Intercultural co-creativity: More than liminal adjustment.

  • Introduction
  • The problem of the status quo:
    social class
    gender inequalities, misogyny, homophobia
  • ‘Beautiful Words for Difficult Times:
    We are the sum of our parts.’
  • The relevance of Liverpool’s social, cultural and political waters.
  • Poetry as community, as partnership.
  • Interculturalism and identity.
  • On the night.
  • Art as experience, art as behaviour.
  • Engaging as intercultural communities.
  • From ‘gift’ to gifted, to gifts. The significance of women for social recovery and renewal.
  • Appendix 1: Our founding statement for the poetry event.
  • Appendix 2: From first version of the poster for the event.
  • Appendix 3: Two poems:
    ‘High Wire Act’
    ‘The Politics of Love’.

An edited version of this paper was presented as a keynote address at the EUROPEAN FORUM of the Platform for Intercultural Europe Conference (08 06 2009), The Distinctive Contribution of the Arts to Intercultural Dialogue: A View from and on the Arts. Brussels, Belgium.


The paper opens with some scene-setting, regarding the entwined factors of demographics, political culture and equality issues in the UK City of Liverpool. These provide the backdrop to a community poetry event (05 04 09), which is discussed and analysed as a process, and as non-violent intervention. The issues of identity, empowerment, women’s lives and purpose as poets are considered; the significance of claiming our multiple identities; and performance as embodiment of both poetic and political purpose.

The paper moves on to identify the shifting ground of art and aesthetics, art and community, art and politics, and the more recent challenge posed by interculturalism. It cites the multiplicity of both the arts and interculturalism, and their synchronicity in the public domain, as virtues; as well as the central significance of women’s participation and creativity, in what are seen as core peace-making and community-building activities, rather than optional, cultural add-ons or ‘entertainment’ as distraction.

The problem of the status quo.
“A sense of belonging in an intercultural society cannot be based on race, religion, or ethnicity but needs to be based on a shared commitment to political community. Such a commitment requires an empowered citizenry.”[1] 

In the wake of identity politics and multiculturalism from the 1970s, which were both important stages for social constituencies challenging marginality, oppression and subjugation, in the pursuit of equality and social justice, the concept of interculturalism provides key concepts and guidelines for the shift from multiculturalism, with its emphasis on acknowledging and celebrating difference and separation, towards intercultural dialogue, with its emphasis on what can be shared.[2]

Leonie Sandercock confronts the reader with two key concepts: a shared commitment to political community, and empowered citizenry; as prerequisites for a sense of belonging in an intercultural society. These do not happen by accident, or automatically through the mere passing of time. And to be clear about their urgency, think about the opposite: a lack of shared commitment; the proliferation of vested interests and conflict; a disempowered population, that feels subjugated or at least marginalized. Implicitly, Sandercock highlights the importance of political and cultural awareness. This suggests that citizens are knowledgeable and educated, as well as experienced. As opposed to subjects (as in the UK monarchical system), who are technically only required to be compliant and obedient.

Using the City of Liverpool as my starting point, I take as read that Liverpool is distinctive, as a port city, historically at the centre of the industrial revolution and empire; yet always ‘on the edge’; and not quite an English city. At the same time, it typifies some of the challenges of C21 cities, and is therefore instructive in relation to the concerns and ambitions of the Platform for Intercultural Europe, and Sandercock’s analysis and vision.

  • social class

Out of twelve industrialised countries, the UK now ranks as the second most unequal society, after the USA, calculated by how many times richer are the richest fifth, compared to the poorest fifth.[3] This intensifying social inequality is stark in the Liverpool city-region. Liverpool’s identity as 2008 European Capital of Culture, and the extensive inner city regeneration projects that were a feature of this process, only serve to underline the neglect of its outlying estates, where previous inner city populations now find themselves.

The city-region is 97% British white. Does this make it a C21 monoculture?

It includes many areas that are solidly white working-class: what might be described as another ‘layer’ of monoculture. This intense singularity promotes a sense of territoriality: marked by feelings of powerlessness / abandonment / defeat; manifested variously as apathy, defiance, violence, in the context of some of the worst levels of poverty, unemployment, ill-health and educational attainment in the UK.[4] Gangs, drug culture, violent crime and murder also feature.

‘Strangers’ are easily identified in these areas, and can be a cause for concern rather than interest. By definition, monocultures lack diversity and complexity; are more likely to be standardised, unstable, and fragile; need a lot of ‘defending’; and are vulnerable to degeneration, wipe-out or internal collapse. Against the backdrop of increasingly diverse and multifaceted populations, communities and countries, such enclaves of ‘purity’ stand out. These are cultural communities that identify themselves as indigenous. However, the fate of indigenous populations at the hands of capitalism and now globalisation (worldwide) has been either exploitation (worked to death or injury), or abandonment (dumped and ignored); or both. In these circumstances, whether in India or the UK, indigenous comes to mean, not settled and self-sufficient, with established (or sacred) rights: but poor, immobilised, outcast, left behind or moved on.

  • gender inequalities, misogyny, homophobia

At public meetings and events in Liverpool, whether cultural or political, the line-up of key speakers remains persistently mainly older white men. Depending on the event, these will be men from working-class backgrounds and/or middle-class backgrounds. I am not saying these men are irrelevant, past their use-by date; but they are part of the problem, a symptom, in that their unselfconscious dominance has blocked and continues to impede the participation and prominent contribution of other constituencies: notably women and members of BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) communities.

That this continues to be the public profile unselfconsciously presented in the C21 by institutions, the City Council, organisations, such as unions and corporations, suggests a lack of equality experience and expertise amongst organisers and convenors: resulting in no active seeking out of those different from themselves; and a lack of awareness of and concern about the resulting imbalance and exclusions; or resistance to involvement on the part of those absentees. And while nationally, homophobia has substantially receded since the 1980s, Liverpool does not feel as if it has quite joined the C21 in this respect, and gay men are likely to identify Liverpool as less safe and welcoming than nearby Manchester, for example.

The greater acceptance of lesbians and gay men nationally (though it is mainly men who have the visibility and increased business and cultural presence) has run parallel to a worsening of the pressures on girls and women, via the media and society’s institutions and industries, to preoccupy themselves with and conform to a hypersexualised, heterosexual norm that is costly, coercive, dangerous and damaging, and all about woman as body, as sex, as available. So, win some lose some.

  • ethnicity

Returning to Liverpool after ten years working in the USA, Dr Mark Christian, a Liverpool-born Black academic, now of the Miami University, Ohio, shared his dismay that the prospects for Black people seemed hardly to have changed. In two lectures during his recent visit: one at Liverpool’s new International Slavery Museum, entitled ‘The Age of Slave Apologies’,[5] the other, with co-presenter Dr Philip Boland of Cardiff University (also an ‘exile’), under the banner of: ‘Whose Capital and Whose Culture? Looking Back on 08’, as part of the WOW (Writing on the Wall Festival, 13 05 09), he concluded that the city had effectively failed to move towards equality and integration.

And I have often asked myself, why would members of the BME communities / people of colour, an undeniable minority @ c6% of the population, but nonetheless significant and important to the City, want to get together with whiteys, who have so visibly held sway in the City for so long? Not to mention the broader issue of our ‘shared’, unequal, painful and shameful history worldwide. Nonetheless, Liverpool has four universities attracting a wide range of international students. Yet it is not an integrated city, with its range of ethnic and social class communities held together in productive tension, or social and creative symbiosis. In the light of this recent history of multicultural failure, one wonders what lies ahead for more recent incoming communities, for example asylum seekers and workers from the enlarged EU.

As a white woman who came to Liverpool from multicultural London, I note, with Mark Christian and Tayo Aluko, that Liverpool has not achieved a working level of multiculturalism and equality, and that therefore it has a way to go before it achieves Sandercock’s shared commitment to political community, and an empowered citizenry, and can identify itself as an intercultural city. Meanwhile Liverpool is marketed as a European Capital of Culture (2008); ‘the world in one city’; and as ‘cosmopolitan’.

‘Beautiful Words for Difficult Times: We are the sum of our parts.’
This was the title of a poetry event that took place in Liverpool (05 04 2009). It was organised as part of a wider, interdisciplinary, multicultural festival, PAX, which ran over several days, at one of Liverpool’s iconic Victorian venues, The Black-E, an arts and community centre focussed on: ‘education / exploration / enthusiasm’.[6]

The relevance of Liverpool’s social, cultural and political waters.

When asked to organise this event, I approached local poets whose work I knew, and whom I thought would be drawn to the stated aims and values of the PAX project. My goal was to bring together diverse poets, encompassing difference, including ethnicity.

These poets had all been involved in previous community events: such as   poetry events organised for International Women’s Day week in 2008 and 2009; as well as other poetry forays into the community, for example Liverpool’s annual Poetry Marathon, part of National Poetry Day, held in the magnificent Victorian Picton Library in the city centre; Liverpool’s now annual Peace & Ecology Festival, which brings together a range of activist groups inside the shell of a bombed out church in the city centre in July, with a view to engaging with the public in a positive way, including young people: enjoying music and poetry; providing information; participating in social and political discussions and debates, etc. in the best British tradition of free speech on the street or in the park.

