Sexism and Activism: What’s the Problem?

  Val Walsh

  • ·Preamble
  • ·Relationships and behaviour
  • ·Misogyny, homophobia, racism, heterosexism
  • ·Degrees of unease, resistance, hostility
  • ·Activist scenarios
  • ·Appendix. 

Perhaps as more women have got involved in activist groups in the City, and as more women have come to share and discuss their experiences with each other (with individual friends and/or in the various women’s groups that have come into being over the last six years or so in Liverpool), the problem of sexism in activist contexts has come to the fore, culminating in the theme for the recent meeting held at the Social Centre in Liverpool (08 07 2012). I did not attend, but it got me thinking of incidents I had witnessed, been told about or had experienced directly in the last two or three years in particular.  And I remembered one experienced activist bemoaning in 2011: ‘Why are so many men on the left so sexist?’

At the same time, the term ‘sexism’ seemed a bit inadequate in describing the problem, and I realised that what was bothering me is that the term ‘sexist’ does not carry the same cultural and political weight as ‘racist’ or ‘homophobic’, and this is, of course, indicative of the very issue we are trying to address: its continuing pervasiveness, alongside denial. In addition, as one friend observed: it was always the wrong word anyway (with its emphasis on ‘sex’).

 Relationships and behaviour.
I found myself starting by reflecting on my best relationships with women, in order to establish a baseline for understanding the problem. This process pointed to broad relational features and associated desirable behaviours, such as:

  • mutual respect and reciprocity
  • interaction that is not controlling, dominant or exploitative
  • attentive listening.

These behaviours can be seen as gender-neutral and not the exclusive preserve of women, whatever their sexual identity or preference. But in the context of sexism, women may identify these key relational behaviours as either too often missing altogether or somewhat elusive in their interactions with many men, including male activists.

At our best, these women’s relationships exemplify adult-to-adult power relations, not the parent-child scenario of Transactional Analysis.  In other words, the exercise of authority and power within the relationship is paramount to the achievement of peer relationships between women as adults, and the mutual respect mentioned above. Within this framework, dialogue is possible; sharing is routine and safe; and exposure is not feared, but experienced as a positive part of intimacy. These peer relationships are also:

  • non-authoritarian
  • non-competitive
  • non-predatory
  • non-judgemental
  • compassionate.

This allows trust to flourish, which in turn feels nourishing. Other features of these valued relationships are that they are also variously:

  • lively and stimulating
  • intellectually challenging
  • open and honest
  • warm and facilitative
  • emotionally supportive
  • infused with humour and laughter
  • rooted in shared social and political awareness, including feminist consciousness and values (implicit or explicit)
  • and a source of women’s wisdom and wise counsel, especially when I have faced sexist attitudes and behaviour, and anti-feminist attack. (In the latter connection, I should mention that I have also received positive support, dry humour and wise counsel from various male friends/comrades.)

These are relationships within which I can ‘be’ myself, feel at ease, able to speak and be heard (generally without fear, embarrassment, intimidation), give and receive, and where I am offered neither deference / adulation nor destructive criticism or ridicule (as opposed to honest and open feedback / critique). Unsurprisingly, I experience them as empowering, life-enhancing and intensely pleasurable. Sustaining women’s friendship, over time and across our differences, becomes politically, as well as personally, significant: an essential part of feminist process, in a society that does so much to discourage and undermine women’s friendship, intimacy and solidarity.  We make each other possible; as opposed to presenting obstacles to each other’s safety, well being, creativity and agency.[1] Women should not be rocks in each other’s path

The idea of women’s friendships as a benchmark for all our relationships has been alluded to by bell hooks[2]:

“Women who would no more tolerate a friendship in which they were emotionally and physically abused stay in romantic relationships where these violations occur regularly. Had they brought to these bonds the same standards they bring to friendship they would not accept victimisation.”

This observation serves to highlight the significance of women’s feminist consciousness for our empowerment, dignity and safety as women in a still too hostile society. Without this, we are unprotected sitting targets, near incapable of either self-care or concerted political action (because fear prevails, we don’t identify as ‘we’, and by extension: we don’t think we are worth it).

