Reconciling Access and Welfare.

Reconciling Access and Welfare.

TW: self harm, mental health discrimination, mention of suicide, disordered eating

One of the contradictions that I have been trying to resolve in my life is as follows: how is it that I reconcile the work I do encouraging students to apply to the University of Cambridge when I know, from my experience and from the overwhelming amount of evidence, that Cambridge University has serious problems with student welfare?

Having worked in student welfare, and now working in student access, I’m in a position where I can see the two agendas do come into conflict. Frankly, in an ideal world, they shouldn’t – welfare support at University is an access issue, in my opinion. There’s no use working hard to get school students from difficult home or school circumstances (many of whom have or develop mental health conditions or disabilities before or during University) if the University is so fundamentally bad at keeping them there – or, keeping them there sane, I should say. I doubt the University has ever conducted a study examining how many students underwent mental distress as a result of its haphazard approach to welfare support. Indeed, some recent research from The Cambridge Student has suggested that the University might not have been upfront with its figures around intermission.

The problem with welfare at Cambridge is that it is such a vast and disparate University. Each college is a law unto itself, acts like a little feudal island in a very large umbrella institutions, which has the odd contradiction of being on the cutting edge of research, but also deeply, and I would argue, harmfully, traditional. I’m working on a series of blog posts about the specific problems as I see them, but if you want to read some of my earlier thoughts for context, you can find things here, and here.

An issue of which I have had personal experience, and which I’m sure many other students have had, is one of being expected to reach a certain, arbitrary standard. My own time at Cambridge, especially as an undergraduate, was of being told I was very good at what I did, but also being given the very distinct impression (and often being explicitly told) that my mental health problems were letting me down. Not just me, I should hasten to add, but my college. My college had an investment in my doing well. No problem with this on this on the surface, I suppose – all Universities want the best from and for their students. But my prevailing impression of my own college, Sidney Sussex, was that it wanted the from but not the for. I was identified from my first year as having the capacity to get a first. I was also identified as a problematic student. I had severe depression in my first year, developed an eating disorder, often was so divorced from reality due to my mental health problems that I behaved erratically, and to compound all of that, I was political. I took issue with college policies, I went out on demos, I took part in occupations. Even after the end of my first year, one of the hardest years of my life, when the intense, crippling depression lifted at least a little, to the extent that I was capable of social contact, I still was a problem for the college. An example that sits in my mind was this – during my second year, when I was feeling, for want of a better phrase, a bit better, I confided in a member of the college fellowship tasked with my welfare that I was self-harming as a method of coping, and I needed support. After a long conversation, and a thoroughly macabre tour of my various self-inflicted scars, he informed me that my self-harming wasn’t really the colleges’ concern. The college would only help me if I tried to kill myself (in which case I would be sectioned under the mental health act, I was told in no uncertain terms) or if the college thought I wouldn’t, “get that first.” That phrase tended to haunt me – I wanted a first, but I also just wanted to get to the end of my degree, and frankly the only concerns I had about grades related to whether or not I could get funding for a graduate course. Yet, supervisors, tutors and other members of my college kept repeating it. If I was having a bad week and needed an essay extension, I would often be told that I was in danger of “missing the first” and that this was a matter of concern not just for me, but for the college. It became such a repeated mantra that I, having nothing really to value about myself beyond the fact that I was apparently good at my subject, pushed myself. I worked long hours, but stopped caring about what I did. My subject was not my passion, but my burden. Part of the reason I have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome now is that I worked 90-100 hour weeks, all because I felt under immense pressure, which I internalised.

In the end I didn’t get the first. I got a 2:1. A bit disappointing, but what the hell. I tried. Except, on the day of my results, I found myself summoned to a meeting with a senior member of my college, who informed me that I was a “huge disappointment”, that “my academic career was over,” and that I should “leave Cambridge forever,” because I didn’t get a first. With the benefit of hindsight, I can see that as the absurd thing it is. At the time, I ended up spiralling into a depressive phase that lasted a month, and, to this day, still tell myself on some level that I am stupid.

I think the way I was treated ties into something related to access work. Like all Universities, Cambridge’s access work has two goals – widening participation, and recruitment. The former involves working with bright kids who’ve maybe not been to the best school or had the best family circumstances to encourage and support them getting into Higher Education. The latter is about recruiting the best and brightest students to apply to Cambridge, or to a particular college. There’s nothing wrong with the latter in and of itself – every University does want the best students. But the issue again is not one of getting in, it’s one of staying in, or staying in one piece. Far too many people I know who have suffered mental health or disability related problems at Cambridge have often been belittled by their colleges on these grounds – colleges, and I know Sidney has done this to several friends, framing their depressive crisis or disability related issue as robbing the college of the “bright student” they sought out and gave a place to. The logic is hierarchical; you are at Cambridge, you should be deferential to the great benevolent college who provided you with a place, no matter how awfully they might treat you. Failure to do so is a betrayal of the college. There’s an undercurrent to this of an abusive relationship that I find deeply uncomfortable. The college will cause you difficulties, then berate you for not seeing that it’s acting in your best interest when it tries to force you to intermit, or throws you out of college accommodation, or disparages your mental health conditions, because you are, apparently, just lazy. Of course, this doesn’t seem to accept the state of play with Cambridge students. Everyone at Cambridge is smart. Many of them will have been the top in their year, if not their whole school. Once you get all of them into one space, however, they stop being “the smart one” – they are just another clever person in a city of clever people. Many students find this disorientating as an experience – but the way to resolve it sensibly is to accept that you’re doing your degree for your own sake, and that grades and all of this nonsense matters to you only as much as you let it. Throw into this mix, however, colleges which expect their students to achieve the best (not a bad thing in itself) but have no concept of how to support them in getting their if they have even the slightest problem, and you have a recipe for disaster.

