friends or strangers. These aren't things people deserve to be humiliated for.

If you don't make sure you shame people for the right things, you risk shaming them for the wrong ones. An obvious example is this, from OKCupid Goldmine:
If your problem with casual homophobes is their ability to spell a notoriously difficult word, you're not only failing to take homophobia seriously, you're also being a prick to anyone with less education or more dyslexia than you. Not convinced? Look at this amateur eugenecist hypocrite from the same tumblr:
Being attacked for his own disability, in a weird case of Hypocrite Alien vs Hypocrite Predator.

The more nerd-specific Nice Guys and Fedoras of OKCupid aren't as blatant, but still do it. When Fedoras is challenged over the issue of people on the autistic spectrum, the writer is first dismissive (it's just about weird guys), then evasive (it's not about weird guys it's just about the stupid hat), with a Some Of My Best Friends Defence thrown in for good measure. On both tumblrs, the very first entry is a nerdy-looking fat guy:
In fact the first page of Nice Guys is at least 50% fat men. Two of them (one a bit chubby round the cheeks, the other just dressed a bit weird) seem to have done nothing beyond use the phrase 'nice guy' or 'friend zone' and one guy, a bit pudgy-looking and a lot miserable-looking, actively asserted they could still be friends, he'd just be in a bad mood for a while. These three are nowhere near the only examples, either.
Criticisms of "Nice Guys" often sail dangerously close to the wind in terms of depression and mental illness. This comment on Stavvers' blog opens
People who are affected so tremendously when their desire to have sex isn’t reciprocated have pretty deep emotional problems.
Not only does it see the problem as the level, rather than the nature and expression of emotional problems, quantitative rather than qualitative, it uses "emotional problems" in the same dismissive, false-concern way people use "you obviously have issues" and "get help".

The writer of the tumblr also specifically attacks one of them, not for anything implied by the word 'friendzone', but for the fact it makes his dating profile unappealing.
For the tumblr's fans as well, the issue with the misogyny on there is often that it just looks bad on a dating profile, as if it'd basically be ok if they concealed or bottled up their issues instead of letting their potential fucks know in advance. Fans also seem to like the blog despite being aware that it's funny because they're ugly, or (of this guy) specifically because they are. While unsexy fat sadsacks who are probably autistic or crazy or something aren't the main point of these blogs, if a disproportionately large number are getting caught in the net, that's a bad sign and really not something to be dismissed.

Who Are These Poor Twats?
There's a sadsack/shitbag spectrum here, that goes from disappointedly falling for a friend to feigning friendship for sex and getting angry when it doesn't work, from wondering why women never want to sleep with you to demanding that they do. Given at least one fedora-topped nice guy actively rejected sex before marriage, even seeing this as a Nice quality, it's also unclear what, exactly, these blokes want from their friends, whether it's no-strings-attached sex, marriage, love, affection or I don't know what. Despite studiously evading the issue of physical appearance, which is an uncomfortable aspect of a blog that seems to be 50% fat dudes, RopesToInfinity probably has the best explanation of why Nice Guys aren't getting laid:
Physical attraction is not the be-all and end-all, but the nature of attraction is complex and nebulous, not a simple one-item checklist containing merely 'basic human decency', which you can fulfill and expect to be rewarded with endless, dizzying fuckfests with the partner of your choice. So, what else you got? Are you smart? Are you funny? Do you have an excellent beard? If your answer to all three is 'no', then you're going to need to consider what your qualities are that a woman might like, and put them front and centre. Or just grow a beard. Either way could work.
Nice Guy Syndrome is, in its way, the realisation of a sad truth about the world: that sexual attraction is basically amoral, and that the deciding factor in whether you get to have a vaguely satisfying love life isn't some universal moral imperative of being a decent person, it's morally neutral things like physical attractiveness, intelligence or confidence, or downright immoral and repugnant things like beards. Nice Guys are being forced to confront two distressing and confusing facts. Firstly, that the world is not as it should be and that regardless of your good heart and good deeds, sexual attraction is earned mainly by being sexually attractive. Secondly, that they're not.

It's understandable why the Friendzone thing might be more painful, confusing and frightening than getting acquaintance-zoned, or friend-of-a-friend-zoned, or twat-in-the-club-zoned. Whether your friendship is genuine or a cheat code to someone's knickers, whether the object of your affections is telling the truth, letting you down gently or lying to prevent a negative reaction, being told you're ok as a friend, and especialy if you're "nice", is a clear announcement that it's not your personality that's at fault. So it's understandable that, especially if this happens more than once, people may see it as a direct result of being sexually unattractive.

It's easy to see why the ideas of Friendzoning and the Nice Guy reinforce each other. Unless you're a LAD and into banter and choose the companions who can be most horrible to you, someone wanting your friendship seems like proof positive they think you're a nice person. And then, when you're trying to work out why people who think you're a nice person don't want to fuck you, it's easier to put two and two together, ignore the dozens of other numbers involved, make four and then cling to it for dear life.

Friend Zone
I've already written about the obvious point that grammar affects the implications of the word, and tracked some of the changes in meaning the word/idea has undergone. I've also heard a bloke use the verb (specifically for this episode of Life on Mars) to mean just the act of telling a friend you don't feel the same way about him. The word has obviously had a variety of uses, expressing a variety of different attitudes and ideas, most of them fairly dodgy. These include:
  • You meet and become friends with a woman. One day you realise you fancy her, she doesn't reciprocate.
  • You meet and become friends with a woman. You fancy her from day one. She doesn't reciprocate.
  • You meet a woman and befriend her because you fancy her. She doesn't reciprocate.
  • You meet a woman and pretend to befriend her because you fancy her. She doesn't reciprocate.
  • Women/people naturally see their friends less and less as potential partners as the friendship develops – so act fast if you want more than friendship.
  • Friendzoning is a thing that only happens to straight men.
  • Gay people and women also get friendzoned.
  • Being seen as just a friend is a failure on the part of the man for not making a move quick enough or at all.
  • Seeing a man as just a friend is a conscious decision on the part of the woman.
  • Seeing a man as just a friend is an unconscious reaction on the part of the woman.
  • Women have a deliberate agenda in friendzoning men. Fuck knows what but they do.
  • Women inadvertently exploit male friends/admirers by taking their friendship but not giving back in the form of sex/intimacy/love/etc.
  • Women deliberately exploit male friends/admirers by taking their friendship but not giving back in the form of sex/intimacy/love/etc.
  • The woman will see other men, this will be painful for the male friend/admirer.
  • The woman will complain about how other men treat her to the male friend/admirer, this will be even more painful.
  • The woman will never notice her male friend/admirer unless he grows a pair and does something.
  • The woman should notice her male friend/admirer.
  • The man never tells the woman how he feels.
  • The man tells the woman how he feels, and she doesn't feel the same way.
  • This is very painful for the man.
  • This is very painful for both the man and the woman.
  • This is very painful for the man and perversely pleasurable for the woman.
  • The friendship afterwards will be strained and awkward.
  • The friendship afterwards will be painful, as the man keeps seeing a woman he desires but knows he can't have.
  • The friendship afterwards will be too painful to maintain.
  • Without promise of sex, the friendship afterwards is not worth maintaining.
  • Without promise of sex, the friendship was never worth maintaining.
  • The friendship is ruined by the man's desire for the woman.
  • The friendship is ruined by the woman failing to return that desire.
  • The friendship is ruined because it was only ever a stepping-stone towards sex.
  • The friendship doesn't have to be ruined.
  • FML
I've seen all of these ideas implied or spelled out in relation to the friend zone/friendzoning/platonic crushes or whatever you want to call it. But never all of them at once, and this is important. For example, it's worth noting that even pick-up artists see this sort of situation as largely if not entirely the fault of the man for getting attached.