 It follows from the above, that we can and do identify behaviours that are problematic, counter-productive, dangerous; or plain wrong/bad. To describe these behaviours, we use words such as:inappropriate, demeaning, offensive, derogatory, abusive, damaging, destructive, violent. Unethical, illegal, criminal.[3]  However, this is likely to be the area of greater disagreement, though behaviour that induces fear, shame, humiliation, or a sense of worthlessness, intimidation or powerlessness in others is likely to come under scrutiny and achieve consensus as problematic or unacceptable. Even unethical.

But our concern here is with gender-based attitudes and behaviours, directed specifically at girls and women, as girls and women. Crucial therefore is who gets to speak; who gets to testify as to the experiential reality in question. Who does the naming, the explaining? Who gets to decide what counts as ‘inappropriate’, ‘abusive’ or ‘unethical’, for example? This raises the issue of power relations, across differences of social class, gender, race, age, sexuality and status; and the question of process: participation in knowledge production. Professor Peter Beresford[4] has much that is useful to contribute to our understanding of these issues of process (power, respect, responsibility, accountability and quality) arising from his own and others’ experience as mental health service users campaigning to be seen as active contributors to knowledge production, service provision and society (see Appendix).

Misogyny, homophobia, racism and heterosexism.
Evidence of misogyny and racism, and their conjunction, is found in the world of football. Anton Ferdinand, in his testimony in court regarding fellow footballer John Terry’s alleged racist behaviour towards him on the pitch, explained that ‘being called “a cunt” was fine, but when someone brings your colour into it [“fucking black cunt”] it takes it to another level and it’s very hurtful’.[5] (Thanks a bunch, Anton.) In court, Terry ‘agreed that words such as “cunt’, “prick” and “fuck” were part and parcel of the game, as was calling another player “fat or “ugly”.[6] In the end, the racist and misogynist status quo was served up as evidence for the defence: Terry’s racist remarks were dismissed as ‘banter’ (colloquially referred to as ‘just handbags’).[7] No inkling here of a feminist-inspired revision of normative masculinity and its sexist attitudes to women, for players or fans, including boys. The problem of ‘banter’, the ‘only joking’ protest, ‘it’s just a manner of speaking’ defence are forms of ignorance, denial and

Meanwhile, at the EU in Brussels, the UK EDL’s top man attended a gathering of ‘assorted cranks and loons’ of the far right, and ‘one speaker was overheard complaining that “the pansy left is auditioning to be the Muslims’ prison bitch“‘.[9]  Sexism, homophobia and islamophobia come as a package. The fear of femininity and the homo-erotic loom large, as it did for Hitler’s Freikorps,[10]his military élite, whose letters and diary entries expose a chilling combination of misogyny, homophobia and anti-Semitism.[11]  More disturbing, is that this is exactly the mix witnessed by Clarke Carlisle, Chair of the Footballers’ Association, when he visited a football match in Poland.[12] He was visibly shaken by the (unhinged?) ferocity of the orchestrated chanting in the Polish stands, the synchronised body language (like swimmers, only more sinister), rote repetition of slogans, and lyrics (apparently well rehearsed and word perfect), exhibiting the same lurid combination of homophobia, racism (anti-Semitism) and misogyny as practised by Hitler’s Nazi soldiers. Examining the slogans and lyrics, it is clear that misogyny  delivers homophobia and racism, not just misogyny itself.

Barbara Ehrenreich, in her Foreword, notes that Theweleit maintains that ‘the point of understanding fascism is not only “because it might ‘return again’,” but because it is already implicit in the daily relationships of men and women’.[13]

Theweleit refuses to draw the line between fantasies of the Freikorpsmen and the psychic ramblings of the “normal” man: and I think here of the man who feels a ‘normal’ level of violence toward women (as in ‘I’d like to fuck her to death’) . . . the man who has a ‘normal’ distaste for sticky, unseen ‘feminine  functions’. . . the man who loves women, as ‘normal’ men do, but sees a castrating horror in every expression of female anger. . . or that entirely normal, middle-class citizen who simply prefers that women be absent from the public life of work, decisions, war. Here Theweleit does not push, but he certainly leaves open the path from the ‘inhuman impulse’ of fascism to the most banal sexism.[14]

Recently, a husband, who had been removed from the marital home by the police, as part of a new pilot project in Manchester to tackle domestic abuse, admitted on screen, after undertaking a course: ‘I didn’t know that what I was doing was abuse’. This attests to a failure in the upbringing and education of boys in the UK and the debilitating and misogynist model of manhood still being recycled. To state the obvious: babies are not born misogynist, homophobic or racist. Social and cultural contexts are powerfully influential in shaping us as social beings.