There are a number of other festivals throughout the year, for example outdoors at the wonderful Wildflower Centre, and indoors at events organised throughout May by the WOW (Writing on the Wall) Festival, which in 2009 included theatre performances, e.g. plays and readings related to the Israel/Palestine situation; writers reading memoir and short stories; a multi-media community art/music/poetry performance; social/political meetings considering aspects of Liverpool’s recent history; and a meeting about the phenomenon of Barack Obama and the actual consequences and potential implications for the City of Liverpool (and the world), and in particular the BME   communities in Liverpool.

But segregation across these events was evident: for example (on consecutive evenings), between the Obama meeting (Afro-Caribbean) and the Palestine performances (Muslim). And at the event where Dr Mark Christian was one of two keynote speakers, apart from the WOW Festival co-ordinator, Madeline Heneghan, there was only one other member of the BME community in the audience: the architect, activist, writer and singer, Tayo Aluko. The rest of us were variously white. And, on taking a voluntary count, hardly anyone in the audience was indigenous: born in Liverpool.

Such social / cultural / political events provide opportunities for creative and campaigning groups to engage with the public, and for the latter to find a place for the day in a positive community setting: listen to music, play games, get information and learn stuff, discuss and argue, rub shoulders with people different from yourself, eat food, buy plants. And sign petitions![7]

But many of these groups and events attract the support of only small numbers of white working-class people from the outlying estates mentioned above, and fewer from BME communities; and even fewer of either as members and as activists. This suggests that these populations, along with asylum seekers, feel least like ‘empowered citizens’ and are least committed to a shared political community; and/or community action is all/mainly local to and within their own ethnic and social class ‘home’ patch.

The key locations over several years for the most mixing across and between communities and generations, have been street protests, marches, vigils and other events, involving food and films, triggered by the intensifying plight of the Palestinian people, notably events in GAZA in 2008 and 2009. On these occasions, we are all ages (from babies to the elderly), all cultures, all backgrounds, and all ethnicities. No longer strangers to each other, even if we haven’t met before, the action of risking visibility for a common cause, and in a city (and national) environment that is increasingly and tightly under camera surveillance and police control, produces a momentary bond. This is Liverpool at its integrated best: in solidarity and strength, standing up for peace, and against abuses of power, be they military or political.

Poetry as community, as partnership.

The process we went through in developing the first poetry event was a model of creative and social development that was not premeditated or mapped out, but experiential, informal, organic:

  • we came together as individuals
  • we formed a group
  • we became a team.

Starting as a top-down initiative, the project quickly moved to a flatter structure, where everybody felt able to engage (critically if necessary) with the initial suggestions and plan, and make their contributions to what would emerge as the performance on the night. [8]

Our patience and stamina were tested along the way, due to delays and postponements, but his did not dent our determination and commitment to deliver something special: because by then, we knew we could do something unique in and for Liverpool. Out of this process arose a new way of performing our poems together: not as a sequence of individual sets, but as an integrated performance; a choreographed sequence with harp accompaniment and back projections, within which individual voices intertwined to produce an experience, for both poets and audience, that was more powerful and more challenging than conventional approaches.

This new form was akin to a conversation or verbal dance, and suited our purposes, which were not simply poetic. As one of the poets, Brenda Vasona Gwanvoma, who came to Liverpool from the Cameroon via Paris, puts it in the title of one of her poems: ‘Building Bridges Not Walls’.

Dr Wendy Sarkissan, a social planning consultant, who has worked with Aboriginal communities in The Block, Sydney, Australia, recognises:

“the need for a language and process of emotional involvement and embodiment using a range of techniques, such as storytelling, drama, music and visualization, to enable people of widely different backgrounds to describe the world as they saw it.”[9]

As poets, we aim to cross the divide between social, political and cultural communities of interest; to get poetry to people who think they ‘don’t do’ poetry; and ‘politics’ to those who prioritise poetry as some apolitical, artistic special case. And to do this we must embody both the challenge of difference and its resolution: by being a team that encompasses, for example, differences of age, colour, culture, faith, health status and social and class background. Our complex and multiple identities are vital to this project, not as fixities, but as ingredients in our creative and social interactions, and our cultural output. (See Appendix I) [10] 

Interculturalism and identity.
“Poetry was privileged speech – simple, but never ordinary. The magic of poetry was transformation; it was words changing shape, meaning and form. Poetry was not mere recording of the way we southern black folks talked to one another, even though our language was poetic. It was transcendent speech. It was meant to transform consciousness, to carry the mind and heart to a new dimension.” [11] Added emphasis.

This is bell hooks reflecting on how she experienced poetry as a child, growing up as a black woman in the racist South of the USA. She illuminates the potential and purpose of poetry for everyone: the politics of language, speaking, writing, and being a poet in your society; and these insights are set firmly in the context of her understanding of both the psychological and political significance of speaking, in particular for the marginalized and oppressed, and women most of all.

“Speaking becomes both a way to engage in active self-transformation and a rite of passage where one moves from being object to subject. Only as subjects can we speak. As objects, we remain voiceless – our beings defined and interpreted by others.”[12] Added emphasis.

She also implicitly demonstrates how taking the lead from women’s lives and testimony affords insight into general human predicaments and social projects.

“To know our audience, to know who listens, we must be in dialogue. We must be speaking with and not just speaking to.”[13]

This observation is as relevant to individual poets as to community organisers, or politicians, and by extension, for intercultural dialogue and co-creativity. Poetry is exploration and discovery, of world, self and Other, and involves an effort to make sense of something, where we experience dissonance, a puzzle, discontent, friction, an intensity of experience, such as loss, desperation or anger: to dig deep. It is also an effort to communicate beyond the self, to a public, to create a community of co-participants, and to make something capable of countering powerlessness, fear, despair, even the impacts of fascism and corporatism on individuals and communities. As hooks says, ‘It is transcendent speech’: at its best, transforming, healing, courageous and ambitious.

The quantum physicist, David Bohm (1917-1992), wrote eloquently about creative process and the importance of dialogue (1996; 1998) in his later years,[14] in the context of his growing concern for what he saw happening in the world.

“The defence of opinions separates people. Each of us defends his (sic) own opinion, and then we don’t meet. We don’t really listen to one another; we try to win.”[15]

Bohm’s words point to the value of the methodology of the arts: which is about listening, about being receptive, about being willing to be changed; equalising power relations; combination and collaboration, not competing or winning. The C20 British poet, W H Auden, believed that all poems are love poems, which hints at a poem’s roots, as well as its transformational potential. And the C19 British poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, invokes our courage and ambition:

To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite;

To forgive wrongs darker than death or night;

To defy Power, which seems omnipotent;

To love and bear; to hope till Hope creates

From its own wreck the thing it contemplates . . .

We have used this stanza to open our poetry performances. We found it spoke directly to our human predicament, as well as our purpose and ambition as C21 poets and women.

We are not a group of women divorced from the common realities of women’s lives: as, for example, daughters, sisters, partners, lovers, wives, mothers, artists, non/professionals, colleagues, comrades, friends and activists, we variously embody women’s complexity, social vulnerability and strength. And we encompass the range of life’s disadvantages and sorrows: grief, prejudice, stigma, grievance, loss, abuse, betrayal, bereavement, exile, as well as the joys of intimacy, affection, love and community. And there are boys and men in our lives in various capacities, as well as in the audience; and as collaborators, providing lighting, back projections, sound technology and film documentation.

We nonetheless do not presume to represent women / all women, but to draw on, share and illuminate lives which infrequently take centre stage in the public domain, except, for example, as fodder for male fantasies, vehicle for corporate consumerism’s excesses, and as evidence of the widespread misogyny that continues to confine, damage and curtail too many women’s lives worldwide. Courage is what marks these women’s poetics. For speaking as a woman in and against a society that throws rocks in your path, because you are a woman, because you are Muslim, because you are old, because you have a disability or HIV status, because you speak (out / up), because you refuse to defer, remains a high-risk, ‘insubordinate’ act.

And identities, such as ‘academic’, ‘poet’, ‘activist’, ‘citizen’, ‘feminist’, rebel’, ‘woman’, ‘mother’, are not just attributed: labels acquired through position or performance. Identities are also to be claimed, taken up, activated: that journey from object to subject, so central to bell hooks’ critique and vision. For this is creative and political territory, involving struggles against oppression and injustice, stereotyping and marginalisation; as well as struggles over resources, policies, social, cultural and political priorities, and meaning. Women performing as EMBRACE in Liverpool, do so with some of those struggles under our belts too.

As editor Amy Wack testifies:  

“I’ve been privileged to witness the development of confident, technically astute, inspirational women poets of all ages. It is worthwhile to remind ourselves that these poems are the flowers that grew on battlefields.”[16] Added emphasis.