The Nice Guy
Now, I'm not a scientist, but there may be some confirmation bias at work which might make you ascribe negative qualities to the guy sleeping with the woman you love. Not sure what you'd call it. She might also avoid gushing to her unhappily single friends about her amazing, kind new boyfriend but be less hesitant to complain about his farting. But anyway, we all know what women prefer. Women prefer assorted hypermasculine stereotypes which tend to be riddled with class prejudice. These may include
  • Jocks
  • Jerks
  • Bastards
  • Douches
  • Bad boys
  • Assholes
  • Tattooed thugs
  • Muggers
  • Buggerers
  • Bushwhackers
  • Hornswogglers
  • Ass-kickers
  • Shit-kickers
  • Methodists
This idea tends to have its own set of myths and implications, again, often but not always a bit iffy.
  • Nice Guys are nice to everyone, but this doesn't make women desire them.
  • Nice Guys are nice to women, but this doesn't make women desire them.
  • Nice Guys are nice to the women they desire, but this doesn't make women desire them.
  • Nice Guys know how to make a woman feel special.
  • Nice Guys know what women want.
  • Nice Guys know what women want and do it with no hope of reward.
  • Nice Guys know what women want and do it in the hope of getting laid.
  • Women are attracted to jerks, bad boys and Mexican bandits because these men are more masculine.
  • Women are attracted to jerks, bad boys and Mexican bandits because these men are more exciting.
  • Women are attracted to jerks, bad boys and Mexican bandits because they don't know what's good for them.
  • Women are attracted to jerks, bad boys and Mexican bandits because they are evolutionarily scienced to seek out successful mates with like money and cool tattoos and gang guns and shit.
  • It is in the nature of the jerks, bad boys and Mexican bandits to inevitably be mean to her.
  • It is in the nature of the jerks, bad boys and Mexican bandits to inevitably cheat on her.
  • It is in the nature of the jerks, bad boys and Mexican bandits to inevitably abuse her.
  • The Nice Guy is expected to listen and be sympathetic while she complains about never finding a good man, even though one is right under her nose all along.
  • The Nice Guy is nothing but sympathetic that she can never find a good man, even though one is right under her nose all along.
  • The Nice Guy has no sympathy whatsoever that she can never find a good man, because one is right under her nose all along.
  • The Nice Guy has no sympathy whatsoever that jerks, bad boys and Mexican bandits are mean to her.
  • The Nice Guy has no sympathy whatsoever that jerks, bad boys and Mexican bandits cheat on her.
  • The Nice Guy has no sympathy whatsoever that jerks, bad boys and Mexican bandits abuse her.
  • Nice Guys are different.
  • Nice Guys are nice expecting nothing in return.
  • Nice Guys are nice expecting nothing in return and so deserve something back.
  • If you're consistently nice to a woman it's disappointing if she doesn't sleep with you.
  • If you're consistently nice to a woman she owes it to you to sleep with you.
  • Being Nice is a selfless act that all too often goes unrewarded.
  • Being Nice is a selfless act that deserves to be rewarded.
  • Being Nice is a strategy to acquire rewards.
  • Being Nice is a stupidly ineffective strategy to acquire rewards.
  • This wouldn't happen to me if I just behaved like a jerk/bad boy/Mexican bandit.
  • Maybe I should just start acting like a jerk/bad boy/Mexican bandit.
  • FINE THEN. I'll just become a jerk/bad boy/Mexican bandit.
  • Attract Women by Acting Like a Jerk/Bad Boy/Mexican Bandit, Theodor A. Peacock, $14.95, available in all good bookstores.
  • FML
The fact Nice Guys almost always seem to claim that they're too Nice, that being too Friendly gets you Friendzoned implies a very different gripe with womankind. What strikes me is that rather than expecting sex to pop out if you put in enough friendship tokens or kindness coins or whatever sarky currency you want to use, the Friendzoned Nice Guy seems to be the opposite: that friendship and kindness actively work against you. And it's less about making women who don't fancy you suddenly swoon, and more about not making yourself unattractive to women who otherwise might be interested. Much as this is problematic, and much as it acts as a very nasty catalyst when mixed with generally fucked-up attitudes to women, the martyred tone they often take seems to support this.

It often seems, not that they're demanding that their Niceness and Friendship be rewarded with sex, but that they not be punished with rejection, and this is probably worth remembering.

But, generally there are so many contradicting ideas attached to both Friendzoning and Nice Guys that one person can't believe in all of them. Extrapolating what specific misogyny a person is implying with these ideas is about as fruitful as guessing the postcode of someone's church from the fact they believe in God. But if I wanted a coherent catch-all definition, I'd go with this:
When someone is only interested in you as a Friend and not a partner, this can be understood as a Zone, to be entered or placed in, and this happens to Guys, not in spite of their being Nice, but because of it.

Ladytokens
This article has some very interesting analysis of why self-identifying "beta" males are often just as prone to straight-up misogyny as the "alphas".
Much of the humour (and the tragedy) in Peep Show stems from Mark's unshakable confidence in his own victimhood: he fails repeatedly to take responsibility for what befalls him, reasoning instead that the world has it in for men who eschew football and clubbing for comfortable sweaters, canal boating and nights on the sofa with Das Boot. This works itself up into an odd superiority complex which pivots on a paradox by which society's stereotypical alpha males are simultaneously resented because of their apparent desirability and (smugly) pitied for their supposed shallowness. In Bain and Armstrong's representation of the beta male worldview, the terms and conditions of class conflict are transposed onto the male civil war in which the Corrigans are the – hopeless – proles.

Despite his small-c conservatism in 'real' politics, Mark is borderline Maoist when it comes to the internecine rivalry of men, something that becomes particularly clear on the rare occasions that his clumsy romantic advances are reciprocated. Being in a relationship isn't, to him, its own reward, but an indication of a drastic redistribution of sexual capital which avenges him on those – especially Jeff, his alpha arch-enemy – he believes have 'oppressed' him. Women are treated as nothing more than symbols of advantage in a battle men fight between themselves.
Of course, the whole bollocks about alpha and beta males is increasingly believed to be bollocks when applied to dogs, let alone humans. Moreover, even in the old-fashioned view of how wolf packs work, 'alpha' is not a type or a community but a social position within a group, to be won or lost. It's not that surprising then if men squabble to be top dog in a group that sees itself as by, for and of the betas. To be so beta, they outbeta the betas, to win at losering and underdog their way to the top. It's also not surprising that women end up being the currency. Men demonstrate their status over other men by acquiring more hotter women, and expect that status to earn them more hotter women. Women are both the prize and the scoring system.