Playwright Lee Hall’s Billy Elliot, the story/film[15] of a boy brought up in a working-class community in the north east of England, who developed a passion for dance / ballet, that was initially seen as worse than inappropriate by his father and local mining community, served to inspire the 21 year old Palestinian ballet dancer, AymanSafiah, as a boy, and stop him giving up on his own dream (and identity). Just like the character, Billy Elliot, this luminously talented dancer has been seen as an offence against the norms of his society (Galilee and the heavily militarised State of Israel) and his culture/community (Palestine: occupied, impoverished and Muslim).[16]

At school, in the home, in society and via cultural practices and symbols, boys and men are variously still trained for misogyny and heterosexist compliance: normative masculinity remains largely constructed in opposition to ‘femininity’ and women, and as a sexual identity that is ‘naturally’ dominant and predatory.[17]  This is a serious problem for girls and women (who come to accept a degree of violence – the odd ‘slap’ – as ‘normal’), as well as boys and men.This ‘script’ produces fear of femininity (even loathing) and the desire to denigrate, dominate and control women’s lives, bodies, behaviours and influence beyond the domestic sphere.  Misogyny / homophobia / racism / heterosexism is the hate-and-fear package.

Degrees of unease, resistance, hostility.
Pat Craven’s The Freedom Programme, designed initially for women who have experienced domestic violence and abuse, but now also available to male partners/abusers (and as a paperback), provides a powerful analytical breakdown and graphic representation of the consequences of these norms within the domestic environment, via a series of recognizable behavioural ‘types’, based on women’s experience.[18] The following typology does something similar (minus Jacky Fleming’s powerful illustrations) by presenting a spectrum of attitudes and behaviours: the kind of line-up women too frequently face in the workplace or activist and/or voluntary groups/organisations. So not water-tight or fixed identities, but a broad guide, based on women’s experience so far:

  • The paternalistic male is not necessarily or knowingly hostile to women. He may quite like them; he may have one at home; but he has not managed to keep abreast of social changes and lacks understanding of how his own behaviour, overtaken by events, has become an obstacle to women’s self-determination and full participation in society.  American writer, Joyce Carol Oates, recounts how a Detroit newspaper ran the headline: ‘Detroit housewife writes play’, when she was already a university professor.[19]  And when, as a mature writer and professor of ten years standing, she won a book award, a People magazine headline described her as: ‘Shy faculty wife….’, alluding to her husband, then Chair of the English department.[20]

Across cultures, these attitudes promote the idea that women and men are historically timeless, a ‘natural’ binary, hierarchically positioned (male      ahead of female), with the power dynamic of the ‘normal’ / traditional (heterosexual) couple modelled on the father-daughter dyad. This male lacks critical awareness of the social and cultural pressures exerted on boys and men to become ‘manly’ and dominant. And dominance comes disguised as care.