On the night:

  • What we had was a performance that went beyond individualism, and manifested our shared commitment to political community.
  • We were the sum of our parts: and more. We all felt it, poets and audience alike.
  • We were showing that we added up, that in that entwining, in that meshing and interaction, we make more sense, more beauty (and therefore safety): new possibilities of understanding and affection emerge and evolve; as well as intimations of future challenges. We were performing as empowered citizens.
  • We felt that our poems were enhanced and intensified as part of the integrated sequence, which itself had evolved so seamlessly out of our discussions, sharing and practices, because we listened to each other, gave each other good attention and support; and no egos reared up to create a negative or hierarchical organisational straitjacket. We are all women of substance (to borrow a phrase from my son); but there has been no competitiveness, no vying for centre stage or dominance. We have facilitated each other, and been clear and forthright when decisiveness was required.
  • Audience members said it had been, for example: beautiful / inspiring / inspirational / wonderful / so warm / lovely / thought-provoking / a lot to think about / beautifully performed with excellent content.
  • We went beyond poetry to act as a catalyst for community. But to go beyond poetry, we had to go via poetry. It is not the only route, but…… It’s the art element in experience and relationship that acts as both means and catalyst; triumph and surprise.

Art as experience,[17] art as behaviour

“All aesthetic judgements may eventually be re-examined and re-evaluated in terms of new cultural relationships.”[18]

Nathan Knobler signals the link between aesthetics and ethics; aesthetics and politics; aesthetics and people’s daily lives. Such a statement is a challenge to entrenched eurocentric values and assumptions, not least about the superiority of the white western way (in all things, not just art). It puts the idea of ‘civilisation’ up for scrutiny, and points to the ways in which these élite, disciplinary domains are open to plunder and reconceptualisation: not in the abstract, and strictly within the confines of the academy, but out in the wider, messy world, where beauty and hope are susceptible to attack and bleeding, as cultural relationships shift, become more interactive, even conflicted.

Thirty years later, artist turned author and social commentator, Suzi Gablik noted, in relation to what Ellen Dissanayake had referred to as ‘the anomaly of modern aesthetics’ [19] and Western art practices:

“One of the key points of contention in the culture war is the issue of intellectual and aesthetic merit. . . .[as] the site of aesthetic experience is shifting, . . . . from the self-referential orbit of museums  and galleries.”[20]

The “boundary which philosophical aesthetics so carefully makes between art and real life” [21] was becoming blurred and challenged by the practices of artists themselves, working out in the community, on the street, in the woods, etc.. Women artists, particularly feminists, were prominent contributors to this historical shift from the 1970s.

Ellen Dissanayake had asked, ‘What is art for?’

“When you view art as a ‘behaviour’ of making important things special, it seems quite evident that this is universal, even though every culture may not paint or sculpt or make installations.”[22] Added emphasis.

And she turns to the evidence of earlier societies, where, for example:

“Decorating and adorning were ways of showing that one participated in a social order and was a moral member of society.”[23]

The work of the EMBRACE poets in Liverpool attests to this social and cultural function: not as conformity, but as non-violent intervention. Similarly, Fiona Boundy discusses the cross-disciplinary and participatory practice of artist Lisa Cheung, who came to the UK from Canada via Hong Kong, and notes: “The relationship is the point rather than the outcome”. [24]

Carol Becker, Dean and Vice-President for academic affairs of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, USA, identifies the enduring distortion in the West:

“This is a very bourgeois notion of freedom that we’ve encouraged, which is a freedom for the individual apart from society, not a freedom for the individual within society.”[25]

This individualism is also a gendered model of freedom: implicitly rooted in the lives, expectations and sexual anxieties of élite white western men, aspiring to roam ‘free’ of emotional attachments and domestic responsibilities that might curtail their ‘creativity’ and ‘autonomy’.

The conversations in Gablik’s book are now fifteen years old. There was clearly an expectation at the time that the tide was turning for the arts; away from an emphasis on objects cloistered in museums and galleries; away from the idea of the artist as necessarily separate and élite. This had been foreshadowed, notably in Gablik’s lightening-strike earlier book, The Re-Enchantment of Art, [26] in which she charted a new paradigm that ‘reflects a will to participate socially: a central aspect of new paradigm thinking involves a significant shift from objects to relationships’;[27] ‘making the transition from spectator to participant’.[28]

However, during the intervening years, turbo-capitalism has gained ground and dominance, and the western art world has split rather than morphed. It has bifurcated into, on the one hand, a lucrative market within the global economy, mainly focussed on objects: art as commodity;[29] and on the other, a cultural fabric teeming with local and community projects, public art and creative interventions, that include the critical, participatory and interactive.[30]

Engaging as intercultural communities.

“Diversity (has been) regarded at best as an issue to be managed, at worst a problem to be solved – just another thing that makes life more complex and tiresome.”[31]

This is the ‘diversity deficit’, which impedes ‘the diversity advantage’ (of cities, for instance), where ‘the complexity of diversity is to be embraced and harnessed’.[32] The concepts of intercultural praxis and cultural competence;[33] of mediation and relationship-building at the centre of intercultural theory find echoes in the methodology of the arts. The specific relevance of the arts is also anticipated by the acknowledged importance of ‘needs, desires, dreams and prejudices’.[34] Art processes and projects can be one of the best ways of ‘working with the grain of diversity’ [35] and moving away from the parallel lives[36] alluded to earlier. Factors that exacerbate distrust and disengagement can be diffused, even overcome, through, not least, the process of getting to know each other and acting together.[37]

The UK Kings Cross Development Forum highlighted the challenges of overcoming pessimism;[38] Manchester City Council’s Sense of Place project found enhanced cultural literacy to be central; as well as sensory impact, in exploring ‘the meaning of belonging and placelessness’.[39] Storytelling and role play may uncover hidden traits, suppressed memories, latent fault-lines and unrealised aspirations.[40] And as Theodore Roszak observed in relation to (early) environmentalists, it cannot be about coercion:

“They’ve usually behaved as if they could simply force people to change their habits by sheer guilt-tripping or scare tactics.”[41]

Art is not about telling; more about sharing, showing, exploring. It requires discipline, but is not disciplinary or authoritarian. These are vital virtues.

Art’s register is rooted in the model adult-adult of Transactional Analysis, rather than its obverse, the conventional, negative parent-child structure of authority, which spells and perpetuates inequalities and prepares the ground for abuse and injustice. The problem of gatekeepers, and the importance of dealing directly with each other, with communities and people[42] is linked to this too-prevalent dynamic.

In this connection, the arts can contribute to the process of unlearning the inculcation in childhood and early adulthood, of the superiority of one way over another[43] as well as undoing internalised inferiority, and alleviating its consequences for individuals and communities. Making art in and with a community can help people acknowledge and provide insight into, the unequal power relations so influential in their lives, and wedded to differences, such as social class, ethnicity and gender; but, crucially, without the process undermining or breaking them. And so another western binary, art v therapy, gets disrupted.

Leonie Sandercock points to the extent of the challenge:

“The ‘right to difference’ at the heart of interculturalism must be perpetually contested against other rights (for example, human rights) and redefined according to new formulations and considerations.”[44]

Art too involves this critical, self-reflexivity, though its importance is still contested, in particular by those still wedded to the dominance of the western gallery system.[45]

To address societal problems, David Bohm, whose roots were hybrid (born in the USA of Hungarian-Lithuanian Jewish parents; later taking British nationality), wrote a proposal for a solution that has become known as ‘Bohm Dialogue’, in which equal status and ‘free space’ form the most important prerequisites of communication and the appreciation of differing personal beliefs;[46] as opposed to élites at the top and the disaffected at the bottom. The methodology and processes of the arts can facilitate and enact the transformation envisaged by Sandercock and Bohm. Rome’s L’Orchestra di Piazza Vittorio is one such inspiring example: fifteen musicians, eight languages, eleven nationalities.

Nine years ago, the project’s instigators, Francesca Povoledo and her rock musician husband, Mario Tronco, moved to a part of the city of Rome taken over by immigrants and avoided by ‘native Romans’. They found ‘an island of exhuberant diversity in one of Europe’s most conservative and conformist capitals’.[47] The initial idea, which could be seen as artistically motivated, underwent a sudden transformation, as Tronco explains:

“But then came 9/11, and what had seemed like just an idea became a political exigency,”[48] in the face of the escalating fear and suspicion of immigrants after the attack on the Twin towers. However, marrying so many diverse musical genres is no easy task.

“The Arabs, for example, don’t have the concept of four beats to a bar; they mark time essentially in twos. The most difficult thing was – and, at times, still is – the issue of tempo.”[49]

Sandercock spells out the learning curve required and the material obstacles:

“Reducing fear and ignorance can only be achieved by addressing the material as well as cultural dimensions of ‘recognition’. This means addressing the prevailing inequalities of political and economic power as well as developing new stories about and symbols of national and local identity and belonging.”[50] Added emphasis.

Building sustainable communities requires committed funding for the arts; not the insecurity and low status of sporadic, temporary, project funding (or no public subsidies from the Italian state, in the case of L’Orchestra di Piazza Vittorio; only promises). In C21 the arts and interculturalism go head to head with the media and its arsenal of resources: financial, political and cultural; as well as the forces of globalisation. Both treat us as targets and markets.[51] As consumers. This inequality / iniquity needs to be acknowledged and proactively redressed via funding agencies and public monies. These are Bohm’s equal status and ‘free space’ prerequisites, which have to be ‘designed in’, not left to chance.

