Good Cop/Bad Cop

There is a system of interrogation known to police forces the world over. It is called “Mr Hard and Mr Soft”. It works like this. Mr Hard comes into your cell. He is loud, threatening and abusive. Maybe he slaps you around a bit, punches or kicks you. Finally, he leaves with a threat to ‘throw the book’ at you. Then in comes Mr Soft. He calms you, offers you a cigarette, sends out for a cup of tea or coffee. He listens to your complaint and sympathises, but stresses his own powerlessness to do anything about it. Eventually he suggests a conspiracy. If you tell him everything you know, perhaps he can prevent Mr Hard coming back.

In bourgeois democracies the political roles of Mr Hard and Mr Soft are played by the parties of the right and the parties of the left. The worse the right behaves, the more attractive the left appears. This illusion is as dangerous in politics as it is in the police cell.

The primary political brilliance of a coalition government such as ours is that it encapsulates the ‘good cop/bad cop’ routine into a single administration, allowing an ever tighter influence on the terms of political debate.

For a while after the coalition formed there was a honeymoon period where neither party could afford the impression of instability and disagreement. A few formalised differences of policy (such as the AV referendum) later, and Nick Clegg’s open objections to the Prime Minister’s European veto have liberated both parties from a default pretence at unanimity. Clegg and Cameron can now fully exploit the potential of their ‘good cop/bad cop’ relationship to engineer mainstream political discourse.

By openly disagreeing with the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats are able to occupy, define and moderate opposition to Conservative policies.

Some recent examples: You might agree with Cameron in his use of veto. Conversely, you might agree with Nick Clegg that it was unwise. Either way, you still support one of the Coalition leaders. Perhaps you think Cameron’s tax breaks for married couples are regressive? You will find Nick Clegg already there, saying basically what you think, though not quite in the terms and certainly not with the conviction that you would have liked to.

This is, as Bigger Cages, Longer Chains points out, the political function of all mainstream opposition in liberal democracies. The politicians, though they disagree, share the same basic values; primarily the assumption that all politics and political discourse must flow through them, as professional representatives of the public.

Sometimes the Liberal Democrats are not necessary even for this public relations function. Sometimes Cameron gets to be good cop, tempering the more right wing desires in his party. Sometimes another Conservative will appear as good cop, like Boris Johnson criticising his Prime Minister’s ‘Kosovo style’ cleansing in London or cuts to DLA (public spats which are coordinated in advance). Once or twice, the Green Party or UKIP has attempted to play good cop, restoring our faith in the system and providing recourse from the too harsh or too moderate Tories. Sometimes, even Ed Miliband is able to shout loud enough that he is the one who defines for us the terms on which we oppose the government.

An example from last year (about which the Tories and Lib Dems agreed): Labour claim to disagree with the Coalition’s policy of raising the cap on tuition fees to £9000pa, saying that the upper limit should only be £6000pa. The terms of this debate are therefore set, and a false consensus is created that university education must cost each student thousands of pounds a year. To look at the higher education funding debate as the three main parties conduct it, one would not even consider the idea that education could be free (which is why protests and direct action which defy this consensus are an important part of shifting the terms of mainstream debate).

When the Liberal Democrats make promises about Parliamentary reform or tackling tax avoidance to placate the left, make no mistake; this is their function. Not only does this government seek to speak for you against its own policies, but (if unchallenged) it will be able to dictate the terms of the debate. Public disagreements between left and right wing Parliamentarians are nothing but a ‘good cop/bad cop’ routine; they are the spectacular illusion of genuine political debate, and “this illusion is as dangerous in politics as it is in the police cell.”

Doctor Who, Sexism and Criticising Popular Things

I have become everything I feared; I’m writing a blog about Doctor Who.

This relates to the 2011 Christmas day episode and the debates about sexism that it sparked, but so many common arguments came up that it provides a pretty good template for discussing prejudice in entertainment in general. Bear with me while I tackle the specifics of the episode:

In (very) brief: Some alien trees want to migrate to a new planet but they need a living vessel capable of transporting them. The Doctor, and some children, are too ‘weak’ for this purpose, but the children’s mother is ‘strong’ and able. What people have primarily taken issue with is the essentialist view of gender in the episode and the way in which the woman becomes powerful by conforming to her prescribed role, as per the patriarchy, of mother. Much of this is expressed by the Doctor when he works out why (according to the migratory trees) ‘She is strong’ while he is weak:

’Weak and ‘strong’; it’s a translation! Translated from the base code of nature itself. You and I, Cyril, we’re weak but she’s female! More than female, she’s Mum! How else does life ever travel than mothership?!