The evidence that Cambridge’s welfare provisions are severely lacking is pretty solid, and seems to varied that its hard to know where to begin in tackling the issue. One thing I might suggest is getting rid of the Tompkins Table. Never heard of it? It’s a ranking of Cambridge colleges, based on the undergraduate student exam performance. A first class degree wins a college 5 points, a 2:1 gets you 3 points, a 2:2 gets 2 points, a third class degree gets you 1 point, and then no points for getting an Ordinary (non-honours) degree. A couple of things to make clear about the Tompkins Table – it is not, in anyway an official University of Cambridge table, nor are the rankings endorsed by the colleges. It is in fact, rather bizarrely, put together by an ex Trinity mathematician (Peter Tompkins) and published in the Independent. The Wikipedia page on the Tompkin’s table makes the rather sound point that

“Most of the colleges fall within a 10% range of one another therefore the table should be taken lightly with regards to determining the academic standing of the colleges.”

Yet, the colleges do take the Tompkins Table very seriously. I recall that, when a member of Sidney Sussex, the college’s ranking in the Tompkins was a matter of grave concern among the academics. Similarly, in St Catharine’s, the sudden drop of 12 places (from 9th to 21st) was felt as some sort of world shattering event in some quarters. It doesn’t take a genius to see, however, that the Tompkins Table is not exactly the best way of ranking the colleges – for one thing, it’s based on undergraduate performance, and so the graduate and mature student colleges (Lucy Cavendish, Wolfson, Clare Hall, Darwin etc) are always going to be somewhere near the bottom due to having a small undergraduate population. Also, one could speculate whether the table does buy into the mindset of 1st class degree above all else, given its way of ranking colleges. But what has always struck me is that the Tompkins Table does have an impact on the student body. I know of several anecdotal cases where people who were struggling academically were told to get their act together, not because of their health or own academic careers, but because the college needed to rise in the Tompkins Table. People don’t get firsts for a lot of reasons – maybe they don’t work. Or, maybe, you know, they have a disability or a mental health problem, or maybe they are burnt out because they’ve been putting themselves through too much in pursuit at a first. Maybe a particular examiner just didn’t like their work; maybe they had a bad day and that was that. Obsession with ranking in a table which I doubt anyone outside of Cambridge cares about is absurd. I’m reminded of something a senior tutor said to me when I was a sabb – “If my students are happy and healthy, they will do well. This is why I want the best support for them.” Sensible man – but I just questions how people are meant to be happy and healthy in the current results obsessed climate?

I’ve been doing a lot of interview workshops recently with year 13s applying to Cambridge this year. All of them hang on my every word as I give them general tips on how to prepare for interview. I can see that they are pinning so much on getting into Cambridge. I remember having that attitude – it’s almost as if Cambridge is a sort of final chapter, a place where a section of your life can end, where you stop being a child and you can move onto being an adult. When I was 18, finishing my A Levels, I saw Cambridge as an escape from the problems I had at home – a place, I had hoped, where I would not be shouted at for my depression, where objects would not be hurled at me because I was “too sad,” where I would be able to flourish as a person, in a vaguely imagined academic wonderland. The reality was rather different. Many good things came out of Cambridge for me – I matured, I became a comedian, I grew to accept myself as a person…but I also suffered. I’m not the only one. Looking round at the classroom of applicants gives me conflicting feelings – I want them to get into Cambridge because they are, more often than not, kids from state schools who have struggled in life, who haven’t come from stable homes, who’ve had to grow up very fast and who can go a step further to breaking down the inherent elitism of Cambridge. Yet at the same time, I want them to know that the place they dream of studying might well break them, mess them up for no good reason at all, and leaving them struggling to cope long after they’ve exited the Senate House, clutching at their degree certificates. If I weren’t employed to encourage people to apply to Cambridge, would I? I just don’t know.

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“Snowflakes” and the politics of vulnerability.

“Snowflakes” and the politics of vulnerability.

What are snowflakes?

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How your Telegraph reading Dad probably views you.