Another look at the rogue's gallery of douches, jerks and other jammy fuckers shows, basically, a list of archetypal Alpha Males, selfishly hogging all the women and then not even treating them right like Nice Betas would. The Nice Guy whine isn't really to do with Niceness but with status and masculinity. They reject the proudly "alpha" jock or lad who probably used to take their dinner money and flush their heads down toilets. They deliberately style themselves as "betas", hence the nerd paraphernalia all over both Nice Guys and Fedoras. But bloody hell do they want to exercise dominance of other men by acquiring women.

Nice Guys are anxious not just because they're not getting lucky, but because they don't perform heterosexual masculinity correctly. I'm not going to romanticise them as noble, self-sacrificing rebels against patriarchy, because half the time they've done nothing more than tried and failed. Even by rejecting or failing at dominant, aggressive male sexuality, they still aspire to it, kicking themselves for being too Nice, too beta and submissive. They fantasise about becoming the bad boy who steals their rightful girlfriends, acting like heartless lotharios, peacocking and learning pick-up, basically becoming either the Alpha Geek or just a standard Alpha. They believe in and reinforce the same old dominant male roles, but they do it by worrying and feeling shite about themselves because they don't know how to do them.

Sexy, Sexy Morals
This is why I think we need to be very careful about how we tackle these attitudes. What distinguished Nice Guys of OKCupid from all the other Amusing Nerds of Internet Dating sites out there is that, at the same time as embarrassing unattractive people for their dating profiles, it had a legitimate political purpose. The myths involving Nice Guys and Friendzoning need challenging, people who hold women in contempt for not fancying them deserve criticism, and the hypocrisy of thinking you're so nice that women should have to fuck you is really funny and everyone should get a chance to enjoy laughing at it. The problem is, criticising men for very real moral failings needs to be neatly and clearly separated from laughing at their dating skills.

While it's true that patriarchy hurts men too, it doesn't hurt us willy-nilly, for shits and giggles. Patriarchy's not a fucking idiot. It hurts men who fail to do their patriarchal duty – basically, patriarchy hurts men if they don't do enough to hurt women. Radtransfem has a very good explanation of "compulsory sexuality":
‘Compulsory sexuality’ refers to a set of social attitudes, institutions and practices which hold and enforce the belief that everyone should have or want to have frequent sex (of a socially approved kind).
[…]
Put more simply, this all means: in the eyes of patriarchy, “men gotta fuck women”. If you are a woman not being fucked by a man, you are doing ‘woman’ wrong, and if you are a man who is not fucking women, you are doing ‘man’ wrong. (The consequences of doing ‘woman’ wrong are, of course, significantly more punitive than doing ‘man’ wrong, because women are always closer to consequences under patriarchy.)
I'd agree that the consequences of doing 'man' wrong may be less punitive for men, but since for straight dudes, compulsory sexuality often means compulsory being-a-dick-to-women, women are also closer to these punitive consequences, because men get penalised if they don't help penalise women. Society attaches a moral imperative to being sexual, and to being good at being sexual, and it's shitty for everyone especially the further away you go from being a Proper Straight White Man.

It's not just UniLad who treat "gash" as the sole incentive for doing anything, even in fashion columns (this really happened). For as long as I can remember being aware of Things Women Want, morality and sexual success have been mashed together. I learned, constantly, as a telly-viewing teenager in the late 1990s that women now preferred the Sensitive New Man who cooked, was sensitive, understood about feminism and was sensitive (the way Ladette culture shaped my shittiest views on gender and What Women Really Want is a whole other rant). My parents told me not to eat so many kitkats in case I got fat and girls didn't like me. Positive qualities were mature, masculine, attractive to women, who'd want a man, not a boy. It's no surprise Nice Guys think being nice is enough to get them sex, because society constantly dangles women as a carrot, or withdraws them as a stick, bribing men into moral behaviour with only slightly more subtlety than a Lynx advert. At the same time, your worth as a man, and therefore as a human being, is measured to a stupid extent by sex.

Obviously not everyone tots up conquests and multiplies by average rating out of ten. But men congratulate each other for sex. More to the point, men make fun of virgins (declared LAD practice), joke about how long it is since you had any, list ludicrously easy situations where you couldn't score. Our favourite cuss at school was "You're so desperate that", followed by an elaborate wanking technique (In hindsight, we'd probably either tried this the night before or were planning for next time our parents went out). Losing your virginity is a rite of passage, that you have to pass before a certain age. Being a virgin at university, 21 or 40 are things to be embarrassed about, and we're also expected to reach certain levels of maturity according to chronological age, not life experience (and insistence on "maturity" isn't always far from grr-manly-man-mustash homophobia). Men scare each other with loss of gash if we don't do masculine heterosexuality properly, downgrading each other's heterosexual masculinity if we fail to acquire enough gash. Straight-dude identity conflates sexual conquest, maturity, correct gender performance and moral imperatives. It's a shite state of affairs, and we do it all the time. We even use 'friendzoning' as a slur on other men's masculinity, and it gets weird as fuck As well as using women as the carrot, society beats you with the stick if you fail to eat enough carrots.

The Dickwaving
This is why I'm wary of other men's critiques of shitty male behaviour, especially jokey ones, especially friendly ones and especially ones that give handy dating advice. Men who don't feel "oppressed by bullshit masculinity standards that assert that a man’s dignity is tied to never feeling vulnerable, especially around women" are never going to be as careful about reinforcing those bullshit masculinity standards. Important distinctions about attitude become less important than manly aversion to men revealing weakness. Sometimes, it's just some idiot explaining to women why no, they don't really like Nice Guys, and it's pretty obvious he's siding against weak men and with aggressiveness and getting pussy. But it gets more subtle. This article, for example, explicitly frames basic human decency as "a man’s role and a man’s responsibilities", exhorting us to "use your heavy man’s hand". It explicitly reinforces compulsory sexuality and frames ambitions for your love-life other than fucking, monogamy or religious asceticism as unnatural:
Then puberty hit and, if we were straight, we actively wanted the company of girls. We wanted to “go with” them, date them, and eventually we wanted to fall in love and live with one, maybe for the rest of our lives. That’s the way heterosexual boys are supposed to mature, unless they become monks.
It depends on the "manchild" stereotype – a boy who has just got older and bigger instead of being properly socialised into normative masculinity. It even has a neatly bullet-pointed list explaining what "manliness" is, framing traditionally masculine qualities like strength, self-confidence and social skills – luxuries not everyone has – as moral imperatives, while treating basic acts of human decency like not being an obnoxious shitbucket towards women as important because they're masculine. There's already an idea floating round, probably with the best of intentions, that sexism is unmanly, and this is a bizarre and stupid thing to play into, because sexism is very manly, and this is the problem with manliness. When men talk to men about not being dicks, not only do our own prejudices and urges to assert masculinity competitively come into play, we often try to catch flies with Old Spice instead of vinegar by offering things misogynists will aspire to.

This is especially true when it comes to Nice Guys. We start off with a story about how we used to be shy and awkward and sexually frustrated just like them, but we're not any more. More often than not we've found ourselves a wonderful wife/girlfriend/polyamorous lifestyle which we may or may not mention (see above). We try to win them over with helpful dating advice. We point out that not only is shitty behaviour shitty, but that it's actually not even sexy. We ramble inexplicably about smurfs, tell them to get proper female friends, then conclude:
People, men and women both, are complex, emotional creatures, and virtually all of them are horny. If you’re honest with yourself and honest with them you will form trusting, open connections with a large network of humans. Those people are called friends. You will be in many friend zones. You will be a better person. Someone will fuck you. Trust me.
We tell these Nice Guys, who complain that women won't fuck them just for being nice, that if they became Actual Guys Who Are Nice, they'd be rewarded with women just like we were.