Sandercock goes further, to emphasise the importance of ‘the critical freedom to question in thought, and challenge in practice, one’s inherited cultural ways’ and ‘the recognition of the widely-shared aspiration to belong to a culture and a place, and so be at home in the world’.[52] Here she touches on the core difference, even conflict, between dogma and the creative arts; between authoritarianism, fundamentalism and fascism, on the one side, and the aspirations and complexities of open democracies, academic and media independence, and interculturalism, on the other.

Through the arts, conflict can be experienced, plumbed and illuminated;  worked through, rather than denied, avoided and buried; only to erupt at a later date, often in an unrelated context. The turbulence that may be part of intercultural praxis need not be seen as a sign of failure or deficit. Friction, after all, is part of healthy relational process as well as creativity.

Echoing Bohm’s concern about separation and hierarchy, Sandercock maintains that it is vital to ‘recognise and nurture [those] spaces of accommodation and intermingling’.[53] These are, by definition, dangerous, liminal locations; where borders spill over or recede and reconfigure, and where hybridity flourishes. These ambiguous and unpredictable spaces and places can be experienced as intimidating, because unfamiliar, turbulent, and the site of ‘strangers’; but they are where movement, hope and creativity can break through stereotype and mistrust; fear and a sense of unbelonging and powerlessness. These are the liminal sites of creativity, interculturalism and renewal.

“Thus we arrive at a lived conception of identity/difference that recognizes itself as historically contingent and inherently relational; and a cultivation of a care for difference through strategies of critical detachment from the identities that constitute us. In this intercultural imagination, the twin goods of belonging and of freedom can be made to support rather than oppose each other.”[54] Added emphasis, last sentence.

The problems alluded to at the outset, in relation to the status quo in the City of Liverpool – of social class / ethnicity / gender / misogyny / homophobia  – are connected, deeply enmeshed. Hence the importance of educational, social and political action to combat the organised and well-funded forces of bigotry and prejudice in society (such as religious fundamentalisms and the rise of fascism in Europe), in addition to violence rooted in ignorance, inexperience, fear and uncertainty; as well as lack of education and opportunity. But this paper argues that, without the mind-opening, liberating and heart-healing opportunities afforded by the arts, and projects that ‘deepen communication and lead to celebration and cohesion’,[55] there can be little progress towards interculturalism and productive co-existence. 

From ‘gift’ to gifted, to gifts.
The significance of women for social recovery and renewal.

Women’s movements across the world have made women’s gifts / talents more visible, as we have risen to the challenges bequeathed us. Rochdale Open Forum in the UK, is but one example that ‘showed that women across cultures could connect in ways that men would not’.[56] Historically, women have been ‘gifts’: to be bought and sold, and as the means by which societies and cultures have been organised and controlled. The position, status and rights of women in different societies and cultures in C21 remain the sharpest, most poignant and most disturbing reminders of these differences, and how forcefully they are defended and secured.

It follows, therefore, that being at the centre of difference and conflict, women are well placed to act as creative agents for change, within the arts and interculturalism: helping undo the damage inflicted on populations, individuals and the environment, and envisaging ways out of the mess.There is a history of men and their hostilities, divisions, competitions, wars and abuse (colonial, tribal, economic, sexual). We need to build a history of humanity, and quick. If women, children and men remain buried in the rubble of men’s history and conflicts, sustainable communities will remain an unrealisable aspiration.

This paper has intimated the connections between inequalities and oppressive practices too often seen as distinct and separate. It follows that interculturalism, like anti-fascism, cannot be conceived as solely about anti-racism, but must embody the realisation that partnerships and sustainable communities require a more holistic approach. In C21 neither the arts nor interculturalism can proceed as single issue politics or cultural practice. Their synchronicity lies in their common and proven capacity to address our human complexity and the diversity of our identities, despairs, failures, dreams and aspirations. Simultaneously: as acts of responsibility and imagination. (See Appendix 3.) Even in making room for laughter.[57]

References, endnotes.

[1] Sandercock, Leonie (2004) ‘Reconsidering Multiculturalism: towards  an intercultural project’ in Phil Wood (ed.)  Intercultural City Reader. Book 1. Stroud, Comedia: 19.
[2] Landry, Charles (2004) Riding the Rapids: Urban Life in an Age of Complexity. London, Building Futures in association with Comedia: 24. See also Wood, Phil (ed.)(2006) Planning and Engaging with Intercultural Communities: Building the Knowledge and Skills Base. Stroud, Comedia.

[3] Wintour, Patrick (22 07 2009) ‘Britain’s closed shop: damning report on social mobility failings’. The Guardian: 4.
[4] Health is Wealth. A Report for Discussion (April 2008). The Liverpool City-region Health is Wealth Commission. See Walsh, Val (19 06 2008) ‘Health is Wealth. A report for discussion. Personal response.’
[5] Aluko, Tayo (06 2009) ‘A Christian greeting to the former Capital of Culture’. NERVE Issue 14: 23.
[6] The Black-E was in fact the first such centre in the UK, when it opened its doors in 1969, with the aim of drawing in its surrounding multicultural communities (it lies at the entrance to China Town in Liverpool and in close proximity to Toxteth, an ethnically mixed area mainly identified with the Afro-Caribbean community), as well as others, such as students and those in  informal education, to events and exhibitions which always placed the emphasis on interaction and participation: on creative involvement and co-operation. The Black-E was seen as a suitable venue for PAX, because of its declared emphasis on creativity, the values of intercultural dialogue, and trans-national communities and understanding.
[7] Aside from these events, this strand of community and public life is sustained routinely in the city centre throughout the year, by a variety of community and campaign groups: for example, peacefully setting up their tables and publicising the issues that concern them. These range from, in 2008/9: Animal Rights, No To Identity Cards, Freedom for Palestine, Keep Our NHS (National Health Service) Public, Liverpool Friends of the Earth, and most recently, the national, anti-racist, anti-BNP (the fascist British National Party) HOPE NOT HATE campaign, in the lead up to the EU and local elections, jointly sponsored by a national newspaper, The Daily Mirror, and a national union, UNISON.
[8] We also had to cope with organisational obstacles and inconveniences not of our own making and beyond our control over several months, as the date got put back more than once. These delays and obstacles could have led to a loss of motivation and confidence, given that as women we all have busy lives, other responsibilities and are mainly time-poor.
[9] Cited Wood, Phil (11 2006): 39.
[10] The team of women, known as EMBRACE: Women’s Words Live. Liverpool Poets / International Voices, in itself attests to our potential and purpose, when we present ourselves to an audience or community, before a single poem is read. We simultaneously embody our visible (and invisibe) differences, as well as our willing partnership. (See Appendix 2.)
[11] bell hooks (1989) Talking Back: Thinking Feminist – Thinking Black. London, SHEBA: 11.
[12] Ibid.: 12.
[13] Ibid.: 16.
[14] See Bohm, David (1996) On Dialogue, editor Lee Nichol. London, Routledge; and (1998) On Creativity, editor Lee Nichol. London, Routledge.
[15] Cited Gablik, Suzi (2000) Conversations Before the End of Time. 19 Dialogues on Art, Life & Spiritual Renewal. New York, Thames & Hudson: 108.
[16] At the end of her Introduction to Salzman, Eva & Wack, Amy (eds.) (2008) Women’s Work: Modern Women Poets Writing in English. Bridgend, Wales, Seren: 38.
[17] Art as Experience (1934) was the title of the philosopher John Dewey’s influential book.
[18] Knobler, Nathan (1966; 1971) The Visual Dialogue. An Introduction to the Appreciation of Art. Holt, Tinehart & Winston.
[19] Dissanayake, Ellen (1988; 1991) What Is Art For? Seattle & London, University of Washington Press..Cited Gablik (2000): 38.
[20] Gablik (2000): 31.
[21] Ibid.: 275.
[22] Dissanayake, in Gablik (2000): 43.
[23] Ibid. (2000): 46.
[24] Boundy, Fiona, Lisa Cheung, Colchester, First Site Papers, cited Khan, Nasseem (2006) The Road to Interculturalism: Tracking the Arts in a Changing World. Intercultural City Series: Book 4. Stroud, Comedia: 30.
[25] Becker, Carol in Gablik (2000): 362/363.
[26] Gablik, Suzi (1991) The Re-Enchantment of Art. New York & London, Thames & Hudson.
[27] Ibid.: 7.
[28] Ibid.: 83. See also Walsh, Val (1995) ‘Eyewitnesses, not spectators – activists, not academics: feminist pedagogy and women’s creativity’, Katy Deepwell (ed.) New Feminist Art Criticism. Critical Strategies. Manchester & New York, Manchester University Press: 51-60.
[29] See Wu, Chin-tao (2002) Privatising Culture. Corporate Art Intervention since the 1980s. London & New York, VERSO.
[30] This certainly describes Liverpool’s cultural fabric, with its proliferation of writers, poets, musicians, singers, and other creatives and performers, meeting and making in a wide range of groups and venues across the City.  See also Higgins, Charlotte (09 07 2009) ‘The birth of Twitter art’, The Guardian.  For some bureaucrats and funders, still bound by conventional categories and demarcations, this poses the ‘problem’ of how do you identify what is ‘art’ and what is ‘environmental’ and/or ‘community’ and/or therapy and/or (worse) ‘political? And how do you judge ‘intellectual and aesthetic merit. . . .?! In Liverpool, if a project is identified as ‘political’, rather than ‘cultural’, it will not get funded. NERVE magazine, ‘promoting grassroots arts and culture on Merseyside’, falls into this category.[31] Wood, Phil (ed.) (2006): 10.
[32] Ibid..
[33] Ibid.: 7.
[34] Ibid.: 9.
[35] Ibid.: 11.
[36] Ibid..
[37] The Four Corners Project (now in its 4th year ) in Liverpool, is an example of participatory art processes being linked to making changes in the way people live. Residents made connections and links between themselves, others and the wider world: showing ‘how people can come together to imagine, create and realise new ways of being.’ Ruth Ben-Tovim, Artistic Director Four Corners 2009. The project brings together cultural organisations, neighbourhood management services and hundreds of residents from Liverpool’s five neighbourhoods, and culminates in an exhibition at The Bluecoat, an established visual and performing arts venue in the city centre.
[38] In Wood (2006): 28.
[39] Ibid.: 31.
[40] Ibid.: 15.
[41] In Gablik (2000): 341. See also Walsh, Val (2002) ‘Equal opportunities without “equality”: redeeming the irredeemable’ in Howie, Gillian & Tauchert, Ashley (eds.) (2002) Gender, Teaching and Research in Higher Education. Challenges for the 21st Century. Aldershot, Ashgate: 33-45.
[42] Wood (ed.)(2006): 36.
[43] Ibid.: 13.
[44] Sandercock (2004): 19.
[45] See the conversation with art critic Hilton Kramer (2000) ‘No art in the lifeboats’, Gablik: 106-132.
[46]­­_Bohm Downloaded 27 07 2009.
[47] Hooper, John (17 07 2009) ‘A piazza of their own’, The Guardian: 11.
[48] Ibid..
[49] Ibid..
[50] Sandercock (2004): 19.
[51] See Wu (2002).
[52] Sandercock (2004): 19.
[53] Ibid..
[54] Ibid.: 19/20.
[55] Ben-Tovim, Ruth (2009), Artistic Director Four Corners 2009, Liverpool. Introduction, Four Corners 22-29 July 09 (programme & brochure): in which people in Liverpool’s five neighbourhoods explore the question: ‘What makes a neighbourhood?’
[56] In Wood (2006): 33.
[57]The members of L’Orchestra di Piazza Vittorio have had to learn to live with each other, not just to make music together: ‘We even manage to joke about subjects like Islam and homosexuality’, said Mario Tronco. Hooper, ibid.. And British stand-up comic, Chris Addison (21 07 2009), explaining ‘how to get comedy out of awfulry’, argues that ‘not only is it OK to laugh at bad things, sometimes it is – in all senses of the word – vital.. . . . Analysis helps us understand them; grief and sorrow help us exorcise them; but laughter gives us power over them’. Added emphasis. In ‘Any hedge fund managers in tonight? The Guardian: 22.