This pun lies at the heart of the conceit of the episode, but the Doctor’s epiphany is a little flawed. Life travels in all sorts of ways that are totally irrelevant to motherhood. Cells divide, plants are pollinated (in a program in which two characters are sentient trees, this isn’t a facetious comment!) –  of course, Doctor Who is not written for bacteria or trees, or for seahorses (the males give birth) or for any of the alien species in Doctor Whowhich transfer life without a concept of motherhood, so we can forgive its anthropocentrism.

Even among humans likely to be watching the program, though, these statements (which are presented not as opinions but as a factual explanation for the action) are grossly reductive and genuinely insulting. Firstly, let’s accept that men can get pregnant and give birth. Gender is not a simple binary of male and female, and people identify (if at all) in a multitude of ways based on many criteria. To define gender exclusively by reproductive capacity is to reduce people to a biological function, rather than a personal identity.

Now, the attitude to women. The Doctor declares that to be a mother is to be ‘more than female’. Whilst it may be true that (good) parenthood requires many skills and strengths of character, to suggest that women who are not parents are somehow lesser beings is patently ridiculous. The idea that women are somehow incomplete without children, as well as being degrading and damaging on its own, is part of a broader patriarchal idea of social roles; parenthood is the job of women. My knowledge of Doctor Who is fairly sparse, but I’m pretty sure he’s a father; why couldn’t he be the vessel for the trees? Why is the female ‘stronger’ (translate, ‘better equipped’) for this? Why not ask ‘Where else do we feel at home than fatherland?’ It’s because there is an idea in our society that women are somehow inherently nurturing, caring and protective (in a way that men aren’t). This serves both to push women into lifestyles and employment based on these attributes (nurses, teachers etc) and stops them being taken seriously in other fields. Though we may pride ourselves on not being overtly sexist, this essentialism means that our prejudices about gender still define most social relations.

To some, this does not look like sexism. After all, a woman saves the day when the Doctor is incapable. Things are, naturally, more complex. Sexism is not always about men being good and women being bad; it is a set of prejudices about men and women which dictate certain appropriate attributes and roles for them. Women are, ultimately, to bear and rear children. Having a woman become heroic is good, but to have her be heroic by conforming to her patriarchal role of motherhood (literally, as she protects her children, and metaphorically, as she becomes a semi-willing vessel, a ‘mothership’, to carry life) is not progressive. Again, I stress that the issue is not just that characters think these things; it’s that reality in the show is constructed to make them true. This is a form of that most insidious prejudice, ‘benevolent sexism’. Sincere attempts to portray women as strong and powerful (which this episode probably was) can end up reinforcing prejudices which are ultimately damaging if they lack a critical awareness of those prejudices (which this program certainly did).

When I made these points during the program, I was met with a series of arguments which may be familiar to anyone who has criticised a well loved work. It was unfair to call the show sexist because, I was assured, there are strong female characters in other episodes, or because there were positive examples of fatherhood in other episodes, or because there were bad mothers in other episodes. This stemmed from an assumption that, if I identified sexism in one episode of Doctor Who, I must be condemning the whole program as sexist: specific criticism met with general defence. There was even talk of ‘forgiving’ the show, as if it could only be judged as a single entity, its constituent parts indivisible.

We do not need to view things in terms of condemnation or praise; we need to acknowledge something has problems and watch it maturely. This is well addressed in the blog How To Be a Fan of Problematic Things, though of course it extends far beyond geek fandom. The Merchant of Venice is an anti-Semitic play, but that doesn’t invalidate its value as a work of art. Triumph of the Will is a masterpiece of cinema, despite being Nazi propaganda. We all enjoy things which have bad politics, but that doesn’t make our politics bad, unless we fail to be critically thoughtful. The danger comes when people attempt to defend every aspect of a work because they are somehow invested in it. To say that an episode of Doctor Who had a sexist plot line is not to say that Doctor Who fans are sexist (unthinking loyalty to a television program regardless of the concerns of people offended by it, on the other hand, does reveal a bad set of priorities… )

So, then, the final concern when criticising and critiquing popular entertainment; is it appropriate or necessary?