What’s your favourite insult? According to The Guardian, in 2016 it was the term “snowflake.” If you haven’t come across this particular pejorative before, it refers to the idea that an individual is fragile, hypersensitive, and labouring under the false belief that they are somehow special, and thus deserve special treatment. I suppose another way of framing it would be “fuck you and your feelings.” The insult became especially popular among Neo-Nazis in the so called “Alt Right”, supporters of Donald Trump, noted pedophile apologist Milo Yiannopoulos, and an alarming amount of the student edgelords I went to University with, with whom I still, for some reason, am linked to on social media.  “Snowflake” isn’t a term that came out of nowhere; on the contrary, it seems to tie into the fashionable idea that is rather crudely expressed in the featured image for this piece; it’s a generational insult, first of, a term that conjures up images of fragile, self-censoring, immature student (or young person, I suppose, though students are often targeted), who demands safe spaces and no platform policies and are, it seems, such a big threat to the fundamental nature of democracy and society itself that conservative writers can never seem to shut up about a generation of censorious cry-babies, to the extent that you’d almost be forgiven for forgetting we’re all going to die in nuclear fire and fury by Christmas.

Yet I find the whole thing oddly fascinating. Though that might be because I’m procrastinating about building my fallout shelter.

By its own logic, “snowflake” implies that the concerns, hurt feelings, offence, or harm caused to an individual is not really legitimate. It’s the equivalent of something having a total mental breakdown because they can’t find their socks in the morning. Yet, more often than not, the term is thrown out by those responding to allegations of racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia and the like. All of these are of course real issues, things that (I hope the readers of this blog will agree) it is very legitimate, and indeed, extremely important, to be offended and outraged by. This belittling tactic among bigots is, obvious, a linguistic power play, but if you will allow me to play Devil’s Advocunt (the only role I can play, on account of being a cunt), let’s try to apply the terms logic to its users.

Notions of offendability. 

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I’m going to need whoever made this meme to take their ideas and stick them waaaaaaaaaay up their butthole.

Let’s take the above image, which I found within about 30 seconds of browsing in a Rick and Morty meme group on Facebook. I dislike it because it is a) wrong, b) trans-exclusionary, and c) is about one of my favourite TV shows. It reminds me that I like Rick and Morty, but generally dislike other Rick and Morty fans, in the same way I like metal while not really like metal heads, and tend to think people who eat Avocados are obsessed with status food while munching avocado on toast.

But I digress.

In certain corners of the internet you’ll find much being made of the idea that there are only two genders, and that everything else is some sort of mental illness. You know the type of content I mean. It’s usually made by the sort of person who claims that if you can choose your own gender, then he (it’s almost always a he) can choose to define as an attack helicopter, and then expects to be commended for his wit.

One time, I chose to engage with the maker of one of these memes. The argument went like this: I told him he was wrong. He told me that science “proved” there are only two genders. I linked him to the considerable evidence that this is not the case.  He demanded to know why I claimed to know so much about gender. I directed him to the progress of my PhD in Gender Studies. He called me a cuck. I called him a cock. It continued this way for what seemed like hours, until he got all his mates to send me death threats on Twitter and Instagram. In short, I got violent abuse from a bigot. Story of my goddamn life. 

Someone once said (I forget who) that violence is ultimately the expression of fear. We strike out against what we don’t know. A case can easily be made that erasure of transgender and genderqueer people (implicit in the “there are only two genders” statement) is an act of verbal, structural violence.  And this got me to question why I had provoked such a violent response. And, more importantly…

How can someone be so violently offended by the idea that gender is spectrum?

Seriously?

How does it in any way affect you?

This kind of offence is fundamentally different from, say, a woman taking offence a joke which normalises rape. Rape and sexual violence affect women and girls across the world. A joke about rape makes light of that horrifying reality. This cannot be said for the (in all likelihood) white straight male meme lord, who struggles to accept the concept that gender is far greater than a “boy/girl” binary. How fragile does one have to be to react violently to this notion? How hypersensitive?

How much of a snowflake?

The point I’m trying to make is that reactionaries and bigots have tried to position themselves as being the only ones capable of determining the legitimacy of offendability. An insult to Donald Trump is an attack on American democracy; a homophobic slur is “just a joke.” There more to this than just a kind of misplaced moral one-upmanship. I think it says volumes about the way in which societies seek to regulate and discipline notions of vulnerability.

The Politics of Vulnerability and their inconsistencies. 

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Vulnerability. Apparently.

If you cast your mind and eyes back to the featured image (hideous, isn’t it), you’ll see an underlying theme in the whole shebang of snowflakes, anti-social justice, anti-safe spaces and the like – a contempt for perceived vulnerability. It seems second nature to see being vulnerable as a bad thing, or a hardly an idea state. Vulnerability comes with connotations of a lack of agency, weakness, and an inability to withstand any sort of attack. Taken this way, it’s hardly surprising that dominant powers often try to eschew any allegations of vulnerability – Raewyn Connell, for example, notes that a key aspect of “hegemonic masculinity” is the rejection of vulnerability of the self (for example, in adhering to a stoicism and constant display of resilience) but also be perceived vulnerability in others (see in violence against gay men, women and men with alternative masculinities by men with hegemonic masculinities).