  • The unreconstructed/conventional heterosexual male variously harbours a sense of superiority towards women, a fear of ‘femininity’, fascination with women, as well as contempt. He is likely to congregate with other like-minded men in lap dancing clubs, for example, as well as individually / privately making use of the expanding range of services provided by the online sex industry. This is a large and varied constituency: the primary target of marketing and various industries. He may be vaguely aware of ‘feminism’, identify himself as ‘radical’, and by extension, assume he is a benign colleague or comrade to women. As one man explained to me many moons ago: ‘These guys know that’s where the most interesting / attractive women are’.
  • The anti-feminist male is a more intense/virulent form of the above: moving through wariness to hostility, resistance and denial. Dominance is again asserted; control sought. Whether he is on the Left or Right, or somewhere else politically, feminist values and politics are seen as illegitimate: crudely hostile to men’s vested interests (sexual, social, economic, etc.). UK BNP London Organiser, Nick Eriksen, is an example of this toxic, misogynist mix, which promotes the ‘natural’ dominance of men over women. He was widely quoted in 2011, putting women in their place: ‘Rape is simply sex. Women enjoy sex, so rape cannot be such a terrible physical ordeal. (It is) like suggesting force-feeding a woman chocolate cake is a heinous offence’.  Along similar lines, one of the UK’s best known misogynist standups, Jimmy Carr, who has many rape jokes, describes rape as ‘surprise sex’.[21] And in the libertarian, misogynist corner, Julian Assange (of WikiLeaks fame and accused of rape and the sexual molestation of two women in Sweden) and Respect MP George Galloway (rushing to defend Assange’s [and his own] sexual stance) assert their right to have sex with a sleeping or unconscious woman, without it being called rape: it’s just ‘bad sexual etiquette’.[22] Sexual penetration (in the way Galloway explains it) is thus not a relational, shared act between equal, sentient and conscious human beings, but a ‘technical fix’ (and right) for one man’s hard-on; and any hole will do. (Seriously, he should take a bottle to bed instead of a woman.) The Respect leader, Salma Yaqoob, reiterated that without consent penetration is rape, and described Galloway’s remarks as “deeply disappointing and wrong”.[23]
  • The misogynist gay man may be overt or ‘under cover’. For while he is less likely to be sexually predatory towards women, he may be predatory in other ways: for example, in relation to ideas, opinions, influence, status, particularly in the workplace. And he may feel particular antipathy for, and behave competitively towards feminists, whose articulacy, politics and professional practices may be seen as cultural and intellectual capital, and therefore as a personal and/or professional challenge.
  • Similarly, the self-promoting male feminist, who displays and exploits his credentials in this area, is a problem for women, perhaps especially when encountered in the workplace or activist and voluntary work settings. His smile masks competitive and predatory intentions towards women: looking to acquire, steal, adopt feminist ‘cover’ (views, practices), while actually using these to control and contain the pedagogic, institutional, professional or organisational influence of feminists/feminist values and practices, to protect and further his own position or career at the expense of women colleagues or comrades. Trying to combine wanting to be ‘king’ with hands-on proximity or intimacy with women and/or other minorities / oppressed constituencies, his bottom line will be preserving organisational dominance and status with ‘street cred’. This scenario could be described as a ‘dance of deception’:[24] a process of both seduction (of the vulnerable and impressionable, i.e. less politically aware women and men) and control (in this case of women and feminists as creative agents for change).[25] For the strategic, competitive, predatory male feminist, authority must not be allowed to slip into women’s, and especially feminists’ hands.[26]

The above men, in their fear of femininity and/or hatred for women, combined with ‘desire’, target us with competitive, destructive and controlling  behaviours. It’s about winning. Staying on top. We cannot be friends. And as bell hooks has observed: “to know love we must surrender our attachment to sexist thinking in whatever form it takes in our lives”.[27] There are also cases where there exists a veritable gridlock of these types and behaviours, in positions of authority and influence, at the top of an organisation or service (e.g. mental / health),[28] which in turn produces a ‘viriity culture’[29] (subtle or virulent) with severe consequences for women in particular, both as service users / clients / carers, and as employees / service providers. And to further complicate matters:

  • The non-feminist woman (gay or straight) does not identify herself with or as part of the contemporary feminist project, though, like some of the men described above, she may be aware of certain aspects of women’s history that preceded it (and she certainly benefits from its previous achievements). She may start sentences with: “I’m not a feminist, but….”. If she is straight, she is perhaps more likely to worry about being seen by heterosexual men as ‘political’ or as woman-identified, lesbian, ‘unfeminine’ / ‘unattractive’ / not ‘sexy’, or as anti-men. Nonetheless, she may routinely rely on, turn to and put trust in the women in her life (not men) for practical and emotional support and company, especially in times of trouble, and offer the same  in return. So women could be said to delineate, frame and make possible her daily life, in ways that she does not explicitly identify as ‘feminist’:[30] these are private arrangements, personal affiliations within her community, not politics.Similarly, lesbian identity does not necessarily mean a woman is also political / feminist / activist. Lesbian identity may engender hostility towards straight women (who ‘sleep with the enemy’). On the other hand, in 2012, contemporary lesbians working alongside men do not necessarily see or treat men as all / inevitably the enemy. But non feminist women (in their numbers) make it harder for other women to put the case for the dismantling of women’s social, cultural and political disadvantage, and for us to be ourselves in all our diversity. Though they may also be involved in work or projects that benefit women.
  • The anti-feminist woman is the most grievous of this cast list for feminists, and sexual preference is not the simple, determining factor, though there are more of these overtly devoted to uncritically aligning themselves, socially and sexually, with heterosexual men and their interests and power. Social class can be an instrumental factor in setting women against each other and in a dissociation from feminist values and politics. It is apparently above all about not making men feel uncomfortable (and which men, may depend on the woman’s own identity and class or cultural allegiances). To side explicitly with the gendered status quo is to throw rocks in the path of all other women.  Do we describe this as a politics (of the right) or just as an absence of sexual politics? But whether assimilation or collusion on the one hand, or sexual non-conformity and autonomy on the other, are the strategies of choice, the outcome is to do the misogynist male’s dirty work for him: to demoralise, wound and defeat other women.