If millions of people watch a program, many of them children, and if few of them are critical of its political values, then that would suggest that it is necessary to vocalise criticism when it occurs to us. As for appropriate, it’s easy to be accused, when considering light entertainment, of ‘over-analysing’, ‘reading too deeply’ or ‘thinking too much’. There is a misconception that just because a work was not written in terms of conscious political awareness that it cannot be read in those terms. To follow this line of denying critical views is a form of obtuse anti-intellectualism, and those who choose to excuse themselves from thoughtful discourse should have not further bearing on it. Much more serious, though, is that to dismiss articulated critique of popular entertainment is to shut down discourse on privilege and oppression for the sake of a television program, which is unforgivable.

It was suggested to me that ‘if you look hard enough you can find sexism in anything’ (which to be honest I don’t doubt, at least in terms of artwork since everything is the product of a pervasively sexist society), the implication being that people, presumably humourless, man-hating straw feminists, comb over everything they can find looking for things to be offended about. Of course, this isn’t the case; no one chooses what offends them, or what their reaction to a TV show is. When sitting down to watch Doctor Who, it wasn’t that I chose to see the sexism in it, it’s that I couldn’t chose not to, and yet still there was a suggestion that I and everyone else who viewed it as I did should try to ‘just watch it’, to ‘just enjoy it’, and even the notion that we might be souring the mood for those who would otherwise watch quite unproblematically.

Now, I am not an ideological purist, a dogmatic crusader or a moron; I understand that a constant sense of struggling against entrenched injustice is not good for one’s mental health. What if you’re tired? What if you see sexism every day? What if you fight misogyny every time you leave the house, what if the entire direction of your life is based, beyond your control, on your gender and what if when you sit down on Christmas day to watch some light entertainment with your family you don’t want to think about feminism and oppression and offence? Isn’t it ok to ‘switch off’? Isn’t it ok to seek escapism from time to time without feeling compelled to confront injustice and prejudice?

My only answer is of course it’s ok to seek escapism, to watch things for pleasure without composing a political response. But that’s why we need to force improvements of our popular entertainment, so that it’s possible to watch them without having to confront the tiresome and horrific inequalities that define our daily lives. Art can only ever be so far ahead of the society that produced it, and is likely to be a fair way behind, and as such will always be riddled with problems which, in our ignorance and privilege, we may only be dimly aware of. If we attempt to deny ourselves and each other, explicitly or implicitly, the act of critical analysis of the art that we consume, be it by claiming that the work doesn’t warrant so sophisticated a reading or by declaring that offence taken is somehow not valid, we leave ourselves disenfranchised. If we value our ability to watch a television program unchallenged as higher than someone else’s ability to watch it uninsulted then we have probably picked the wrong side in a long established relationship of privilege and degradation. We may choose to sit quietly through the objectionable bits of a work of art, from time to time, even when it offends us, but we can’t expect other people to do so with us (even on Christmas day) and we must be prepared to acknowledge it when the things we like problematically contain things we have to hate.

Notes from a Pessimist

“And, my friends, in this story you have a history of this entire movement. First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you.”

From a 1918 US trade union address by Nicholas Klein

It is important to stay optimistic during sustained bouts of political activism, because it is a tiring and frequently dispiriting endeavour. It is important to find things, even minor ones, to be optimistic about, because the intellectual and physical drain of combating deeply entrenched injustice must be met with a defiant strength of purpose. It is important to stay optimistic because it is so easy to lose a grip on one’s mental well being that we sometimes don’t notice it happened. However, in the spirit of avoiding the disappointment and disheartenment, and of maintaining one’s optimism, it is important not to be naive.