Our founding statement for the poetry event:

‘Bridges Not Walls’:

The Sum of our Parts

An evening of poetry, stories, music,

in the performance space at The Black-E, Liverpool:

5 April 2009.

Our vision and conviction are that culture and art are peace-making activities: the quintessential bridge-builders, with the potential to move us out of narrow and private worlds, towards each other and our co-creativity – personal / domestic / social / public. Pleasure and joy are vital parts of these experiences and efforts, as we hope the evening will demonstrate. And risk-taking is also required, if we are to work with and across our differences: not to become like each other / the same, but to like and trust each other enough to hold hands and dance!

This is a collaborative performance, evoking both difference and commonality, rather than a series of individual readings. From the problems of society, we move through matters of the heart: including loss and mourning; we celebrate recovery and renewal; life process itself, through poetry, story and music.

To avoid catastrophe, we must first name our concerns; through our co-creativity, we demonstrate our capacity for survival, reconciliation, adventure, and the enduring power of love.


From first version of poster (printed in a combination of colours):


Poetry and story from Liverpool’s

multicultural heart.

To be held in the performance space at

The Black-E: connecting artists and communities

Great Georges Street, Liverpool L1 5EW

 Sunday, 5 April 2009

Arrive @ 4 40pm for 5 00pm start. Finish @ 8 00pm.

Naming anger and despair
in the face of violation, atrocity and injustice.

 Demonstrating courage and imagination
in the face of damage, loss and bereavement.

 Evoking the healing processes
of conversation, compassion, community and creativity.

Asserting art and love
over the dead hands of fear and guilt.


Bring your community!


                                                                                             High Wire Act

is all about

you bring your
to me

I bring my
to you

and we begin
the process
of knowing

Val Walsh (2006)

The Politics of Love (May 2009)

[see, poems section]

In 2009, ‘The Politics of Love’ was performed at the following events:

  • 16 05 2009: ‘Jamsoup’ multimedia event, in the WOW (Writing on the Wall) Festival at Park Palace, Liverpool.
  • 19 05 09: by radio presenter and former actor, Roger Phillips, morning show, Radio Merseyside.
  • 25 05 2009: HOPE NOT HATE open air Music Festival, sponsored by UK national newspaper, The Daily Mirror and UK national union, UNISON. Crosby Village, Liverpool
  • 03 06 2009: Dead Good Poets Society, Liverpool. Third Room, Everyman Bistro.
  • 25 07 2009: The Peace and Ecology Festival, within the shell of St. Luke’s Church, Liverpool.


‘Into the sunlight’: gender, narrative, (mental) health. Resources for a missing conversation.

This paper was originally written during 2004 and 2005. A shorter version was presented at the BSA (British Sociological Association) Auto/Biography Study Group Conference (2005), Lives and Times and Auto/Biography. London: Institute of Education. A lot has happened in the intervening years (now September 2009): some would point to progress; others to delay and resistance to change; or worse. There are still horror stories a plenty. However, the paper has not been updated, except for the addition of three references: Keane, 2006; Walsh, 2007; Johnson, 2008.

  • Gender, health and the status quo
  • Some structural features.
  • The dilemma of the professional therapist.
  • Anger and its uses. Aggression and its violations.
  • Life history process: memory, narrative, agency.
  • Women’s peer group process.
  • In conclusion.
  • References.
  • Footnotes
    The paper is hybrid in its materials, which include personal testimony, experiential evidence, journalism, feminist analysis, and   ‘fictional’narrative.  These are not seen as discrete categories: not labels, but narrative resources.  Similarly, academics, policy-makers, serviceproviders, service users and carers in the broad remedial and therapeutic field are not discrete and ‘pure’ identities, and this also counters stereotypes of the ‘mad / bad / evil’ Other, i.e.‘not me’.1  Trauma and recovery narratives make important contributions to a politics of health perspective which bears witness to and illuminates the role of gender and gender differentials in lives, and in the field of remedial and therapeutic practice. A politics of health perspective identifies gendered stereotypes of trauma, damage and the therapeutic in academic and media practices, as both evidence (hitherto ignored), and obstacle to health and well being.

Gender, health and the status quo.
The complex of equality and social justice issues combine to shape professional practice, service delivery, social experience, and experience as service users.2  This recognition sets the scene for recording the complexity and importance of experiential evidence; the transformational function of life narratives, peer group process,3 and alliance.  After over thirty years of various equality initiatives (activist, political and policy-driven), we can see how people’s experiential and organisational strategies in combination, ‘not all these little legislative steps that hardly add up’ (Shields, 2003: 251), contribute to optimal (i.e. effective and ethical) functioning, on the part of practitioners / service users, in our joint efforts towards health and well-being; dignity and social efficacy.4  These are profound journeys towards meaning; as well as efforts to change society and (find / make) our place within it.  As Professor John Ashton declared:  ‘I regard all public health as about mental health’.5   Good mental health may by extension be seen as a mark of a decent (just?) and sustainable society, rather than an individual accomplishment, personal virtue, or commodity.

Since the 1970s, the politics of health, and the politics of self, community and society, have been understood sociologically and by equality activists (including academics), such as anti-racists / feminists / disability rights campaigners and Age Concern, as about power differentials, disadvantage, stigma and abuse, for example.  Stereotypes prepare the ground for stigma, which functions as a powerful tool for hierarchical, social organisation, and the engineering of conformity and compliance.  For example, the stigma of social class, disability, old age, ‘ugliness’, mental illness, learning problems, ‘unmanliness’, impairment generally, requires and produces simplicity: instant recognition / fear / repulsion.  By attaching to the body, of victim and offender alike, stigma organises a hierarchy of rejection and acceptance, shame and virtue, (and in UK New Labour terminology: exclusion and inclusion).  In a society dominated by images of the élite, designer body, (affluent, fast, successful, workaholic, ‘perfected’, ‘beautiful’), the powerlessness which attaches to marginality, poverty and damage, is itself a social stigma, and produces shame, which further reinforces disadvantage and vulnerability.