It is likely that, as girls and young women, the non feminist and anti-feminist woman (like most men) have not had the opportunity to study women’s social and political history, to participate in consciousness-raising groups or women’s projects, or to encounter the huge body of women’s writing and research that has changed so many women’s consciousness and lives since the 1970s. It’s invidious to pick out ‘feminist stars’, but not reading the inspirational writing of founding sisters, such as black Americans AudreLorde,[31] June Jordan, bell hooks, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou and many, many others; or white poets and activists, such as Adrienne Rich and Andrea Dworkin; as well as numerous and diverse feminist academics and researchers; not to mention the novelists, is to have been starved of intellectual and emotional nourishment that exists in abundance, but has been kept hidden from girls (and boys) and women, within the school and university curriculum, and in a society saturated by heterosexist discourses and industries, designed to co-opt us all into the hyper-femininity and hyper-masculinity promoted by the advertising industry and the turbo consumerism it serves.

But even women who have studied feminism and familiarised themselves with the work of feminist writers, researchers, activists and academics, can encounter problems in face-to-face situations, for example, in conference settings or in other women’s studies environments within academia:

The academic feminist (as opposed to the feminist academic) / élitest woman canpresent problems for other women that highlight issues of embodiment, not just language and discourse: social class differences and prejudice re. voice/regional accents/vocabulary/syntax; body/appearance/dress codes, body language and behaviour, signifying ‘uneducated’ and/or working-class / ‘unsophisticated’ (i.e. not middle-class)[32] with the result that the objects of this élite gaze experience themselves as objects of disdain, dismissal, or avoidance. Similarly, and in addition to the above, visible disabilities may be identified in academia, by women and men alike, as not just difference or disadvantage, but as intellectual inferiority and/or social inadequacy; and perhaps even as distasteful.[33] By contrast:

  • The male feminist or pro-feminist can be gay, bi, transgender or straight. He has been politicised by a combination of personal and social factors during childhood and youth: perhaps brought up in a feminist household; and/or exposed to feminist ideas through interpersonal relationships, higher education and/or activism, as well as reading and men’s groups. (There are also late converts: men in their 40s and 50s, for example, who have come to understand and take on board gender issues, perhaps through a mix of reading and lived experience reflected upon.) His politics and world view are gender-aware, feminist-inspired and women-friendly, and he is more likely to have women friends (as opposed to women only as lovers/sexual partners). Crucially, these experiences will have engendered a self-reflexive critical process regarding his own masculinity. He is also likely to be consciously anti-racist and anti-homophobic. This package can put him at risk in the company of men who still see women as sexual objects, domestic adjuncts/slaves, familial/sexual possessions / mother material or play things, i.e. as inferior, and serving men’s interests and needs.

Black American feminist, bell hooks, has acknowledged this problem: “Observing his [a former partner’s] struggle I saw how little support men       received when they chose to be disloyal to patriarchy’.[34]  Her words capture the poignancy of the situation: the work still to be done to bridge these damaging and painful divisions. Yet two years earlier (in 1998, in the wake of the Clinton sex scandal), liberal Jewish UK journalist, Jonathan Freedland, was identifying President Clinton as ‘a throwback and a relic’, and drawing attention to changes in men’s gender-based understandings and behaviour.[35]

“After the 1970s, feminism’s equation of the personal and political became ingrained: younger men learned that a boundary separates appropriate and inappropriate behaviour – and they cross that at their peril.”[36]

He describes a “generational fault-line”: between men in middle age (then), who grew up with little experience of women as equal colleagues and/or exercising power in the workplace (as opposed to making the tea), and younger men, who have grown up around such women and “have learned how to behave”.[37]  In 2012 (14 years later) the online conversation between feminists Laurie Penny and Martin Robbins[38]  is evidence of

serious dialogue and a growing sense of mutuality between some women and men, in the joint struggle to re-imagine gender relations.