While much has been made of the validity of a campaign with no initial specific demands, it is important to have some idea of what victory might look and feel like. For the occupy movement, victory is change; be it reform in the highest echelons of the banking and finance industries or total restructuring of society’s political and economic relationships. Some of the following might be good, some are arguably essential, but it’s a long road to a perfect world and none have ever walked it, so some perspective is important. Despite persistent belief to the contrary, these are not victory:

  • Getting positive attention from the media
  • Getting negative attention from the media
  • Getting support from passers by
  • Obeying the law while the state is breaking it
  • Getting arrested
  • Getting stopped, disrupted, kettled or beaten by the police
  • Performing the most impressive banner drop, street theatre or spectacular stunt
  • Mass mobilisation
  • Kind words from leaders
  • Placatory compromise
  • Getting ignored
  • Getting ridiculed
  • Getting attacked
  • Getting burned
  • Having monuments built to you
  • Enjoying yourself

Black History Revisionism Month

A new memorial has been unveiled in Washington DC. Martin Luther King is honoured on the National Mall, the site of his iconic “Dream” speech and the 2-300,000 March on Washington. As I have argued before, the erection of a statue or monument is a political act which helps to simplify history, solidify orthodoxies and negate dissenting opinion. King, whose name has become synonymous with pacifism and non-violence, is to be celebrated alongside a cavalcade of militaristic memorials dedicated to generals and war-time presidents, and it illustrates the pervasive attitude that violence by the state (or by revolutionaries, history being written by the victors) is glorious, while violence by citizens is unacceptable. Whatever nuance or contradiction his views may have had, Martin Luther King’s legacy has become a talisman against any assertion of forceful strength by the ordinary citizens.

This significant unveiling in America coincides with Black History Month in the UK (October), and the Metro recently carried a double page spread of the ‘50 top black heroes’, who are apparently ‘battling it out to be named the most inspirational black man or woman’. The paper boasts that “readers can help crown this year’s winner in a contest organised by Metro and City Hall to mark Black History Month.” Not being a Metro reader, I am spared the difficulties of deciding whether last year’s winner, Leona Lewis, is more or less deserving than the man who invented Reggae Reggae sauce of this lofty accolade. There’s also a guy from Eastenders and Naomi “blood diamond” Campbell. Dianne Abbott is on this list. Dianne Abbott is a contender for the most inspiring black person of all time. Of all time.

Naturally, I don’t expect the Metro to produce a historically coherent article about anything, but it is more than incompetence that accounts for this patchy list. Perhaps the most glaring omission from this list is Malcolm X (or any of the Black Panthers or other militant black rights campaigners in 20th century America). While Martin Luther King’s photograph is prominently displayed at the top of the page, the man who historical convention has come to regard as his more radical counterpart is conspicuously absent. Again, I am not naive enough to expect the Metro or City Hall to celebrate a militant organiser, an advocate of the armed struggle, a man from whose lips emanated the immortal words “by any means necessary”, but we see the inherent problem of celebrating representatives of oppressed groups. Black people in America, and in this country, and all over the world, were oppressed both by the state and by dominant prejudice. Any black activist who was committed to improving their lot and had the courage of their convictions was necessarily opposed to the state’s authority, because the state was (and is) racist. Similarly, any honest list of female heroes will throw up a handful of Suffragettes who were prepared to break the law (and windows, and bones), transgressing against the state because the state was (and is) sexist.

This presents a problem for any modern group, be they government or free “newspaper”, which doesn’t support insurrectionary dissidence but does want to celebrate the history of an oppressed group by championing individuals. The result, in this article, in the exhibition it advertises, and (one can predict) in most of Black History Month, is the same revisionism which pervades so much of the discourse relating to the struggle of black people in our society; City Hall and the Metro inherently have far more in common with the oppressors of the past than they do with the heroes.

Martin Luther King is celebrated above other significant figures because he firmly advocated non-violence. This is a source of great inspiration to many, and his legacy is rooted in a broad respect for his stance, but we cannot discount the state’s role in influencing in the way such ideas are spread. The tactical and moral superiority of non-violent protest is a received opinion, quietly endorsed by these continual celebrations. The state has delegitimised all but the most inoffensive challenges to its authority, just as one would expect it to, negating, revising, distorting the voices of those who said that it was the violence of the state, not of the individual, that was intolerable.

When we allow the salient facts of the past to be defined and articulated by the vested interests of power, we create not history but propaganda, and we must be wary.