Yet vulnerability is not really just a thing it itself. In fact, the powerful can often use vulnerability strategically to try to shut down dissent from the subordinated. Take, for example, the tendency of reactionary groups to portray heterosexuals (and in particular, heterosexual children) as vulnerable to a militant LGBTQA “gay agenda.” The strategic deployment of vulnerability can also try to use the language of (for what of a better phrase) “real” vulnerabilities. The example which comes to mind is the tendency of Islamaphobes to claim that Islam, and Muslim men in particular, are a risk to white women. The man of colour is cast a predator, taking advantage of women’s vulnerability by either policing their dress in the name of religion, or by sexually assaulting them. More commonly, vulnerability is deployed as a means of delegitimising an opponents world view. The casting of another group as vulnerable comes with connotations of immaturity, or perhaps inability to speak or act for themselves. Thus, their voices are silenced, their concerns dismissed, and the status quo pervades.

However, vulnerability is not opposed to the resistance. In Vulnerability in Resistance, feminist theorist Judith Butler makes the valuable point that “resistance” can be applied to vulnerability in two ways – firstly, there is the resistance to vulnerability, the building of resilience; the sort of resistance which is perhaps most familiar to us in this context. Secondly, there is resistance that is informed by vulnerability, resistance which is a social and political form. To be vulnerable is not, necessarily, to be passive, but can in fact be the jumping off point for engaging in dissent.  To be branded as vulnerable, or snowflake, of whatever term the alt-right chose to come up with next, does not render us as radicals incapable of response. In fact, in the vulnerability we possess, we have the tools to shake up the fabric of the world.

1ikkim

If you’re a socialist, how come you went to Oxbridge?

If you’re a socialist, how come you went to Oxbridge?

There’s a new Radio 4 series I’ve been listening to recently called “Reflections,” in which the historian Peter Hennessy (or, as Wikipedia informs me, Baron Hennessy of Nympsfield, a title which sounds vaguely dirty, but then again everything does when you’re a single man in your twenties, who is increasingly anxious about the approach of his thirties) interviews various notable figures from British politics. It’s not particularly interesting listening, but then again I listen to a lot of not particularly interesting things on Radio 4, mainly because it beats listening to the clank of all the empty wine bottles scattered around my feet, and the sound of my cat meowing disapprovingly about my drinking problem. I say drinking problem; I refuse to accept I have a drinking problem, mainly because I’m really bloody good at it.

But I digress.

Having listened to a few episodes of “Reflections,” what struck me were two things (three if you count my cat’s paw, because I wasn’t paying enough attention to him):  First, all the stories were very similar. Early political awakening. Time at Oxbridge. Vaulting into the upper echelons of society. Eventually election, government, scandal, some sort of inappropriate behavior with a nun, drugs, or a Middle Eastern dictatorship, and then an afterlife of comfortable country existence, occasionally being reheated in order to go on the Today program and say something nasty about Jeremy Corbyn. So far, so unsurprising. The more surprising thing for me was that I felt an odd, deeply uncomfortable connection to those stories, specifically the early part of them, the parts that involved formative years at Oxford or Cambridge.

The more I think about it (and I try not to, hence the heroic quantities of booze) the more I loath Cambridge. I imagine I’d loath Oxford too, but I’ve only been once and I had a decent sandwich there, so that makes up for any negative feelings for now. If you’re familiar with this blog, you’ll know my rationale for disliking Cambridge, but if you care for a quick reminder, see here, here, here, here, here and here. I suppose one thing I’ve danced around is the class aspect of my education. I never really mentioned it because it seemed rather obvious. Cambridge is the home of the elite. I marvel at the number of people I met, back in my first year, who are now enjoying large salaries and the prospect of being the next Conservative minister of something or another, and at the same time I don’t marvel at it, because going to somewhere like Cambridge and being catapulted into a position of power and authority before you’ve lived a quarter century go hand in hand. It is not really necessary to come from privilege to study at Cambridge, but going there is a privilege. The same goes for me as it does for the former colleague of mine who works for the Home Office and constantly shares Britain First memes. I am, regrettably, by virtue of my education, a member of the Establishment.

Of course I’m not the first radical with a posh education. Our name is Owen Jones, for we are many. So ubiquitous is the trend that we become collectively known as Champagne Socialists. Not being a fan of champagne, I suppose I’m more of a…Whiskey Wobbly. A…er…Absinthe Anarchist. A…hmm…Real Ale Revolutionary. It’s odd really; there seems to be a stereotype that at Oxbridge, one is expected to dabble in socialism. Tony Blair, when asked for his Reflections, talks about how brave his future wife, Cherie, was for not becoming an “Oxford socialist.” This doesn’t fit too well with my experience. There was a left crowd, mostly decent if you ignored the narcissists, but I never met more recalcitrant Tory boys than I did in my six years there. The sort of person who rabbited on about free speech while abusing transgender folk on Facebook, and periodically set fire to bank notes in front of homeless people. Yes, that’s a thing. A rather common thing.  If you want a pulse on the political nature of Cambridge, here’s a thing. One of the first written reviews I got for doing stand up at Cambridge described me as “funny, but let down by his regrettable links to CUSU [the students’ union] and Communist protest.” Make of that what you will.