  • The women-friendly gay man may or may not be an activist, but offers few barriers to mutual respect and trust, being more willing to politically align himself with women, more likely to be feminist-aware and often a genuine best friend.

As mentioned earlier, none of these configurations is meant to imply singularity or fixity. Contemporary identities are fluid, mutable and multiple,[39] and learning and adaptation are variously features of our individual processes and development over time.

Activist scenarios.

These will include:

  • action on the street
  • in a social setting (e.g. the Social Centre)
  • one-to-one
  • at a small group meeting, e.g planning or editorial
  • at a public meeting.

In any of these, women too frequently encounter behaviour that is, for example, any combination of the following:

  • patronising and/or sexist
  • gender-based harassment or hostility, designed to counter, minimise, ridicule or override our contributions: verbal (such as a gender-based put-down or routine interruption of women’s speaking) or non verbal (such as smirking or eye rolling)
  • controlling
  • marginalising (e.g. at mixed meetings, not taking a question / comment; not actively and equally involving women in discussion and debate; non-verbally communicating disdain or contempt for a woman speaker)
  • inappropriate intimacy: verbal or non verbal  (e.g. staring / inappropriate proximity / touching)
  • sexual harassment and innuendo
  • bullying (verbal and non verbal)
  • aggressive.

As some of us can testify, citing recent examples through gritted teeth, gender-based jokiness (even when ostensibly ‘feminist-aware’), prefaced perhaps by phrases like, “as a man”, “the trouble with you women is” or, “am I allowed to say this?”, quickly shades into overtly sexist comments and/or anti-feminist taunting or baiting. None of these can count as good conversational techniques, designed to further mutual understanding and alliance between adults. In these scenarios the relationship is unbalanced, not between peers: like women faced with the misogynist male standup, we are the butt of these ‘friendly/humorous’ comments and jibes.[40]

But nothing is simple, and the above typology obscures aberrations, such as the previously very friendly white feminist screaming at me for my lack of compassion for the sexual predator and offender at her side across the table; and the black academic on his other side bellowing contemptuously (index finger jabbing the air between us) about my “socialism, feminism and social justice preoccupations”(accusations meant, on this occasion, to render me both too liberal and not liberal enough). Until that moment, for the nine previous years, I might have thought we were broadly ‘on the same side’ politically: anti-racist, anti-homophobic, concerned with power differentials, inequality and social justice, and pro-feminist; on the left of left. Then something happens to trigger and expose previously hidden attitudes, identities, resentments. That ‘shared’ political purpose is tested.

This example highlights the limitations of the above typology: that while it may serve as a useful heuristic (with potential to help us identify, reflect and discuss), its explanatory power grinds to a halt in specific real life situations. It will never cover every hidden nuance, every seething motive, or deep-seated driver. So in this particular example of disguise or mutation (or simply my own naïvety, wishful thinking or poor judgement), I am left, a year later, incapable of answering the questions: Who are these people? And what is their politics?

We can stick around and endlessly challenge barbs and violations, which, as fellow activists and friends note, is dispiriting, unrewarding, exhausting and frequently pointless. (And keep thinking: but it’s 2012, not 1912.) Alternatively, we can walk away, vacate that environment (if that’s feasible), and devote ourselves to other projects and relationships. Women in the public domain are used to this moving-on business: not as career development or upward mobility, but as career salvage and/or health and well being rescue. Both strategies can feel humiliating. And escape can feel like defeat. Misogyny / racism / heterosexism / trans prejudice wound and scatter women in the public domain, and by extension, negatively determine far too much in our ‘personal’ lives.