We often can't resist gendering our attacks either. The smurf-based critique of Friendzoned Nice Guys argues this, and with a nice little school-bully nickname:
Here’s the hard truth, Friendzone. You’re not a nice guy. You are a gutless, pathetic, sad, horny little worm who’s too afraid of rejection to just tell a woman how you really feel. Your anger when she doesn’t psychically glean your unspoken desires and automatically reciprocate them is actually just you externalizing the disgust you feel for your own cowardice.
The things I've stuck in italics are all things Real Men don't do. Real Men face the truth. Real Men are brave, admirable, successful and sexually fulfilled. They're not afraid of anything, least of all rejection. Real Men say how they feel, especially when it comes to being forward with women. They stay calm and take responsibility for their problems, and Real Men have inner confidence in themselves and their courage.

Fact is, it's ok to be gutless, pathetic, sad and horny. It's ok to be absolutely petrified of rejection and bottle up your desires and there's nothing wrong with feelings of self-disgust at your own cowardice. Arse though this imaginary "Friendzone" bloke probably is, and brilliant as Real Men sound by comparison, this criticism of Nice Guys is explicitly phrased in terms of masculinity. Getting angry with people for not working out you want to sleep with them and then letting you, that's a dick move, but I really don't get the impression this was high on Smurfbro's list of priorities. If you're still not sure, do you really want to hop into a boat with Hugo Schwyzer for the great debate on How Should We Do Masculinity Properly?

Desperate Archetypes
To an alien or someone, the way the Nice Guys and Fedoras tumblrs treated each other as allies on the same battlefield would seem bizarre. There's posts explaining it. What do stupid hats and frustrated sexual entitlement even have in common? Yet, it makes sense even to me. It resonates. They fit in with some kind of archetypal nerd, who, as well as steampunk and glasses and gaming and scifi/fantasy and getting bullied at school, also has a tendency towards burning, embittered misogyny and the kind of old-fashioned classic manliness hat that old-fashioned classic manliness men like Don Draper wear.

This character is desperate. He might be desperate for sex, or for an intimate relationship, or for the manly status and confidence of having a woman, or for female company, or for any company. He might be deceiving himself that he's desperate for one of those things when in fact he's desperate for all of them. He probably feels entitled and hard done by and he probably feels sad and frightened. As well as a male version of the mad-spinster-cat-lady, he's also the passive-aggressive counterpart to the aggressive desperate man. The ripped musclejock or balding divorcee, who tries it on with every woman in the room, who posts photos of his penis on Craigslist or sits silently on chatroulette, astonishingly glum for a man who's currently masturbating.

Desperation plus privilege is a nasty combination. Not only do desperate people do desperate things to escape their desperation, if they have any kind of a sense of entitlement, it's just amplified by the feeling that not getting what they want is ruining their lives. Conversely though, they're fucking funny. The seething, hypocritical resentment of the Nice Guys of OKCupid. The picture of Luke Bozier where it's quite clearly not nine inches. The sheer tragicomic sadness. And the nervous, comrade-shot-right-next to me laugh, because there, but for half a shred more confidence and marginally better gender politics, go I.

Of course, no real people actually fit these stereotypes perfectly. But we're fucking terrified of them. When I was unhappily single, I was terrified of becoming one of these lonely bachelors. Given the centrality of monogamous, sexual relationships to how society fits together, your ability to find sex actually does risk your prospects of long-term companionship, of raising children, and of having company in old age. Possibly one of my worst moments was realising that, if I was going to end up permanently alone, I might not be able to properly look after a dog. Dogs mean a lot to me, dogs almost always cheer me up, and before this, I'd thought "at least maybe one day I'll have a dog", so you can imagine how much this scared me. I was terrified of growing up to be a lonely middle-aged man and then a retired bachelor. I was desperate to find a girlfriend or even just get laid, so as to avoid becoming that guy who's desperate to find a girlfriend or even just get laid. This wasn't just because they seem so bloody miserable, or because they can come across as awful people, or even because desperation is unattractive to women and I was desperate to be attractive to women. It's also because there's stigma attached to unhappily single people, and the older and more unsatisfied they are, the more we ridicule them. Yep. Someone, somewhere decided to attach social stigma to loneliness, and probably never even got disembowelled for it. When Luke Bozier got hacked, we actually headlined laughing at his dick, as if exaggerating your length on Craigslist is morally worse than being into jailbait and more embarrassing than being a Blairite defector to the Tory party and starting Menshn.

Precision
The Bozier's Cock Incident is why it's important to know exactly what we want to criticise Nice Guys for and, more importantly, not go for any of the other things ever. Sexual desperation can be a red flag for women, and you're not only within your rights to avoid people whose frustration and neediness might make them dangerous, you're probably also quite sensible. But treating desperation as if it leads directly to abusiveness has some nasty implications – that misogyny and sexual violence come from unfulfilled male urges. And as Ally Fogg points out, the unhappiness itself is not a problem. Desperation breeds desperation, and making people feel uncomfortable, embarrassed or especially morally wrong for it only speeds up the process. If I'd been single when those fictitious nine inches came to light, I'd probably have laughed even harder and even more hypocritically than I'm doing now. I'd then have been even more desperate to stop being single in sheer terror of becoming another Bozier.

The best example of doing this wrong is the twitter @reddit_txt. It's mostly examples of painfully fuckawful racist and sexist quotes from a notoriously racist and sexist website-community-thingy that really, really deserve to be laughed at. Mostly. It also posts tweets like this: The joke here isn't fuckawful opinions. It's tragic, virginal, sexual frustration. It associates their unmanly sexual frustration with their dick behaviour, both as cause (because misogyny and sexual violence are caused by unfulfilled male urges) and just punishment (because sex with girls is life's reward for good behaviour). Instead of being lauded for their inventive ways of masturbating, they're stigmatised for it.

Sometimes laughing at the stereotype explicitly buys into the idea that this boy-man hat-nerd not only got bullied at school, but deserves to be as punishment: Wholly useful and justified criticisms of Nice Guys who are entitled or angry at women for not fucking them also get used against men who are just plain unhappy:
Notice how the most offensive thing Peter says about the situation is "don't you just hate it" and ":p". The lecture he gets from this Dan Sabato bloke, however, accuses him of "faulting" the woman and calling upon her to justify herself, neither of which are implied by the original post. Even though he's only done this, he gets treated as if he's done this. This fairly popular tweet attacks men not for anger, or aggression, or any outward-focused emotions, but for frustration: Now, fair enough, there may have been a long exchange in between when Peter said some really obnoxious, misogynistic stuff. The ambiguous "frustration with women" could mean general frustration because of your situation with women, or frustration at women for causing it. But the tweet doesn't specify or even distinguish the two, while the tumblr that posted the exchange between Peter and Dan Sabato clearly feels no need to post anything else they may have said, and that just hating the situation is in itself misogynistic.