I’ve never been entirely clear on how to reconcile my Cambridge education with my politics and current lifestyle.  I am fairly open about it. I’ve got about seven minutes of reasonably good stand up about it.  I’m fairly open about my contempt for the lack of mental health provision, support for survivors of abuse, and the toxic environment of harassment and mud-slinging I encountered there. Yet, as much as Cambridge is a thing I hate, I keep finding myself name dropping it all the goddamn time. All my best anecdotes inevitably begin with the phrase “when I was at Cambridge…”; I can cover it up by euphemistically saying “my former institution”, or “my old uni,” but I acceptable – and feel deeply uncomfortable about – the little self-satisfied arrogant little buzz I get when someone says, with a look of mild admiration “You went to Cambridge?” Ah ha, I obnoxiously think, now she knows I’m really fucking clever. And then I talk about all the terrible things that happened to me there, perhaps in the the hope that my grand messianic behavior will make people like me.

There’s hypocrisy in this. I admit it. I hate the place. I hate what it represents. I hate, on some level, the moments of true academic excellence I experienced, because I know only about 2% of the population will ever experience them, and what the hell makes me so special. Yet I still wear my Cambridge colours, flailing them about with a vague air of superiority. How does this sit with radical politics, principles I try to live by to the best of my ability, rather than just mansplain to people (though I’m sure I do that more than I care to admit)?

I’m honestly not sure, and if there is one thing I fear more than anything else, it is inauthenticity. I just have this horrible feeling that I am, in someway, inauthentic by virtue of being.

 

 

How, if ever, do we make change?

How, if ever, do we make change?

There’s a quote I’m sure you’ll know and it goes like this – “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

In some ways, this sums up life as a left activist.

I recall, a few years back, one of the key slogans of the UK student movement was “call a national demo.” It was in response to the increasing reluctance of the National Union of Students to engage in any meaningful opposition of the government’s neoliberal Higher and Further Education programme, yet it is not an especially original slogan nonetheless.

This is not to say I oppose demonstrations in the slightest. My feelings go more like this: we’d hold a demo. We’d march through the streets of (more often than not) London, a sea of colourful flags, home made placards, erratically dressed hippies, and the like. We’d spot the various groupuscles of the Left by their flags, jostling in the sky for prominence, while their holders glared at their opposites and muttered darkly about something to do with Krondstadt. We’d march for a bit and then have a rally, where a line-up for speakers would tell us things we’d already know. We’d hope for a bit of time on the six o’clock news, or maybe a vaguely sympathetic write up from the Guardian. This may or may not happen, but if it did, it was unlikely that it would stick in the public consciousness for that long, yet we hoped for those column inches nonetheless, because…what, really? Were we expecting our meetings to swell, or some great uprising among the common people like Orwell’s proles?

Occasionally, the script changed. Perhaps the police would kettle a few hundred of us, or a Starbucks window would be smashed, or an ATM graffitied. Subsequently, the movement would split over whether or not such militant tactics accomplished anything, or whether or not they were really militant. The ghost of Millbank Towers would be resurrected, and then contorted to fit one perspective, or other, or both.

And while we were doing all of that, the government would quietly get rid of all the funding to Women’s Aid, or inter half a dozen more vulnerable souls in Yarls Wood.

Inevitably, about six months later, we’d do it all again.

One of the prevailing theories in social movement studies is of “cycles of contention.” This suggests that protests and movements go through ebbs and flows over the generations, sometimes repeating the same old fights, framed in new ways, while other times retreating for a decade or two. A helpful theory, perhaps, for academics who have never taken a police baton to the head. For an activist, it reads like we’re doomed to repeat the same thing over and over again. The definition of insanity.

Sometimes it feels like there are other avenues for change, avenues that take advantages of the apparatus of liberal democracy; the recent Labour surge, on a considerably more left wing manifesto than previous elections, is an example of this. Yet, despite the humiliating loss of the Tory’s parliamentary majority, Labour are not in office. Theresa May has not resigned. And more disappointing, Corbyn seems to be courting UKIP-esque rhetoric on free movement. The victory that was not a victory, which felt so palpable in June, feels hollow now.

So how does change happen? In considering this, I cast my mind back to my Trotskyist days. In response to each new injustice, articles would appear on faction websites, offering the analysis of the current situation, which, inevitably, advocated a return to Lenin. Putting aside any coherence and insight such texts offered (and I won’t deny that these are present) it still felt like it was missing something. Texts and great works of revolutionary theory hold their importance and provide some sense of guidance. Yet, re-enacting the politics of 1917 makes no difference to 2017, no matter how much we may be having the same arguments again (the definition of insanity, though the insanity of capitalism and neoliberal order, in this case).