Where Have All The Protest Songs Gone?

Where have all the protest songs gone?”, Eleanor Margolis laments in the New Statesman this week. Margolis recounts a trip to the End of the Road festival where she saw Robin Ince introduce Grace Petrie, “a guitar-wielding 20-something” who played a set of protest songs; defiant songs both about the agendas and ideals of modern protester movements and about protests themselves, after which an unimpressed Margolis went home and penned a piece in which she asked “where have all the protest songs gone”. Well, as the first commenter on the article pointedly and rightly mentions, the place to look for protest music is not the comedy tent of the End of the Road festival, but the fact that hard edged political music filtered even into this arena, falling into Margolis’ lap without her needing to look for it, indicates that perhaps there isn’t such a dearth of protest music after all. Before Margolis gets to her point she makes a few snide remarks about the performance, and before I get to mine I’m going to briefly address them, not only because they are specifically unfair but also because there is a broader issue.

In Margolis’ eyes, Petrie’s set was a series of “painfully earnest protest songs”. I’ve seen Grace Petrie play live; it’s a stunning, moving, inspiring and thought provoking experience. This is perhaps because she writes songs like ‘Emily Davidson Blues’ and ‘Tonne of Bricks’ which tackle the difficult politics of protest vandalism, violence and sentencing. The demonisation of politically conscious students, our problematic cultural values and the hypocrisy of the legal systemare subjects I’ve written on before, but never with the talent to set to music. These are difficult ideas, and they are important for activists. Margolis, I would tactfully suggest, might not fully relate to the student protest experience articulated in these lyrics in quite the same way I do. Grace Petrie’s music is unashamed in its idealism, determination and ideology. Margolis writes as the kind of achingly self-deprecating lefty journalist who must describe a festival as a “small, boutique-y gathering of beardy Guardian readers” in order to excuse herself from being there. While I find Petrie’s performances gripping and honest, Margolis considered it “so sickeningly worthy that I nearly choked on my falafel burger”. Perhaps because she was trying to eat it ironically.

Margolis’ assertion that “the whole performance seemed to cling for its life to another era” is where we get to the real point, though I think she has missed it. The problem that we have with the question “where have all the protest songs gone” is a problem that pervades attitudes to protest and the culture of protest both within and without the activist community, which is expecting modern activity to fall into the patterns of the past. Grace Petrie herself articulated the hypocrisy at the heart of this in a tweet to me:

@MediocreDave The 2 criticisms I hear: a) we need protest music for TODAY and b) People writing protest songs belong in another era

Angry young people alone on stage with acoustic guitars are certainly a symbol of protest from a previous era, and, while still of great value and validity, are unlikely to define the current one.

The crucial truth to grasp is that not only will protest music look different today, but the cultural role it played in the past may not be filled by music at all. While singers in the 1960s were offering an anti-establishment critique of the dominant mainstream messages, that baton (at least in this country) was passed to a revolutionary wave of alternative comedians in the 1980-90s (while stars like Carlin and Hicks were vocalising dissent in America). This is only my impression of our cultural history, though; I wasn’t there in the ‘60s or the ‘80s. I am here, however, in the 21st century, and it seems obvious that with the internet facilitating he most significant cultural shift in centuries, bloggers and online journalists are set to be whatever protest singers were in the past. Like Bob Dylan himself, Laurie Penny has had the mantle ‘voice of a generation’ foisted upon her against her will because, like Bob Dylan, she managed to articulate a dissenting viewpoint at a time that people were really keen to hear it. The truth is, though, that this generation will have many voices. Conditions have changed, and we no longer need to defer to figureheads and spokespeople and heroes; we can all contribute. Writing The Lonesome Death of Hattie Caroll today, Dylan would have been just one of many commenters attempting to make sense of the incident.