In a society and economy which steer us relentlessly towards ‘rugged individualism’ and ‘pathological narcissism’ (hooks, 2000: 81), western media imagery and reporting play an overly influential part in the construction of an aesthetic which serves economic, social and political ends.  The now pre-eminent western binary of beautiful (sexy) / ‘ugly’ (unsexy) seeps into everything as part of the process / price of commodification and marketing, be it of food, furniture, technology, bodies, identities, exercise.  In this scenario, there appears to be no honourable escape, for not to be visibly participating in the process of self-marketisation is to risk social contempt, as at the very least ‘old-fashioned’ (perhaps the most serious modern cultural ‘failure’, as it implies an element of ‘faulty choice’ / bad taste); or ineligibility (no choice here, simply the stigma of not being suitably equipped, e.g. wrong body, insufficient financial resources).  To be identified as without social or market value / status is to be deemed unsexy.

There are evident costs as well as consequences which flow from the unremitting (hetero)sexualization of society and culture, which penetrates and works to manage both individual self-esteem, and our relations with each other.6  While society and its institutions are now variously prepared to admit and tackle prejudice, stereotypes and disadvantage rooted in ageism, homophobia, racism and fear of disability, gender as a system of disadvantage and damage has never fully been accorded social and political acknowledgement as the problem, affecting everyone, beyond the liberal idea of ‘equality’: whether of women being seen as  ‘different but equal’ (the Equal Opportunities Commission slogan), or about women wanting to be like men, to do things the way men do things, and therefore no longer be regarded as second-class or subordinate.  Many women and men now see women as in no further need of ‘equality’: we have it all.7

“But we’ve come so far; that’s the thinking.  So far compared with fifty or a hundred  years ago.  Well, no, we’ve arrived at the new millennium and we haven’t ‘arrived’ at all.  We’ve been sent over to the side pocket of the snooker table and made to disappear” (Shields, 2003: 99).

Like any poison, the gender system is all the more serious when glossed over or denied.  Toxic levels build up to unmanageable proportions; any solution seems over-ambitious; the will to change, improve, recover (designated ‘unsexy’ and old-hat), ebbs away.  The galloping demand for therapeutic services and medication signal crisis (see Meikle, 2004).  Evidence of gender (heterosexism, homophobia, misogyny) as a powerful, distorting agency within the therapeutic field itself is therefore a matter for critical scrutiny.

Some structural features.
Therapy and the therapeutic are established ‘outsiders’ and ‘other’ to the academic community: on the inside mainly as subject-matter for scrutiny, research, judgement.  It is an established power relation into which sections of the modern media machine in the west have entered, lending their propensity for sensationalism, exploitation and the inculcation of fear and loathing, in the search for a ‘good story’.8   Despite this, the field of therapeutic practices has expanded exponentially since the 1960s, and the boundary between ‘mainstream’ and ‘alternative’ is now blurred by increasingly hybrid practices.9  This could be described as a ‘supermarket’ approach to self-maintenance and recovery: individuals pick and choose their preferred ‘product’ / service.  It could also be taken as evidence of a deepening recognition of   health and well-being as holistic projects of self and society, which reconceive and join education, therapy and politics, with personal and social creativity.  Women appear to be at the centre of this expansion and hybridisation, both as practitioners and as service users.  Latterly, celebrity men have come out openly as service users.10

The first key difference is between women.  Women-only self-help groups and networks have been important features of women’s consciousness-raising, self-organization and feminist politics since the 1970s.  Lived, but previously privatised (and ‘shameful’), experience is ignited by peer group process, for example on a domestic violence and abuse programme, a local self esteem or assertiveness course.  These groups are informal, experiential, and therefore risk being seen as ‘amateur’ (and these attributes render them clearly feminised zones), even when offered as part of a college curriculum in the community (such as PACE – Personal and Community Effectiveness – which brings together home-based parents and carers, and both the unemployed and employed).

Many women in the UK find themselves positioned outside formal educational and political practices, but in at the deep end in situations and relationships damaging to health and self-esteem, whether on the domestic front or in paid employment.11  These women can lay the basis for an understanding of the politics of health and the politics of identity, via the experiential, self-help, peer group route.  Nonetheless, they may remain encumbered by dependents, such as children and/or domestic partners, who exert control and power over the trajectory of their lives, time and concentration.12  Although women of different classes avail themselves of these community-based opportunities, the class and gender connotations of this split in access to ‘knowledge which saves lives’13 are resonant, perhaps reinforced by the fact that trauma, damage and the therapeutic signify inferiority, irrationality, lack of control (the feminine), to an academy which historically enshrines Reason, rationality, control (élite masculinity).

The ‘touchy-feely’ identity of the self-help group stands in sharp contrast to the ‘rigour’ associated with conventional academic and political peer groups (seen as zones of professionalism / élite masculinity).  Being onsite (university campus) or offsite (community centre) is more than a geographical designation, with lingering class and gender connotations.  Middle class women may feel they are entering a working-class space, and are in a minority.  Some will leave, unable to cope with associating with women disadvantaged by social class, lack of education and poverty.  Others will stay, learn and be changed by the experience.

Black women may also stay away, not only from what are perceived as white / white-dominated social spaces, but if they still ‘reject the idea that any “therapy” – be it self-help program or a professional therapeutic setting – could be the location for political praxis’ (hooks, 1993: 15).  As much as anything, this is about distrust of ‘mainstream psychoanalytical practices (which) do not consider “race” an important issue’ (ibid).  As hooks points out, it has been the celebrated fiction of black women writers which has identified the issues for black women, and provided not just black women with ‘imaginatively constructed maps for healing’ (ibid: 11).

Academic disdain and media contempt damn the self-help and therapy route as evidence of ‘failed subjectivity’, as proof of deficit as a person, and as a mark of hysteria and personal desperation.  This writes off the women as ‘ignorant’, and as gullible suckers, rather than knowledgeable, determined and courageous Subjects, in search of ways of learning from, dealing with, and moving on from loss, abuse, oppression, damage.  Identifying as victim has been an historically important first step towards political strategy and organization (e.g. trade unions, the labour movement, black American civil rights, women’s movements, environmental groups).  Labelling women’s personal initiatives for survival and recovery as ‘therapeutic’ / ‘crackpot’, turning us all into ‘patients’ needing treatment, deliberately denies (while perhaps being nervous about) the political import of these journeys, both for women themselves and for society.  It’s meant to put us off our stride.

Most of these groups are open to men as well as women, and become women-only environments because men stay away.  Men of any class may want to avoid the stigma and embarrassment of being the only man in a mixed self-help group on, for example, self-esteem or anger management.   So while gay men have demonstrated their networking, friendship, and self-help skills in maintaining mental health and keeping each other alive (notably since the advent of AIDS),14 heterosexual men too often appear to prefer public bonding around stereotypically masculine pursuits (sport, drinking, cars, women’s bodies, computer games, workplace agendas), rather than peer groups which take as their starting-point the critical challenges of modern masculinities.

Another feature of the differential position of women and men within these discourses is that women are more readily identified as ‘victims’ (done to), men as ‘offenders’ (acting on).  Peer group process across this binary divide is therefore unlikely: victims and offenders mix with difficulty, even danger.  And for a male offender, a self-help group may not only signal admission of offending behaviour, but a loss of power by association with that feminised space.  To be a victim is worse than being an offender: it is bottom of the pile.  The offender, after all, is seen as having power to exercise.15 And male offenders are glamourised.  They are the stuff of novels, soaps and films; and high-profile court cases.  They become film stars and national leaders.

This ‘segregation’ signals another gender difference.  Whereas women’s experience as victims drives many to seek out self-help groups, men’s involvement in therapeutic groups is more likely to be as a result of being referred, whether inside prison or within the community.  The offending behaviour (whether domestic violence or criminal activity) makes them a target for remedial treatment imposed by social services or prison authorities.16  Generally, therefore, these offenders are not early, willing or conscious volunteers in their own rehabilitation and development.  This may be a significant difference, in terms of what can be achieved.

On the other hand, women in self-help groups are looking deep into selves, lives, and at society.  Such women have decided, in the face of intense, even brutal opposition, hostility and abuse, not to give up on themselves.  In her book on black women and self-recovery, bell hooks speaks to all women; and all the injured, insecure, and ill-at-ease in society:

‘Living as we do in a white-supremacist capitalist patriarchal context that can best exploit us when we lack a firm grounding in self and identity (knowledge of who we are and where we have come from), choosing ‘wellness’ is an act of political resistance” (hooks, 1993: 14).  Emphasis added.