So I looked to other books, the volumes of social movement research, which pile around my flat in increasingly precarious structures. The prevailing wisdom, at least from the mid two thousands and tens onwards, was that social media would unite the masses. Revolutions could be tweeted. This illusion died a death of sorts when someone thought that we might beat the barbaric Lords Resistance Army with hashtags and overproduced videos.

Perhaps the dilemma here is that when you get down to it – perhaps after a long and despondent day when you have little else to do – and try to list everything which needs to be dealt with, the picture becomes so overwhelming that it is hard to fathom any more, and you feel you can spend a life time staring at one square inch of it while being painfully aware of the vast expanses just out of the corner of your eye.

This is by no means a renunciation of revolutionary principles. It’s not a waved white flight. More a pressing question, asked out of a mixture of despair and curiosity.

How, if ever, do we make change?

 

 

 

 

The revolution will not be retweeted: perspectives on pro-Palestine activism and social media.

The revolution will not be retweeted: perspectives on pro-Palestine activism and social media.
It’s common knowledge that activism and social media go hand in hand, but what purpose does social media hold for activists?

On February 14th, 2016, a group of Israeli soldiers confronted pro-Palestinian activists in the West Bank. An altercation between the activists and the military occurred, and the soldiers seized a young woman activist by the scruff of her neck, threw her on the ground, and then dragged her away, violently striking other activists who tried to free her. This story was barely covered by major news outlets (partially, a bleak testament to how regularly this happens to pro-Palestinian activists on the ground) but the video footage of the assault was viewed by well over a million people, after being uploaded onto the Facebook page “Days of Palestine”, and shared several hundred thousand times. A few months ago, my Facebook feed filled with friends “checking in” at Standing Rock, North Dakota, in a solidarity gesture with Native American activists protesting the against the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline. Later that day, I read an article which cited both the sharing of the video and the “checking in” as “Slacktivism,” a catch-all-term regularly used to suggest that any form of activism that doesn’t take place via “traditional” means (face to face meetings, campaign stalls, picketing and the like) is somehow illegitimate. While it is true that social media alone cannot change the world, this does not play down its importance for activists – one only needs to look at the way Twitter and YouTube were utilised by activists in the Arab Spring. But what role does social media play for activists, and what role could it play?

This article explores the ways in which pro-Palestine activists use social media for positive and negative ends. It is based partly on my PhD research into the culture of radical left movements, partially on a series of informal interviews with pro-Palestine activists in Leeds, Manchester, London and Cambridge, and partly on my own experiences as a pro-Palestine activist. Where I quote activists, I have given them assumed names at their request.

The presence of social media has broken down many of the barriers between activists based in Palestine and those based in the UK. Where before information might only be available through traditional news media, activists in the UK can now connect with activists in Palestine and the Middle East with comparative ease. This, as noted elsewhere on this site, contributes to the age old Israel/Palestine conflict now being played out in European states, as well as online. Indeed, the possibilities of resistance offered by social media are evidenced by the way that repressive states try to limit access to the internet: During the 2012 offensive on Gaza, Israel cut internet access, preventing activists within Gaza from using social media to give the world a real-time picture of events as they unfolded. Earlier this year, the Indian government cut off the internet during a crackdown in Kashmir. At time of writing, The Independent is reporting that Facebook, YouTube and Whatsapp have apparently be banned by the Turkish state, another repressive policy in apparent response to a failed coup in July. Activists work within networks, and social media and the internet allows those networks to cross borders, nationalities, and, theoretically, allow information to be disseminated freely. There are, of course, questions of whether social media platforms are “neutral” spaces for information distribution. In September, for example, Facebook was forced to apologise for suspending the accounts of Palestinian journalists, and Glenn Greenwald, writing for The Intercept provides some evidence to suggest Facebook had been collaborating with the Israeli government on censorship.

But for UK based pro-Palestine activists, social media is not simply a place for gathering and sharing information. Feminist Philosopher Nancy Fraser has critiqued the idea that there is a single “public sphere.” Instead, there are multiple publics that exist outside of the mainstream, spaces (both online and offline) which she refers to as “subaltern counterpublics.” These counterpublics are often formed by groups who have a shared interest, or experience of oppression (Fraser herself uses the example of feminist movements). However, counterpublics are not separatist, but a space for people within them to recuperate and form new strategies for resistance that can be implemented in the “main” public. Subaltern counterpublics in this sense are spaces for pro-Palestine activists to discuss news, come up with new forms of language, new methods of advancing their political aims. The advent of social media as a key organising tool means that subaltern counterpublics for pro-Palestinian activists are not limited to physical meetings of local solidarity groups, but increasingly now are based online. These allow activists to engage in the process of recuperation and reconfigurations regardless of where they are in the world, provided they have access to the internet.