For its visceral and emotional qualities, too, songwriting has been matched in its ability to encapsulate modern protest mentality by new technologies. Not only with the army of journalists and photographers than follow major protests but with each of the protesters themselves likely to be carrying a camera, by their very presence on the streets or in shops, costumed in eye-catching fancy dress or masks and hoods, protesters are with every outing creating the very images of their propaganda. How is a protest songwriter attempting to create an anthem of rebellion and disobedience able to compete with photographs coming out of Greece of a big bin full of burning debris pushed towards police lines, the words “NO CONTROL” sprayed in red across the front? How does a lyricist express pure rage at the banking industry in a way that footage of people putting bricks through bank windows doesn’t surpass? Just as much as singers at the moment, the artists creating materials to really get the blood pumping are those editing down hundreds of hours of riot footage to play the most potent and powerful combination over an angry beat, and putting the lot anonymously on You Tube.

So where does that leave protest singers? Free. They are able to communicate and test ideas at the very edge of mainstream acceptability, to be voices outside the establishment looking in. Petrie plays her part in this, for sure, but in her hunt for the next Leonard Cohen or Bruce Springsteen, Margolis has overlooked Lowkey, Akala, even Scroobius Pip, or any of the other hip hop artists articulating the anger and intelligence of protest. Yes, acts like Verbal Terroristsare unlikely to top the charts, but that’s not because of a lack of protest spirit. Stop looking within the establishment for anti-establishment music; the times they have a-changed.

There has been so much tiresome debate under the tedious heading “Where have all the protest songs gone?” that it seems a shame to add to it at all, but indulge me one last point. I remember, in the Winter, being part of a student protest movement that was facetiously called “the Dubstep Revolution”; every major action used to have a soundtrack, leading us through the streets like fifes and drums, and though it might not filter up to the music industry, the cultural critics, the armchair supporters and the social historians of tomorrow, protest music is exactly as alive and present as we need it to be. Go to a protest. Find an anarchist with a car battery wired up to a speaker on the back of their bike. Listen to what they’re playing. That’s protest music.

Even If She’s Raped

***Trigger Warning***

In the debate between those who support abortion rights and those who do not, a certain familiar cliche will often tend to rear its head. One side or the other will offer up the hypothetical situation of a woman seeking an abortion after being impregnated by rape. It seems almost an inevitability, like a particularly grim analogue of Godwin’s Law, and there are many who are opposed to abortion except in cases where the woman has been raped. It seems simple, obvious even, that people might make this exception, but it’s worth considering the motivation behind it.

I broached this on Twitter, and @Rattlecans suggested that the kind of people who debate abortion from an anti-choice perspective don’t think of it as something that will ever affect them personally; for whatever reason, they and the women they know are not the kind of people who suffer unwanted pregnancies. Rape is the only way, they believe, that this kind of crisis might actually occur within their lives, and so they frame their discussion of the right to an abortion around that issue. This is probably a bit simplistic to be taken as a universal maxim but it’s a thought worth bearing in mind when these arguments come up.

My understanding of it is different, though. I think there’s an inherent subtext to that line of moral debate, which runs something like this: ‘Imagine a woman. She is pure and innocent, virginous, even, until a corrupting sexual force is imposed on her. She has absolutely no control over the circumstances of her pregnancy. She is blameless. Unlike other women, she should be allowed an abortion to restore her and nullify the rape.’

The problem here is that it reinforces some particularly damaging and illiberal attitudes to female sexual behaviour. It suggests that women who consent to sex (and maybe even enjoy it) have forfeited their right to sympathy and support in the event of unwanted pregnancy. It suggests that any woman who becomes pregnant without having been raped has no right to complain about their pregnancy.

The second major problem with rape exceptions is that they cast women entirely as victims, denying them the autonomous agency to engage responsibly in the sexual world. The abortion is a way of cleansing the sullied body, protecting the victim from the ravages of sex, rather than a way for a woman to take responsibility for her own medical state. Ultimately, framing one’s position with hypotheticals like this only allows for women to conform to one of two narrow roles: the victim, who is entirely passive and needs to be looked after, or the whore, who brings whatever befalls her upon herself and gets what she deserves.