Mental health activist and academic, Peter Beresford puts forward a number of principles aimed to taking forward service user involvement, based on improving our understanding of other people’s experience:

  • Listening to what people say
  • Seeking to develop empathy with the perspectives and situation of others
  • Working to be open-minded and non-judgemental and challenging discrimination in ourselves and other people
  • Recognising what we do and don’t ‘know’
  • Valuing people’s direct experience
  • Accepting the possibility that there are knowledges different from our own
  • Being prepared to accept something we may not fully understand, instead of rejecting it without consideration
  • Being willing to move out to people, meet people on their own territory and see how things are for them
  • Acting upon knowledge that is based on direct experience – not just saying that we accept that this is how it is for someone else, but also being prepared to work with them to change it (Active Knowledge)
  • Involving people with direct experience (for example, service users) in the development and provision of professional education and training
  • Valuing the direct experience of service users in health and social care and encouraging the recruitment of service users as workers
  • Increasing access to research training for people with direct experience and supporting their involvement in research so that they can influence the process of knowledge production.[41]

In the light of the issues explored in this essay, it seems clear that the above insights, forged through people’s experiential learning, provide useful ‘guidelines’, not just for service users and service providers, but more generally, for other relational settings, such as activist and voluntary groups/organisations, where power relations, prejudice and stigma (fuelled by misogyny / racism / homophobia / heterosexism, for example) can rear their ugly heads.

However, experiential learning fails us if it stops short at ‘personal’ experience, and fails to acknowledge and seek to understand the wider social structures that produce and maintain oppression, disadvantage, ill health and abuse, for example; and far-Right terrorists like Anders Behring Breivik. The social determinants of misogyny, racism, homophobia, heterosexism, and their associated violence and abuse, have been overlooked or denied for too long, on the one hand; and let rip within society, as those in positions of authority and power in business, industry and politics continue to rake in profits on the back of this long-running, lucrative, hate-and-fear package.

Many thanks to those friends / colleagues / comrades / activists (sisters and brothers) who commented on earlier drafts of this essay, shared thoughts, made valuable suggestions, offered encouragement, and generally partook in the continuing conversation. . . .

10 10 2012(a)

[1]ArchbishopDesmond Tutu has expressed something similar: ‘I am me, because you are’.  Cited Giles Fraser ( 21 07 2012) Loose Canon: No, I am not a liberal, TheGuardian,  07 2012.

[2]bell hooks (2000) All About Love: New Visions. London, The Women’s Press: 137/8.

[3] This is not meant as a ‘complete list’, obviously.

[4] Peter Beresford (2003) It’s Our Lives: A Short Theory of Knowledge, Distance and Experience. London: Citizen Press in association with Sharing Our Lives.

[5]Caroline Davies (10 07 2012) Racist abuse or sarcastic banter? Terry’s pitch row with Ferdinand reaches court. The Guardian.

[6]Caroline Davies (11 07 2012) Terry denies taunts over alleged affair made him snap. The Guardian:


[8] In the wake of the Terry case, we then arrive at the ultimate absurdity and injustice of Rio Ferdinand being fined for calling Ashley Cole a ‘choc-ice’, because Cole spoke in defence of John Terry (despite the video evidence confirming Terry’s racist remarks). The term ‘choc-ice’ in this context is not a gratuitous, racist insult, though it is certainly provocative, but a sharp political comment, from one black person to another.

[9]Hugh Muir (13 07 2012) Diary.The Guardian. [Emphasis added.]

[10] ‘These were armed squads set up at the end of the First World War to quash the German left-wing revolution of 1918-1919.’ Jan-Erik Pettersson (2012) Stieg: From Activist to Author. Translated from the Swedish by Tom Geddes. London: Quercus, p 276/277.

[11]Klaus Theweleit (1987) Male Fantasies, vol 1, Women, Floods, Bodies, History. Cambridge: Polity Press. Foreword by Barbara Ehrenreich. See also Theweleit (1989) Male Fantasies, vol 2: Male Bodies, Psychoanalyzing the White Terror. Foreword by Jessica Benjamin and Anson Rabinbach.

[12]As part of his research for ‘Is football racist?’ (BBC3: 16 07 2012), filmed over a period of four months, up to and including the John Terry not guilty verdict.

[13]Barbara Ehrenreich (1987) Foreword, Theweleit: xv.


[15]Directed by Stephen Daldry (2000).

[16]Ayman enraptured and bowled over his audience at Liverpool’s annual Arabic Arts Festival (14 07 2012) a week after his London graduation as a ballet dancer, not just with his skill, but by exemplifying the power of art to transmute oppression and injury into beauty and hope: for performer and audience alike.