Yet another gender difference is how women’s and men’s trauma and recovery is identified  academically, in the media, and institutionally.  Women’s journeys are more likely to be viewed as proof of instability, inferiority, an inability to cope with life’s complexities.  A woman’s recovery narrative may actually serve to confirm the idea of inadequacy, and undermine power, influence and opportunities in the public domain (with a little help from the media if she is in the public eye).  By contrast, while the pressure on men to perform in a manly fashion makes it more difficult for them to admit to vulnerability, dis-ease, any sense of failing in their masculinity, when élite or celebrity men (usually white) tell their recovery stories, this can now produce a ‘revised (new) manliness’, a new ‘heroism’.  Their accounts and their lives circulate within the existing gendered political economy as both exceptional and virtuous (even if baffling).  These men may even be, consciously or not, ‘hetero-patriarchal whistleblowers’: men ‘recovering from’, in remission from, and even angry about, normative heterosexual masculinity and its injuries.17

The conjunction of class, race and gender is then, an influential and instrumental factor for service-users in a number of ways: in terms of access, and point of contact (early / delayed / late / avoided / as a voluntary commitment or as referral); how involvement is publicly interpreted; how women and men feel about their involvement and experience, in view of these demarcations and stereotypes; why they embark on therapeutic journeys, and the desired outcomes.  We know, for example, that many male offenders look to this work as a way of ‘improving’ and returning to a former heterosexual relationship, in order to ‘do it better’.  For women, on the other hand, therapeutic and other self-development work (including, of course, higher education) is more usually about getting or staying out of an abusive relationship, not going back for more.  These moves into self-protection, therapeutics and self-development may also be seen as the ‘personal’ initiatives of women failed by society’s institutions: for example, left unprotected and exposed to heterosexual male violence (whether in the home, on the street, or in the war zone).  The consequences of not managing to take these steps into the public domain, into the self-help peer group, can be catastrophic, even terminal.

Teresa was not just a victim of violence at the hands of her husband: she was also a victim of the state’s failure to prevent and punish that violence.  She was denied her constitutional right to equal protection under the law because she was a woman, a victim of family violence, and a member of an ethnic minority (Campbell, 2004a: 18).

The dilemma of the professional therapist.
“No-one has a clue what prevention is or might be” (Ashton, 10.02.04).

This is not a judgemental statement nor shameful admission: rather an honest recognition of the complexity of mental health and its disorders.   Clues and ideas abound, but to register and understand them, professionals and politicians must listen attentively to the experiential evidence of people’s lives, rather than determinedly continuing down the twin routes of medicalisation and criminalisation.   This is an issue of authority, power and hierarchy, for example in the therapeutic encounter.   Hanging on to traditional notions of ‘expert’ v. ‘patient’, ‘professional’ v. ‘deviant’, ‘well’ v.‘ill’, may be seen as territorial and defensive behaviour on the part of those in authority, faced with pressure from service users to be better represented within mental health structures and processes: i.e. at least to be seen and heard.  In his response to Frank Furedi’s book, Therapy Culture: Cultivating Vulnerability in an Uncertain Age, Harry Ferguson challenges Ferudi’s argument that:

“All social practices that exist to help people are actually doing the opposite.  They make people dependent and diminish their expectations by making them define themselves as unable to cope.”

There are undoubtedly practitioners who work in this way: intrusively manipulating vulnerability; perpetuating their client group; and protecting their own professional identity and authority.  But within the broad and diverse field of therapeutic practice, there are practitioners working in partnership with clients and/or group members.   Crucial to the difference between these two kinds of practitioners, will be whether they demonstrate equality awareness and commitment to social justice in these areas, in both their personal lives, and in their professional practice.

It is pre-eminently women’s autobiographical testimony, feminist activism, research and theory since the 1970s, which have articulated the core significance of sexual politics and gender power relations for professional practice as well as individual lives.  Issues of authority, dominance, control and abuse have been further illuminated by anti-racist activists and post-colonial theorists, as well as therapists such as Dorothy Rowe.18  It is clear that a person’s own biography and identity inform professional performance and role in ways which can be significant for outcomes: and no more so than in face-to-face work with (vulnerable) people, such as education, social work, healthcare, therapeutic practices.  Given the levels of prejudice and abuse becoming visible in our institutions (residential homes, the Catholic Church, psychiatric wards, prisons, for example), as a society we have clearly not yet achieved a sufficient level of social and self-awareness, care and protection for when we are most vulnerable (and lack authority), and when we are most powerful (and exert authority).

The liminality now inherent in such personal / professional encounters puts pressure on professional conduct, rooting and redefining it in terms of ethics and politics, rather than ‘neutral’ notions of authority, expertise and respect.   This invites (requires?) professional practitioners to ask themselves to what extent they have listened to and been changed by the lives, voices and narratives of the previously silent majority of non-élites and ‘marginals’, including of course, service users.   To what extent are service providers part of these social changes, or standing back, defending territory?   Have they undertaken a critical, self-reflexive journey into their own biography and identity (including fears, prejudices, hurt, social positioning), in order to understand how these might equip or dis-enable them in relation to their professional role?   I will illustrate the relevance of these issues with three examples.

A psychiatrist speaking at a mental health conference with a mixed audience of carers, service users, services providers and others,19 described a case-study involving one of his female patients.   When asked how old she was, he replied, ‘Twenty-four’.   ‘A woman then’, I said.  It was unclear whether he had heard me properly, as he continued by telling us that she had been self-harming since she was fourteen.  I said that at twenty-four, she was now a woman.  ‘Oh, did I say “girl”?’ he asked quickly, smiling.  I explained to him later, that I thought it impossible for anyone to accompany a young woman on a therapeutic journey, if that person, the figure of authority (and in this case, an older man, a ‘father figure’) thought of the young woman as ‘girl’.  This would be a parent / child scenario and distinctly unhelpful.  This was unfamiliar territory for him.

A consultant psychotherapist, responsible for setting up an innovative, mixed residential treatment centre, ‘run on democratic lines’, was asked to say something about how this community worked, given that familial and heterosexual power relations are key factors in abuse and damage.  How could a mixed therapeutic environment work, for the women in particular?   While he said it was a very good question, he was not willing to address it himself, and asked the two residents who accompanied him for this occasion to speak of their own experience.  When pressed, he made ‘excuses’ (smiling all the time) about the fact that he predated ‘political correctness’. . . . at which my internal alarm bells went off.   His use of the term ‘political correctness’ identified his resistance to taking gender issues seriously, either as a man or as a psychotherapist.  Audience members who came up to speak to me later, understood my question and were equally dissatisfied with his reaction.  They were all women.

For (male) journalists too, the idea can simply not occur, that gender is a significant factor when discussing mental health issues.  In an otherwise sensitive article about sportsmen and mental health, immediately following the suicide of cyclist Marco Pantani, journalist Paul Weaver consults an ‘expert’, an academic, Dr. John Kremer from the School of Psychology at the Queens University of Belfast, who ‘attempted to shed light on the subject’ (Weaver, 2004).  Kremer mentions three factors: the link between physical fitness and psychological well-being, and therefore the problem of consequent unfitness in retirement; the problem of coming off steroids; and the lack of forward planning by sportsmen before retirement.  Such a ‘rational’, tick-box list, which identifies each casualty as an individual (and there are many), who just slipped up in the management of his life.  No mention of (élite) masculinity as a factor in the onset of depression, after a career as a high-performing, élite male body (see Sparkes, 1996;1997), where ‘real life is put on hold’ (Weaver, ibid.).   We also get no sense that these men (the male suicides of sport and the academic ‘expert’) have anything in common.

This academic distancing is shocking, not least from someone working in a city which has provided gruelling evidence of normative masculinity as punishing, as a war footing: entrenched masculinities pursued relentlessly via disciplinary control and violence (mainly men on men).  The Ardoyne in Northern Ireland suffered thirteen suicides of young men in the two month period after Christmas 2003.  Some of these young men had been the subject of paramilitary persecution and terrorizing, with subsequent consequences for mental health, prior to suicide (C4 News, 24.02.04).

Anger and its uses.  Aggression and its violations.
“The last thing I want is to be possessed by a sense of injury so exquisitely refined that I register outrage on a daily basis.  Anger is not humanizing.  . . . Probably you will dismiss this as a crank letter from one of those women who go around begging to be offended, but you must understand that I am trying to protect Norah, and her two younger sisters, Christine and Natalie, who want only to be allowed to be fully human.  And you should know, as I set down these words, that I am shaking like a tree of nerves” (Shields, 2003: 221).20

‘If I die, I want you to tell the world what happened to me.  I don’t want other women to suffer as I have suffered.  I want them to be listened to.’  The police in Sonoma County, California did not listen to Maria Teresa Macias.  Her husband killed her on 15 April 1996 (Campbell, 2004: 4).21

Gender attaches to anger in this society.  Girls used to be brought up with an understanding that anger made them ‘ugly’, i.e. unfeminine, unladylike.  (Or was that just white, middle class girls?)  Girls were not expected to express dissatisfaction with their lot.  Boys’ anger was taken-for-granted as boys just being boys, preparing for some kind of dominance or leadership.  Recently, some girls and women have adopted aggressive behaviours, perhaps to demonstrate ‘independence’, to copy or compete with men.  And faced with rapid social change in heterosexual relations, some men are silently bottling up anger.  Anger which remains inchoate and unexamined, produces erratic, dominant and controlling behaviour: the aggression which turns men into abusers / offenders / prisoners.  Whereas angry women are more likely to see themselves as in disarray and despair: as victims.  This is not a fixed scenario:  Fathers4Justice in the UK present themselves as both victims and as lawless aggressors in pursuit of their cause.  Bob Geldorf is a good example of this emotive combination: (celebrity) victim identity fuelled by aggressive, misogynist rhetoric and anti-feminist demands and tactics.  Anger management programmes, using Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, propose ways out of all this dysfunction and destructive behaviour.22  But there are different versions to be had.