Activist and academic James Gilbert, in his 2008 book Anticapitalism and Culture, argues that activism has a strongly performative element to it. Drawing on the work of feminist Judith Butler, who argued that gender was performed, rather than lived, Gilbert argues that activist engaged in a constant process of identity building. James, an activist based in Lewisham, also identified how pro-Palestinian activists perform their identities:

“Lots of us wear keffiyehs to show our support, or we have a flag badge pinned to our coats or bags…it’s not like a uniform as such, but just little things to show what we believe.”

This performance of activism happens online as well as offline – this might be a small feature such as a Palestine flag Twibbon, or the changing of a profile picture temporarily to a Palestine flag, or the regular sharing of media by pro-Palestinian media sources like Electronic Infidia. Performance, however, is an ongoing process and tied its own power dynamic. Many of the activists I spoke to related how within social media spaces dedicated to Palestinian activism (secret Facebook groups, reddit threads etc) are sites for activists to discipline other activists. Molly, student and activist, described one particular occasion of this:

We were arguing in the [campus Palestinian Solidarity Group] about the line we needed to take for an article. Someone, quite new in the group, wanted us to write about the two state solution. Immediately a bunch of others started commenting aggressively, calling this kid all kinds of names, saying that he didn’t know anything, that he was pro-Israeli, that kinda thing. No one seemed to want to engage with the substance of what he was saying, and he left the group after that.

Molly’s story was echoed in those related to me by other activists. Online discussion forums regularly became a space where a very rigid conception of activism was performed. This is not something unique to pro-Palestinian spaces – my own PhD research into the radical left in the UK shows how online spaces can be both recuperative and also antagonistic spaces. Mark, a veteran pro-Palestine activist, was harshly critical of antagonism in some of the social media spaces:

“I don’t engage in debates on Facebook or Twitter – it gets very personal, very quickly. Sometimes I just look at the arguments and think, fucking hell, we’re all on the same side aren’t we, can’t we just have a reasonable discussion?”

The tendency for online activist spaces to become internally hostile is a well-documented phenomenon, and by no means unique to the Palestinian solidarity movement, but it does raise a serious question: what is the use of having support bases for Palestinian activism in the UK if those spaces are exclusionary for some activists? Surely this undermines, to a significant degree, the benefit of having those counterpublics?

Social media opens new horizons for UK based pro-Palestinian activists. Their access to information, their connection to activists and movements within Palestine, is strong than before. But additionally, there are pitfalls. Social media may be used by the people, but it is not run by the people – media can be censored by corporate interests working with governmental agendas. Furthermore, the culture of online activism must balance the disagreement with acceptance. What does matter, however, is that through social media, we as pro-Palestine activists have the tools for new strategies of resistance, and the importance of that cannot be under emphasised.

Now what do we say?

I don’t normally write this sort of thing, but this isn’t a normal sort of day is it. I’d hoped that today I’d write some sort of cynical analysis of US politics, but instead, I’m writing this, as an open letter of sorts. This is a letter to people who voted for Donald Trump. This a letter for people who are celebrating his election on social media. This is a letter to those who are saying that people who are afraid of a Trump presidency or need to “get over it.”

Ahem

Hi

I know you’re angry. I know not all of you are bad people. Some of you are. You know who you are, so if you wouldn’t mind, treat yourself to a holiday. Somewhere near a volcano. Or in one. But to the rest of you, I have one question, really. Now that the USA will be led by a man who branded Mexican as rapists, who wants to ban Muslims for entering the country, who wants to defund Planned Parenthood, roll back Roe vs Wade, end fragile stability with Cuba, bomb the family members of ISIS, and who thinks his status allows him to sexually assault women….

What am I supposed to say?

What am I supposed to say to the kids I tutor? Those four year 9 boys, decent kids mostly, who come to me for advice on Shakespeare, who I overheard talking in a sexist manner about a girl in their class? We had a long chat after a lesson about respecting women, about using the privileged position as men to fight for a better world, and they listened and they learned. They look to me for guidance. They listened to me when I told them not to be a bully. What am I supposed to say to them now?

What am I supposed to say to some of the young girls I work with, who have opened up to me about sexual harassment they get, about how they feel afraid to talk their desires, hopes and dreams, about how they get pestered to send nudes, how they get groped, how they don’t feel comfortable asking questions in case because of the sniggering of the boys. They’re 13. I tell them that they can find strength in solidarity, that they can value themselves, that they can respect themselves. What am I supposed to say to them now?

What am I supposed to say now to the American girl I met, who is queer, and half Mexican, and whom I have spoken to for hours today, because she wanted to take her own life, because she is now afraid of going home, afraid she will not have a home, afraid that she will be attacked as soon as she gets off the plane? What am I supposed to say to her, now?

Revel in your victory. Be a troll. Plant yourself on an ironic, detached pedestal and laugh at “snowflakes.”

You still can’t give me an answer can you?

I’m waiting.

Chris.