Precision matters, and as soon as you start critiquing, belittling or ridiculing entire individuals rather than specific attitudes, tropes or behaviours, you start conflating things. Be as angry as you want at men who see women as obliged to fuck them, whether they're happily getting laid or not. But aim precisely. For a start, misogynists don't deserve to be belittled and attacked for being unhappy any more than homophobes deserve to be ridiculed for their spelling. There's a difference between feeling hopeful then disappointed and feeling entitled then hard done by, between self-pity and resentment, between furiously kicking yourself and furiously kicking others, between finding things soul-destroying and enraging. A lot of those are unattractive qualities, a lot get really annoying, and a lot are pretty damaging for the person feeling them. But there's also a difference between unattractively annoying and deserving of public ridicule.

Attacking, and especially morally condemning self-declared Nice Guys and Friendzone Victims for the wrong thing is damaging in several ways. Leaving aside fatness, unattractiveness, and poor social skills, unhappiness is just a mean thing to attack someone for unless there's actually something nasty in it. Secondly, it announces loud and clear to people who aren't pricks that the mere fact of being unhappily single makes you a bad person. Now, while you might not be that worried about "alienating allies", this isolates them from people with good gender politics, making it hard for them to discuss anything related to their sex-life sensibly and removing a space to understand their problems that isn't fucking Reddit. Thirdly, it creates the wrong impression in the person supposedly needing to be set straight. If someone is attacked for being fat, awkward or unattractive they're right to conclude there's actually nothing they can do to right themselves – unless the point of the tumblrs was actually just to get nerds down the gym. If they're attacked for wearing a stupid hat, they can just chuck it out and they're off the hook. But if you shame someone morally for their depression or for the source of it, which a lot of these sources directly do and Nice Guys of OKCupid seems unable or unwilling to avoid, you make it very clear that the root cause to be addressed is not misogyny, but being a single beta loser. It risks prioritising masculinity and getting laid over not being a prick, which is sort of the opposite of what we want.

If you feel criticisms of both Nice Guys and aggressive masculine sexuality need to be made (and you're probably right) you need to separate these from stigmatising rejection, wanking, crying and crywanking over rejection, if you don't want to reinforce the get-laid-at-all-costs culture that's all over straight masculinity. This is especially true if you plan on using the argument "What's so important about sex haven't these people heard of wanking?" later on, just because demanding people make do with something that you yourself are stigmatising is unfair, spiteful and downright silly.

Finally, these are socially damaging reasons to be attacking people. Unattractiveness, awkwardness, unhappiness and frustration, poor mental health, low self-confidence or not getting enough proper sex with girls aren't moral failings in themselves, but criticising people for these things arguably is. While you may not feel guilty for mocking affluent white dudes' depression, fatness or autism, that kind of shit will splatter other people. Where criticisms of desperate men hinge on ideas of masculinity – especially demanding forwardness with women and a thick skin when it comes to rejection – when they offer improved chances of sex with women as an incentive, and when men assert feminist credentials as an alpha male quality, attacks on Nice Guys reinforce not only the same ideas that make them miserable for not having a woman, but also the same ones that make them feel entitled to one in the first place.

Personal Anecdotes
So another of my low points, (skip the personal anecdotes if you want) a few days before my previous/first relationship ended, was when I found out second-hand that a girl I really fancied had started sleeping with this bloke. I was happy, in a loving and (I was pretty sure at that moment) stable relationship, so in theory I had no reason to be upset. In practice I was devastated. Thing was, this bloke was really, really good at the whole flippant dudebro heterosexual lad act thing. I wasn't. But most of the time, I didn't actually give a fuck anyway. Keep your banter sports mate, I'm fine making stuffed peppers and laughing at a puppy. Along with the standard kick of jealousy though, I got a bitter reminder, not just that I didn't know how to do heterosexual masculinity right, but that not bothering with that pointless bollocks wasn't an option, that performing straight dudebro gender, however stupidly or nastily, might actually be an important factor in whether or not happy things work out for you.

Exactly a year to the day – and I'm not even joking – I was in the pub, after a demonstration, with a large group of acquaintances and overheard something I didn't want to from a small group of fairly new friends. I was new to London and didn't have many other friends there, and these were also people I expected would have faixrly good politics. Anyway, someone I'd fancied quite a lot from that group, and who hadn't been looking for a relationship when I'd asked her out, had started seeing someone and they were all congratulating her on getting laid and so on. I didn't take this well. But I also didn't say anything, because I thought it was her body and her life and none of my business. I just sat trying to overhear as few snippets as I could, scowling into my pint and feeling shit about myself for an hour or two, made my way slowly home, shut my bedroom door, hung my coat up, somehow managed to pull off a button in doing so, looked at the button, burst into tears and proceded to feel fucking awful for the next few weeks. I'd pretty much assumed nobody had noticed at the time. In fact I was slightly hamming up the miserable-looking in the hope one of my new friends would notice and ask me if I was ok. Then, a week or so later, it turned out they had, and were pretty annoyed with me for all the quiet scowling. If this had been idiots or LADs or common-or-garden dudebros I wouldn't have been so affected I don't think. But people with decent politics, especially what I saw as a better grasp of gender politics than mine, is different. Them holding it against me that, after a lifetime of low self-confidence and an especially rough twelve months, I didn't have much in the way of emotional resilience, that fucked me up. I couldn't blame them for taking sides with their friend over me, but it left me wishing I had a group of friends who'd unconditionally side with me, and I remember suddenly seeing the appeal of a social circle of dudebros who'd automatically side with me for being a man.

Then a couple of years later, after I started writing this but before I finished, I was watching How I Met Your Mother, because someone in the room had put How I Met Your Mother on and I was in the room. Barney, the super-cool awesome callous with women philanderer cool suit guy that all the dudes who watch How I Met Your Mother are meant to admire or something got an origins story. He was a hippy with long hair and a beard who worked in a café and told people off for objectifying women. Then his girlfriend left him for the fancy tie-wearing businessman who had objectified her or something. Barney was all sad, found a leaflet and put a suit on like in Star Wars and now he's the amoral throbber we all know and love. This for some reason affected me. It was my worst-case scenario for a lot of the time I was unhappily single. I didn't want to end up with the dilemma between having actual fucking principles or being vaguely happy with my life. More to the point, I didn't want to end up with the dilemma of either having actual fucking principles or being able to tell my friends I was unhappy.

Conclusion
The problem with the Friendzone and its Nice Guys is not just a sense of entitlement but a sense of obligation. Hurting people for what they and society at large perceive as unmanly "beta" qualities is dangerous. It reinforces norms of male heterosexuality by making failure at them painful and embarrassing. It not only pushes people into desperation but increases a sense of male entitlement by implying the failure to be manly is what's stopping them from getting laid. And complaining about the Friendzone or how women don't like Nice Guys and can't read your mind is a "beta" quality. Real Men ask out any girl that takes their eye, take rejection in their stride and move onto the next. If something hurts, they don't whine nasally, they bottle it up or at least express it in a gruff heterosexual grumble.

We have to actively avoid even accidental slurs on Nice Guys' masculinity, not because it's mean or because it needs to be protected, but because it sets up masculinity as something they're expected to achieve. And these are especially shitty forms of masculinity. Nobody is entitled to sex, or love, or marriage, or affection, or even company. But I'm not convinced that's the only thing they want. They also want the basic feelings of self-worth and validity as a human being that we withhold from people who don't get their bits wet. Everybody is entitled to that, and we should be giving them it regardless of how much they get lucky and how happy they are about it, and only taking it away for being a dick, not a pussy.