[17]See Harriet Goldhor Lerner (1993) The Creation of Feminist Consciousness, on the nature and impact of patriarchal constructs and thinking.

[18] Pat Craven (2008) Living with the Dominator. A book aboutThe Freedom Programme. Illustrated by Jacky Fleming. Leeds: Freedom Publishing.

[19]Laura Barnett (15 08 2012) Portrait of the artist Joyce Carol Oates, writer. Interview. The Guardian G2: 19.

[20] Ibid..

[21]Cited Tanya Gold (18 08 2012)Have you heard the one about rape? It’s funny now’. The Guardian. See also Louise Mensch (22 08 2012) Still getting it wrong on rape. The Daily Telegraph.

[22]Cited Sam Jones & Josh Halliday (22 08 2012) Galloway condemned by party over rape views. The Guardian.

[23]Jones &Halliday (22 08 2012). She would later resign. See Ben Quinn (12 09 2012) Respect leader resigns from party. The Guardian.

[24]To borrow Harriet Goldhor Lerner’s phrase (1993) The Dance of Deception: Pretending and Truth-telling in Women’s Lives. London, Pandora Books.

[25]See Louise Morley & Val Walsh, eds.(1995) Feminist Academics: Creative Agents for Change. London, Taylor & Francis; also Val Walsh (1995) Eye witnesses, not spectatorsactivists, not academics: feminist pedagogy and women’s creativity’ in Katy Deepwell [ed], New Feminist Art Criticism. Manchester, Manchester University Press: 51-60; and Val Walsh (2002) ‘Equal opportunities without “equality”: redeeming the irredeemable’ in Gillian Howie & Ashley Tauchert (eds) Gender, Teaching and Research in Higher Education. Challenges for the C21, Aldershot, Ashgate: 33-45.

[26]See Val Walsh (1995) Transgression and the academy: feminists and institutionalisation. Morley & Walsh (eds.): 86-101.

[27]bell hooks (2000): 155.

[28]See Val Walsh (2005) Gender, narrative, (mental health): ‘the arduous conversation’. BSA Auto/biography Study Group Conference presentation on gender and narrative as primary resources in understanding and countering stereotypes of trauma, damage and the therapeutic. See essays section,

[29] Val Walsh (1994) Virility culture: Academia and managerialism in higher education, in Mary Evans, Juliet Gosling & Anne Sellar (eds.) Agenda for Gender: Discussion papers on gender and the organisation of higher education. University of Kent at Canterbury (Women’s Studies committee).

[30]Julie Matthews (12 08 2012) feminist disability writer and activist, in conversation.

[31]The dedication for Lerner’s book (2003) reads: ‘In memory of AUDRE LORDE, who taught us that women have gained nothing from silence’.

[32]Matthews  (12 08 2012).

[33]  Ibid.. See also Val Walsh (1995) Unbounded women? Feminism, creativity and embodiment. In GaïsJasser, Margit Steen & Margit Verloo (eds.) Travelling Through European Feminisms: Cultural and Political Practices. Utrecht, The Netherlands. WISE (Women’s International Studies Europe): 149-161.

[34]bell hooks (2000): 151.

[35] Jonathan Freedland (18 03 1998) Clinton is from a dying breed – the lecherous, male, middle-aged boss. The Guardian.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid.

[39]Encompassing strands of identity drawn or forged in/by a range of contexts and influences, including: upbringing, education and faith; political ideologies, such as socialism, liberalism, anarchism; social roles, such as (single) parent, carer, employee, self employed; generational and age differences; ethnicity, social class, sexual preference and disability; as well as experiences of poverty or abundance; fear or security; uncertainty, abandonment, violation.

[40] See Louise Morley (1999) Organising Feminisms: The Micropolitics of the Academy. London: Taylor & Francis, re. the routineness of sexual bullying in the workplace; the corrosiveness of sexual harassment as the default mode in academia; and the spite.

[41]Peter Beresford (2003) It’s Our Lives: A Short Theory of Knowledge, Distance and Experience. London: Citizen Press in association with Sharing our Lives, 55/6. While I am familiar with Beresford’s activism and writing, this checklist came to me via social work student, Samantha Williams, who found it valuable regarding her own personal/professional concerns, values and practice during her final social work placement in 2011/2012.


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