 

 

 

In Defense of Safe Spaces

In Defense of Safe Spaces

Safe spaces. Who’d have them? A fair number of students unions and leftist campaigns would, but the list of people who wouldn’t includes, in no particular order, Stephen Fry, the Guardian,and Theresa May, a list that is coincidentally the world’s most disturbing and confusing game of shag, marry, avoid. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone willing to speak for safe spaces, but the list of people to speak against them is long and acerbic in their condemnation. If you knew nothing about them, you’d think that safe spaces were some sort of ungodly bogeyman responsible for all evil in the world; Theresa May brands safe spaces as “self censorship” and even went as far as to blame them for potential problems in the UK economy ( a little bit rich from the mostly not elected leader of a party which has presided over a £555 billion increase in the national debt ). According to The Atlantic, safe spaces are part and parcel of an extremist agenda. More commonly, we hear the claim that safe spaces impinge on freedom of speech, and are the product of “molly coddled” or “snowflake” students who want to live in a bubble, isolated from the sober realities of the world. It’s funny, really; one of the principles of free speech, as I understand it, is that you try to understand your opponent’s rationale, and it seems in majority of cases, the free speech advocates haven’t bothered to do this with safe spaces. So, now, let’s speak for safe spaces, and why, in my opinion, they are a sometimes clumsy, but vital part of enriched public discussion and political participation.

Let’s begin with a few distinctions. People have a tendency to elide “safe spaces” with “no platform” policies. While these are correlated, they are not the same. “No platform” (a refusal to permit someone a public stage or forum) as a political concept originates from the anti-fascist movement, as a way of preventing the dissemination of racist ideas. This in itself is not a concept which is divorced from wider societal expectations – we do, after all, have a legally enshrined concept of racial hate speech, and provision within law to take away the liberty of who racially abuse others. Since the 1980s, no platforming has spread to prevent those who advocate hate or violence to marginalised groups from gaining a platform, and there’s a separate debate to be had about that and the concept in general. Safe spaces, on the other hand, arose from the LGBT movement. It was, in essence, a policy proposal to allow LGBT students in particular to find “spaces” (whether these be physical spaces such as rooms in a university building, or metaphorical spaces like a social movement) where they could escape from homophobia and transphobia. This is principled on, for example, encouragement to modify language, to think before you speak, to never presume experience on another person’s behalf, and to be reflexive and supportive. From there, the concept of safe spaces have grown to be incorporated by feminist movements, BME movements, leftist organisations, and beyond. I, for example, attend an alcohol support group which isn’t remotely connected to any university environment, where we are reminded that within that space of a church hall in South Leeds for one hour every fornight, we are in a safe space, a space where we can talk about our addictions, where we will not be judged for them, and where we must not judge others. At least in principle, safe spaces are based on the idea of consideration and solidarity. What’s so wrong about that?

Part of the criticism of safe spaces is that people who want them do not want to engage with the difficult issues of life, and instead live in fantasy. This is a rather simplified way of looking at things. If anything, people use safe spaces as a method of engaging with difficult issues, often to do with deeply personal topics such as discrimination, rape, ostracism and so on, in a different way. Feminist philosopher Nancy Fraser argues that we tend to think that there is only one “public sphere” which we are all part of, and this is fundamentally incorrect. While there is a “public sphere” each individual and group forms their own “counterpublics” where the rest of the actors in the public sphere are not, necessarily, welcome – your home, for example, is a counterpublic in this sense. Fraser argues that social movements, feminist organisations and the like, function as counterpublics for people with some shared political aim or experience of discrimination. These counterpublics, however, are not seperatist organisations but spaces for recuperation, a place where individuals and groups can think about how best to face the issues in the public sphere. Within certain forms of psychiatry, there is a similar concept of the therapeutic community. This is a place, or group, outside of the usual therapeutic setting (i.e, the hospital or the counselling service) where individuals may find some sort of escape from the issues which affect them in daily life. This may be a gym, a community group, or even family. These communities are not separatist, but, rather like safe spaces, are positioned as a place of temporary withdrawal, and recuperation. What is so grossly offensive about that? Fraser writes:

Perhaps the most striking example is the late-twentieth century U.S. feminist subaltern counterpublic, with its variegated array of journals, bookstores, publishing companies, film and video distribution networks, lecture series, research centers, academic programs, conferences, conventions, festivals, and local meeting places. In this public sphere, feminist women have invented new terms for describing social reality, including “sexism,” “the double shift,” sexual harassment,” and “marital, date, and acquaintance rape.” Armed with such language, we have recast our needs and identities, thereby reducing, although not eliminating, the extent of our disadvantage in official public sphere.

Safe spaces, in this sense, allow for groups to come up with new tools for political engagement in the public sphere, new strategies of resistance. Consider, based on Fraser’s example, how our public discourse is vastly improved for the fact that we have concepts of sexism and so on. Are safe spaces perfect in implementation? No. Rather like political correctness, they are a clumsy, but ultimately well meaning attempt to build a more inclusive society. What’s so bad about that?