If we're going to argue that some reactions to repeat or one-off rejection are ok - like being sad or frustrated with yourself - and some are unacceptable - like being angry or resentful, it's important to be consistent. If you wouldn't outright say "it's bad that Eric Pickles is so fat", try to avoid jokes about Eric Pickles being fat, and if you would, don't pretend you don't have it in for fat people. Similarly, if you genuinely think it's morally objectionable to be unattractive, desperate or sad about rejection, fine, I won't much like or trust you but you go ahead and think what you want. If you wouldn't say outright "it's wrong to be a frustrated nerd in a bad hat", try to avoid letting your comedy picture-blog imply that. If you want to attack obnoxious straight-bro sexuality - which we should - we need to stop making failure to achieve it any more uncomfortable than it already is, and if we want to attack passive-aggressive straight-nerd entitlement - which we also should - we need to stop making the basic universal human decency they really are entitled to depend on proving their attractiveness by acquiring women. It's both unfair and stupid to attack a sense of entitlement to something if we insist on enforcing the obligation to do it, and its both unfair and stupid to insist people improve their gender politics if we make good gender politics involve magically snapping out of unhappiness. Plus if you're going to be ridiculed as a misogynist for your stupid hat anyway, what have you got to lose by learning pick-up?

31 July 2013

The #RacistVan Is New, the Hostile Environment Isn't

So we've all seen the Racist Van doing the rounds, and possibly also the thing that was almost called the "Hostile Environment Working Group". The slightly cynical among us might see the fact that the van threatens people with "arrest", rather than "prosecution" as a bit odd. The cynical and also casually racist among us might only care about it stealing rightful votes from the true racist party UKIP. And the extremely cynical might see the threat of arrest without specifying what charges they hope to make stick as an excuse for casual harrassment. The thing is, as well as the openly racist harrassment and arrest of non-whites having been around for at least three years, this type of strategy, which is definitely NOT self-deportation, has been going on for a while and, sadly, it fucking works.

There's an Immigration Removal Centre near where I live, and since I moved here I've been on-and-off involved in demonstrations outside. In the past year, I've got involved in visiting the prisoners inmates detainees. Of the four men I visited there (only men are detained at this centre), the first, now bailed, was basically having a midlife crisis in there, and the second vanished. I mean it, vanished. When we tried phoning him to arrange another visit the calls went straight to voicemail, so after a while I rang the front desk to see if everything was ok. They had no record at all of him ever being there. This apparently happens a lot. Systematic cover-up or systematic cock-up, it could go either way and neither would especially surprise me.

The two most recent are the best examples of what's going on. They were friends and had met inside, and a group of about three of us used to visit them together. They had a good dynamic between them - one was extremely chatty, friendly and ranty (for some strange reason the place made him quite angry at times), while the other one was very quiet. It became pretty obvious from the start that the quiet one had some very serious depression and social anxiety which were obviously not getting treated. But you could tell from both of them that they were getting worn down by it all. The chatty one always had new complaints - about not having seen his son, about racism from the staff (these happened a lot), and you could tell that the quiet one's depression was worsening, and turning up to the visits was becoming a struggle that he wasn't always up to.

Then one day, when we were going through the ludicrous security checks on the way in, we saw a neatly laid-out table covered with multilingual posters and leaflets for "assisted voluntary returns", where practically every other word was either 'voluntary' or 'choices', which in my experience means they've made up their minds in advance what they want you to decide. We asked the two detainees' opinions on this, and both were seriously considering it. The chatty one's position was that he'd do it just to get out of there, if it wasn't for the fact that he had a son and it might then be ten years before he could come back to the country. The quiet one, who didn't have family here, was also seriously considering it, even though he'd literally fled his home country with a price on his head.

The two of them both had bail hearings coming up at the time (these hearings are notoriously arbitrary, mostly by video-link, not usually recorded and activists who sit in to observe them are usually treated with suspicion and hostility), but neither of them were let out. A couple of weeks later, the chatty one was bailed, unannounced, basically out of the blue from what I've been told, and the quiet one agreed to self-deport do the right thing and return to his own country.

Bear in mind this centre claims to be the most pleasant in the country (one of the following photos is taken from its own website, can you guess which one, and which photo is part of the visitor area?)

Clue: It's the nice one
Yet the nicest forrunprison in the country still had detainees' very serious mental health conditions left untreated, constant casual racism from the staff, dismal (if habitable) living quarters (compared to the pretty willow trees and rather pleasant visiting area with a tuck shop, TV, kids' toys and detainees' clay sculptures). It's also actually lost detainees. The people I visited also complained about the constant, crushing boredom there, especially the ones who weren't willing to take the £1-an-hour jobs on offer for them.

Most of all (and this seems to be the major cause of detainees' mental health issues, which almost all of them end up with) they are not there with a clear sentence. They don't even need a trial to be there so how could they be? This is a system of indefinite detention which for some reason David Davies has never seen fit to resign over. And this is what the "arrest" you face if you don't text HOME to 78070 may well entail. Who even needs to prosecute if you can lock them up anyway?

The "hostile environment" is nothing new. This place is coming up to its 20th anniversary. The very kind, lovely, marvellous, charitable stolen from the BNP attempts to help these poor, unfortunate souls fuck off back where they came from are a new addition, but the strategy of making conditions for unwanted migrants as unbearable as is legally possible is old. The only new addition is the relish and pride with which the government does it and how keen it is to be seen making life as hard and as spiteful as possible for, at the end of the day, entirely innocent people.

18 July 2013

Ni Dieux Si Maîtres, or Athiests and Why There Dicks

Ok, we all know about how Atheists are the easiest religion to troll. We all know how easy it is to wind them up with bad spelling and punctuation. But this isn't a post about why it's easy, it's about why it's necessary. Unless they get it and explain it very reasonably and succinctly, which they can be capable of, this is how the New Militant #TeamRational AtheistRollCall Atheists tend to respond to Marx's "opium/opiate of the masses/people" idea: Now, I've brought Dawkins's and more serious racists' brand of solidarity up before, the kind where they hold long-suffering Muslim women in utter contempt for being Muslims. The bit here is the straw man about comfort. They'll find various reasons to throw the Marxist position out, my favourite being ad hominems about Marxism being a political religion with history as its god, but in general, they think it means "religion is comfort". A painkiller for a sad world. Well, tell that to whatever bad religious thing I'm angry at now! So let's look at the rest of the passage. Read it slowly a couple of times, because it's really good and really well written and a more productive use of your time than the rest of this blogpost.
The foundation of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man – state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower
It's a complex and contradictory way of looking at it, but it's basic Marx I think: religion is ideology, ideology stems from the sociopolitical set-up of human life, it's a stupid set-up so you get stupid ideology, let's make the world actually good. It's a very useful way of understanding religion, as a symptom not a cause. But that tends not to be a priority for this lot. They're very keen to skip to the cure and actually get quite huffy if you bring up a diagnosis. Actually understanding religion is beneath them. One of the main problems with dismissing theology offhand is it tends to make you a terrible theologist. So if you then inadvertently end up trying to talk about theology, you end up with something like Johann Hari's car-crash of a hatchet-job on Hasidic reggae singer Matisyahu
When he says repeatedly “rebuild the Temple,” anybody who has been to the Settlements in Israel/Palestine will know what he means – demolish the Muslim Dome of the Rock and rebuild the Third Temple. Calls for World War Three are not my idea of a sweet melody.
Now, aside from that time Johann Hari spent 2003-6 excitably calling for World War Three, and aside from his predictable How-dare-you-call-me-a-racist-I-rage-impotently-at-all-religions-equally-furthermore-I'm-offended-that-you're-offended shtick when he got pulled up for it, look at this: In the album he was plugging around then, Matisyahu says things like
Don't you see, it's not about the land or the sea
Not the country but the dwelling of His Majesty
Now, I'm sure the angry letter-writer does pray for a literal rebuilding of a literal temple if that's what he says, but it would take a very, very fucking convoluted reading of that song to say the same for Matisyahu. This is why you need theology: because if you write a sentence about what a religious person believes, you are engaging in theology. Try not to be shit at it.