Since this blog largely preaches to the converted, I’m directing this appeal to pro-choice readers. I understand that if you are trying to reason with someone who says that abortion is unacceptable under any circumstances, asking their feelings on cases involving rape can be an effective way to draw them away from moral certainty and make them accept that there are complex issues at play. However, not only is it a bit crass and exploitative to use hypothetical rapes to manipulate the course of a debate, but as far as I can see it’s a dead end which reinforces too many anti-choice prejudices. Abortion to avoid delivering a rapist’s child can be justified as a necessary evil, but to do so accepts that abortion in general is evil. Furthermore, it posits a kind of moral hierarchy of women seeking abortion, with some (rape survivors) as more deserving than others. Another cliche in these discussions is the woman who ‘treats abortion like emergency contraception’. This woman, because she is reckless and irresponsible, because her reason for wanting an abortion is something as unimpressive as simply not wanting to have children, is undeserving; her choice to have an abortion is far less forgivable than the rape survivor’s. It is essential to resist this kind of prejudice and not to build arguments based on the idea that some women are more or less deserving than others. As far as I can see, the only argument which pro-choice people (especially men) need to justify supporting abortion rights is this: neither I nor anyone else has the right nor the moral authority to dictate to another person the choices they make about their body. And that’s that.

EDIT: As a perfect illustration of the paternalistic misogyny that lies at the heart of this exceptionalism, @Boudledidge has sent me a link to the comments of Senator William Napoli.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO [Journalist]: Napoli says most abortions are performed for what he calls “convenience.” He insists that exceptions can be made for rape or incest under the provision that protects the mother’s life. I asked him for a scenario in which an exception may be invoked.

BILL NAPOLI: A real-life description to me would be a rape victim, brutally raped, savaged. The girl was a virgin. She was religious. She planned on saving her virginity until she was married. She was brutalized and raped, sodomized as bad as you can possibly make it, and is impregnated. I mean, that girl could be so messed up, physically and psychologically, that carrying that child could very well threaten her life.


A good friend of mine has just been sent to prison where, for a limited time, he will join other men in paying off his debt to society. Each of these men has committed, or at least been found guilty of, a crime and has been locked away. For most, if not all, of them, this custodial sentence is not keeping them off of the streets for our safety; these are not people sufficiently dangerous to the general public that they must be incarcerated at all times. Instead, there is a more complex and symbolic philosophy at work; these men are being punished, and their punishment will make amends for their crimes. Their debt to society will be repaid.

I’ve never understood it, personally. I can see how a fine or community service may be seen to fit this accepted rhetoric, with the convicted person making some formal contribution to the broader community, but a prison sentence seems to strive for an oddly karmic sense of equilibrium. A criminal has (presumably) inflicted some suffering by their crime, and in so doing has incurred a societal debt. By being caused to suffer themselves they are able to pay it off. They have been punished. I believe that’s how the logic goes, and yet unlike direct restorative justice, which sees perpetrators and victims brought together in communication to find a way to make amends, prison is not in the interests of either the victims or the wider community to any greater degree than that ‘justice’ can be seen to be done – prison costs the tax payer money. Yet, in spite of all of this, my friend was told that he had to repay his debt to society.

What I find most egregious about this phrase, and the ideology it represents, is the hypocrisy. It is the idea that we suffer and heal and forgive collectively. This is, in itself, a beautiful notion, but it is inconsistent with the nature of our judicial system. The idea of a ‘debt to society’, of a common interest, of all our fates being interwoven and our prospects interdependent is the philosophy of solidarity and comradeship, it is the philosophy of the hard left; the ideology underpinning the concept of a ‘debt to society’ can best be summarised with the phrase “an injury to one is an injury to all” – the language of the organised labour movement. And yet the idea of a ‘debt to society’ is invoked by the establishment, it is the mantra of the right, of Law and Order loving conservatives, of the children of Thatcher, who told us there was no such thing as society, of those who promote individualism and self sufficiency, and it is a hypocrisy. If we truly believed that we each have a duty to society, and that failure to act in the interests of others is a crime, we wouldn’t waste prison space with petty offenders; the cells would be filled with the the self-serving individualists; the politicians, journalists and business tycoons who place their own advancement over that of those around them. If there is such a thing as society, and if by victimising individuals within it one deserves the condemnation of the whole and incurs a debt, then we must act like it at all times, not just when it comes to sentencing criminals. If not, then we should be honest about what the justice system stands for; not to protect the shared interests of us all, but to preserve the power of the establishment and maintain the status quo.
I believe in society, and Jonnie Marbles doesn’t owe me any debt.


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