Hari/Matisyahu is cack-handed amateur theology at its funniest. At its nastiest, it involves the sort of thing this Anti-Defamation League piece describes – taking quotes from a religious text, and using them to show the disgusting beliefs of the people who live by it. It's a fool's errand, for a start – try explaining from Bible quotes alone why Catholic priests don't fuck. But more importantly, it's dishonest. It doesn't just rely on fabricating quotes, mistranslating them and taking them out of context, it also involves taking a centuries-old text, one that's been read and discussed and reread and annotated and reexamined constantly for its entire history, ignoring its history of interpretation completely, and extrapolating from a few sections what people living now believe. Especially interesting is how similar some of the slurs involving the Talmud look to the kind of bollocks you hear about what it says in the Quran: paedophilia, hatred and murder of non-believers, and permission to lie to them whenever it suits you. This antisemitism/Islamophobia crossover, by the way is nothing new.

So, anyway, have these tossers also got the opiate idea wrong? Let's ask Paramore
Well you built up a world of magic
Because your real life is tragic
Now, I bring Paramore into this for three reasons: firstly, I like her voice and the chord stabs and guitar countermelodies, and this bit has a really good stabby guitar rhythm under a nice descending lead part. Secondly, Hayley Williams is a Christian home-schooled emo-teen-pop singer, who changes her hair colour every week-and-a-half and voluntarily took part in the Twilight films. She has, seemingly without any real effort, understood Marx's materialist critique of religion far better than the Oxford professor held up as the leading fucking light of modern Atheism. The exact sort of person atheists most love to scoff at has grasped something that constantly, angrily and embarrassingly baffles these smug chucklefucks. Thirdly, I've got a pointless bee in my bonnet about this song, and it's basically a Dawkins bee. Williams is spot on that fantasy escapism originates in a real-world base of suffering. But the song isn't about maybe trying to set right this poor girl's tragic life, it's about her giving up her fantasies – burying a castle when she should by rights be burying the piss-soaked, bullet-ridden carcasses of the property-owning bourgeoisie.

Anyway, I digress. The thing is, the magic/tragic thing isn't just a bit of a shoddy lyric, it's also exactly what's wrong with these God-Delusion-thumpers. Radical anticlericalism has a long history of radical commitment to positive change on the actual earth – Marx followed the "opium of the people" line up by declaring war on conditions in Germany (as in like, his exact words: "Krieg den deutschen Zuständen"). Blanqui's slogan was "no gods, no masters", adapted by anarcha-feminists to "no god, no boss, no husband". Jean Meslier and Denis Diderot's idea of victory was the last king strangled with the entrails of the last priest.

The kind of middle-of-the-road let's-not-get-carried-away-here-now ineffectual liberal atheists manage to be intensely and passionately radical in their fight for godlessness – a fight against an oppressor they recognise doesn't even exist, but the other half of the equation tends to be a bit, I dunno, lacklustre. Radical atheists now seem to be satisfied just being radical about atheism, and simply refusing to believe in god without hard evidence is treated as all the anti-establishment, progressive credentials you need. If you're an affluent and educated white, western man, God is the only thing on this earth big enough to oppress you, so like Paramore, they happily acknowledge that the poor girl's real life is tragic, but aim every ounce of anger in their heart at the fact she thinks too much about fairies, without even the excuse of an easy rhyme. They're tough on religion, yeah, but they can be pretty bloody soft on the vale of tears of which religion is the halo. Now here's another terrfying thought: somewhere in this sick sad world, a confirmed member of Team Rational has used the opium of the people quote to mean "religion is bad" and, for their day job, works as an anaesthetist or in social outreach for heroin addicts. No gods, but we're intensely relaxed about masters. No god, a boss is an unfortunate necessity, let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater as far as husbands are concerned. The last priest strangled with the entrails of the second-to-last priest.

Erratum please read the previous sentence as "the last imam strangled with the entrails of the second-to-last imam". Let's be realistic about this lot's priorities. You see, the other problem with this pack of bell-ends is – at the risk of a barrage of indignant, wounded squeaking – racism and colonialism. Now, obviously, you'll never see Sam Harris getting out his calipers to measure the brachiocephalic theist skull for signs of savagery, or Ricky Gervais on horseback, bouncing into the Orient in a pith helmet to build their railways and oversee the odd massacre (well, maybe ironically lol). But when atheists Criticise All Religions Equally, they don't do it in a vacuum, and their "equally" tends to be quantitative, rather than qualitative – that is, they Criticise All Religions an Equal amount. They don't criticise them in equal ways or for equal things.

Case in point for the Reasoned Debate on religion is Moses Mendelssohn. Being a major Haskalah and German Enlightenment figurehead, he was a fairly smart bloke. So he flat out refused to take part in the kind of public Judaism vs. Christianity debates that had been going on since the Middle Ages, despite basically every Christian and his dog trying to persuade him. Firstly, the stakes were different. As you might have guessed, these were not debates about whether Christians should convert to Judaism or not. If Christianity won the day, this was proof the Jews should convert. If Judaism won the day, this was proof that maybe they could stay Jews if they wanted, I suppose. Secondly, politics. Mendelssohn was a fierce campaigner for the movement for Jewish emancipation in what is now Germany, which was only just getting started at the time. Debates about Jewish theology weren't just for fun or understanding of the divine, but fed into debates about Jews' basic rights to be members of society.

Now, while the Pat Condells of the world might criticise all religions equally but some more every fucking time than others, a lot of atheists do try and balance out their opinions on Islam by having opinions on other religions – Christianity is usually nearest. It's also worth pointing out that American atheists often end up in direct conflict with a much more powerful and aggressive Christianity than we get in largely-not-bothered-with-Jesus Europe. In Europe and the Americas, at its weakest Christianity is one of the main cultural hangovers we still have left from when we believed in all that, and at its strongest it's an extremely powerful electoral force with aggressive ambitions to impose itself through state power. Islam, at its strongest, maybe forms a few enclaves and sometimes gets to use third-party arbitration laws to settle civic and family cases along religious lines. At its weakest, Islam in the West is fighting a very real existential battle. Criticisms of Islam, like with Mendelssohn's conundrum, swerve off very easily into debates on whether or not Muslims with particular opinions on Islam should be allowed to move here or stay here, whether or or not Muslims can ever be truly British, or whether "the West" is or ought to be at war with Islam.

Obviously, there are places where another religion is in Christianity's place, and Christianity and Atheism are among the ones in Islam's – and you probably just pictured whatever you imagine Saudi Arabia looks like. But these countries tend to have much less money, much smaller, less well-equipped armies, a smaller nuclear arsenal if any and no NATO membership or permanent seat on the UN security council. There is basically no Muslim country that could mount a successful land invasion and occupation of the United States of America. (Israel, flexing topless in the mirror, probably thinks it could some days but it's basically the size of Wales and Atheists usually forget Judaism exists anyway). Yeah, so nobody is trying to run an empire that's clearly labelled "EMPIRE", but there might be a slight power dynamic at play, and Team Western Society might be holding most of the diplomatic, conventional and nuclear aces in the Clash of Civilisations that it likes to think it's involved in.

Basically, if you agreed to criticise each of the three main Abrahamic religions exactly five times a day, you'd still be doing this within a massive asymmetrical power structure where, on the local scale Christianity fights to justify its ambition to run the country, while Muslims end up on the back foot with their ambition to live in it and occasionally build things. You'd still be working in a geopolitical context where Christendom just worries about immigrant invaders cleaning our toilets while the Muslim world gets actually invaded by actual real invaders armed with flying robots and high explosives. You'd still be debating whether Christianity has the right to block legislation that's too nice to gays and picket abortion clinics one minute, and the next, whether Islam is a "Religion of Peace" and if they can ever be trusted not to do a taqiyya and lie to us. The other side of this is that being anti-religion gives a group of people that are mostly white, western and fairly well educated a handy reason to dismiss huge numbers of people in Africa, Latin America, Asia and the Middle East as superstitious, irrational and in need of our clever, guiding, Enlightened hands. It's not that they want to alternately shout at and talk down to non-Westerners or that they use it as an excuse. It's that atheism, like every idea, is a manifestation of ideology, a product of existing power structures and lends itself far better to reinforcing than to overturning them. If I was the sort of person that used the word 'privilege' a lot, I'd probably call this 'privilege'. As it stands, I'm the sort of person that prefers to talk around concepts, so I'll call it comfortable, white westerners, blissfully oblivious as their theoretical debates on metaphysics and comparative theology actually have a real-world impact on other people's lives.

But of course, these never are really debates on metaphysics and theology. In fact, metaphysics is basically the one thing Dawkins, Gervais, Condell, Harris and all those other tosswipes have got right: There's nobody up there. It's a stupidly implausible idea as is the idea he'd have a magic kid or dictate a book or hold particularly strong opinions on whether you went into work over the weekend. But atheists don't limit their claims about religion to the realm of the metaphysical. They also make the claim that religion is a damaging force in the world, that it's regressive, divisive and drives much of the war and suffering in the world. This isn't a belief about god, its a theory about politics. It's not theology – for all his dismissiveness the one thing Dawkins has ever been a hundred per cent right about. No, this is an even worse field, even more of a non-knowledge, even more of a PoMo-ridden sinkhole of worse-than-Islam – this is sociology, and if your name is on the Atheist Roll Call then sociology is probably your hobby as well as theology.

And, of course, like with theology, they take to this hobby like a tone-deaf neighbour with a flea-market trombone – loudly, obnoxiously, at 2am and really, really fucking badly. Case in point, have you ever accused an Internet Atheist of racism because of their opinions on Muslims? Well, it turns out you're WRONG because Islam is a RELIGION and NOT a race. The internet is full of this arsewash and I think they genuinely believe they've won the argument with it. Trouble is, this argument goes very weird, and very stupid, very quickly The argument that you can't be racist to a religion because it's a religion not a race is initially pretty compelling, but it does paint Dawkins into a pretty awkward corner where he implies antisemitism – a word coined specifically by anti-Jewish racists to assert themselves as racists – can't be racist. And because these atheists tend to put such little effort into sociology, this argument goes very nasty very quickly. It imagines race as some kind of pre-existing biological thing that causes irrational people (of which they are definitely not one) to dislike and be mean to certain groups. They write off the idea that racism could be a political process, which, in order to exclude, exploit or exterminate whichever groups of people it's necessary to shit on at whatever moment in time, creates a system of categories to slot humanity into (it is). They write off the idea that racism might shuffle the categories around a bit or come up with a new set of rules and theories when the need arises (it does). They write off the idea that a rigid distinction between religion and race/ethnicity/nationality might have been an administrative Enlightenment-era invention (it was). German scientific racism, from the late 1800s onwards, was obsessed with how a religious group worked and deciding if it liked them or not – and these bell-ends think they understand race better than the people who helped invent it.

This is part of a fairly broad tendency to argue LOOK THIS IS/ISN'T A FACT as part of an argument about the sociopolitical effects of that idea. Dawkins himself seems pretty preoccupied with whether or not things are TRUE or the TRUTH, and seems fairly consistent with the idea that the truth of a belief is more important than its effects on the real world: But when it comes to Mehdi Hasan believing Mohammed ascended to heaven on a winged horse, Dawkins doesn't give a moments thought to whether the horse thing is TRUE, but focuses immediately on the real-world effects of this belief: This basically sums up my main reason to be wary about the Dawkins set: flitting erratically from firm insistence about whether a belief is true, to firm insistence that it makes such and such a bad thing happen in society. See for example, The Amazing Atheist's inaugural racist tantrum where he opens the main racism with
I don't believe in God, I don't believe in Jesus or Buddha or Allah…especially Allah
before going off on one about the "Islamic people". Essentially, he's doing one of the things Rational Atheists claim to object to the most – choosing/ranking beliefs not by the evidence available for them, but for their perceived moral content. Incidentally he's also implying that he believes in Jesus and Buddha a little bit, which I suppose is fair enough given that they're historical figures who could well have existed. This thing of believing in mean bad gods less, by no means unique to banana-bum here, is basically the equivalent of turning to faith in the hope of becoming a better person, just a lot stupider and without the bit where you become a better person. But when they treat race as a biological reality to duck the political implications of their racist ideas about Islam, this is especially nasty.

I think I must have a different attitude to the conclusion that there's no god in the heavens and we are a miniscule blip in a vast, uncaring and purposeless void. For me, the only rational reaction to that is indifference. Starting from the premise that there's no truth behind religion, I wondered to myself, why do people believe it then, and started to think maybe bad things in society were causing mean and nasty beliefs and not the other way around, and maybe it's them we should be worrying about. I also thought well, if there's no god there's no rational point in getting all worked up about him. Apparently that's not how Team Rational see it though. Did you know, for example, that Atheism Plus is actually fucking controversial? Like, really controversial? That's right: when some woman comes along and says "hey maybe we should care slightly about things other than the fact a big wizard doesn't exist", people actually get upset about it. Atheists aren't dicks because they don't believe in god. There dicks because they have dick priorities. There dicks because they don't realise or don't care that dickish things atheists say about certain religions get used by racists and imperialists to be dicks to their adherents. And there dicks for pretending simplistic political prejudices about how people work are nothing but rational observations about deities.

To paraphrase the side of a bus:
We get it, there's no god. Now give it a fucking rest and go worry about something important.