In the prison Zoe Williams visited, for her article on the use of anger management work with male prisoners, she found an emphasis on ‘distorted thoughts’ (ibid: 32), which needed ‘rationalising’ (ibid: 36).  This model of self-control almost implies that male prisoners should be discouraged from feeling at all: any feeling could get them into trouble.  There is no mention of key factors in men’s violence:  the burden of normative heterosexual masculinity, the injuries of social class and racism; and that men’s heterosexual masculinity may be rooted in fear of failure to perform appropriately.  There seems little awareness that under pressure to be ‘successfully masculine’, heterosexual men frequently find it difficult to cope with, talk about, and express feelings without being controlling.  Communication skills are limited.   Intimacy is threatening.  Yet these prisoners were being encouraged to give up their usual means of control: ‘You can’t control someone with assertiveness’ (Williams, ibid: 38).

Williams describes the methodology and theory behind CBT as ‘essentially practical- . . . not about delving into anyone’s childhood, . . . or anything else typically associated with talking cures’ (2003: 32).   She refers to Noam Chomsky’s reservations in 1977, about behaviourist therapy providing ‘a palatable ideology for the application of techniques of coercion’.  This implies that CBT ‘teaches people to operate in society without causing trouble and, . . . . teaches them not to strive for fairness, or justice. . . .’ (ibid).  These were serious accusations, but more recent evidence has shown that the CBT cycle of change is not in itself mechanistic  or depoliticizing.

One of the key components of the CBT cycle of change is the importance of thought as a means of identifying experiences, as, for example: hostile or friendly, abusive or supportive, risky or safe, predatory or loving, controlling or nurturing, personal or general.  Within the CBT cycle, thought is seen as having consequences: feelings about what we have identified, how we have understood a situation or action.  This in turn generates behaviour.  So the CBT cycle can be understood as about thought as central to feeling, and not in binary opposition to it.  Thought as part of a creative cycle of awareness and behaviour.   And working-class men who grow up seeing thought and language as the prerogative of élite white men, or (now) educated women, are painfully disadvantaged within this problematic.  Language and speech are not the province of those young men heading into the underclass of the uneducated, untrained, unqualified, unemployed, unemployable, undesirable, whose numbers are increasing, and who fill our prisons.  And men schooled in rationality as masculinity, as emotional control, are likely to view feelings as ‘feminine’, disruptive, and as obstacles to be ‘tamed’.

More than thirty years after Chomsky’s comments, CBT has entered ‘alternative’ therapies and a range of self-help programmes, which are about activation not passification; agency and empowerment not conformity.  The best of these programmes count as equality work, which draws attention to coercion and conformity as undermining, even damaging.  I suggest there are three key factors which have brought about this change since the 1970s.

The first is feminist activism, research and theory / gender awareness / equality discourse and practice.  Women working with women (and men) have seen the potential of gender-aware CBT for domestic violence and abuse programmes, courses in self-esteem, assertiveness, and anger management, for example.  Because of its emphasis on critical self-reflexivity and peer process, with the right facilitator this work enables group members to take risks and develop their own tools for change. It places learning, responsibility and innovation in the hands of individuals within a supportive peer group context.

The rise to prominence of peer group process is the second key factor.  Peer groups displace the conventional leader and led formation, whatever the context: social, business, educational, therapeutic, campaigning.  The structure of authority in the group is dispersed and shared (see footnote 3).

The third key factor is the increasing understanding of and importance attached to ‘Energy’ (Ki / Qi) and spirituality in the west (the mind / body / spirit connection), drawing on holistic Eastern traditions, such as TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine).  The programmes mentioned above may be offered in the context of other work, such as meditation and bodywork, as well as the possibility of one-to-one counselling.  Practioners working in these local contexts, for example a community centre or a healthy living centre, include those employed directly by formal educational institutions.  But they are likely to have more varied life experience and very different personal and professional profiles from those responsible for inhouse assertiveness training or anger management provided as part of a business environment (aimed at career salvage or advancement); or within a prison regime (working with ‘offenders’ in a bid to keep them out of prison).  This difference may be even more marked if staff are ex-army (as many prison officers are).   By contrast, increasing numbers of self-help programme facilitators / service providers / therapists, are now women who have themselves ‘graduated’ from victim to survivor to professional practitioner.23

As more heterosexual men find themselves living lives which resemble women’s (multi-tasking across the public / private divide, putting in longer hours, responding to contingency, living with less clearly defined boundaries, being required to cope routinely with ambiguity, uncertainty and complexity), many are running for cover: abandoning partners and families, for the apparent simplicity of life as an unattached male (with discretionary access to younger women).24  Many (older?) heterosexual men are angry at their (new) lot as men.  Upbringing and education have not prepared them for this hard work, now that ‘wife’ no longer means full-time, home-based ‘carer’ and all-purpose back-up.  Faced with unanticipated personal and social complexity, many lack courage and motivation.  And in these circumstances, perhaps heterosexual men fear the exposure of sharing and learning in peer groups.

The ‘certainties’ of manhood, such as they were, have gone (see Beynon, 2002).  Emotional literacy and communication skills are underdeveloped and under strain, yet more in demand by both women and organisations.  Unsupported and bewildered, feeling abandoned and angry, men may turn to recreational sex, drugs, alcohol, rock ’n’ roll. . . . and too often, violence and murder.  The testimony of one celebrity perpetrator whose behaviour landed him in prison on more than one occasion, captures the sense of out-of-control desperation:

“I had to tell myself that I didn’t have to enrol in the same programme for the next forty years, with the same things dragging me down – the resentments, the unadulterated anger, the mother-fucking rage.  I allowed myself to let go of that shit and it means that I’m no longer a miserable prick” (Downey, cited in Wilde, ibid: 6)

Far from being something incidental:  ‘Anger is a defining interest – your future is defined by revenge strategies . . . . ‘ (Williams, ibid: 39).  Williams conflates anger and aggression, perhaps because her subject here is male prisoners.  (See footnote 22.)  And victims of revenge are mainly women: for example, women whose autonomous actions (whether in choosing a disallowed sexual partner, or in attempting to escape domestic violence and abuse) are seen as a threat to heterosexual male power (see Addley, 2003; Butalia, 2003; Campbell, 2004), and are killed in the name of ‘honour’ or possession; or women in heterosexual relationships who decide that silent servicing is not a life as such, more a sentence, and that education, paid employment, their own income, and time for themselves, are not beyond the bounds of possibility or desire. They may even be prerequisites for mental health and well-being. . .

Working with male prisoners on anger management in a way which does not address issues of heterosexual masculinity, misogyny, racism and homophobia, would seem to be working at a dangerously superficial level, which will not in the long run produce greater safety or satisfaction for the men themselves, their partners and families, or society at large.  The problem of men’s violence towards other men, towards women and children, and towards society, cannot be covered by a set of institutional tick-boxes / government targets.  What counts is the context in which you explore your cycle of change, and why, and here again we see sharp gender differences.  At the moment, CBT for men / male offenders constitutes an intervention.  For (mainly) women in self-help groups, it is an initiative, even an ambitious adventure.

Does it have to be polarised in this way?  Suddenly faced with the trauma of degenerative disease while still a young man, Michael J. Fox eventually took the initiative, and found himself also having to face up to his identity as a man, and his lifestyle as a male celebrity.  He entitled his compelling memoir of this gruelling and continuing journey, Lucky Man.

“I didn’t suddenly burst out of a cocoon of fear. Neither was it a linear progression, an easily followed map of self-discovery. As Joyce [his counsellor] might say, it all came down to showing up for my life – and doing the work” (Fox, 2002: 218).

We should not underestimate how much courage it takes to develop reflexive critical auto/biographical consciousness and responsibility as a man in this society (see Fox, 2002; Jackson, 1990; 2004; Parsons, 1999; 2003).  It may even be more difficult (to get started) if you are not a known abuser, but just a guy overwhelmed by the challenges presented by un/employment and relationships, and struggling (consciously or otherwise) with contemporary, gendered realities in relative social isolation.  Recently, young men (in prison and at home) have been turning on themselves, giving up before they have hardly started, living is so difficult.  To avoid such casualties, as well as the toll on women’s and children’s lives, the supportive care and educational work on contemporary masculinities needs to start with boys as early as possible (see Doyal 2001).

Helping men move away from dependence on controlling behaviour and violence, and/or from falling into self-pity and depression, is a complex, long-term project, probably as complex and long-term as women’s feminist journeys away from deference, self-hatred, fear, internalised shame.  Within the constraints of a prison environment, a start may be made, but follow-up, transitional spaces and opportunities are essential if men are to properly support each other in their transformations and healing.

Life history process: memory, narrative, agency.
“But there is something more, a story from long ago that I will tell you face to face, father to son, when you are older.  It’s a very personal story but it’s part of the picture.  It has to do with the long lines of blood and family, about our lives and how we can get lost in them and, if we’re lucky, find our way out again into the sunlight” (Keane, (1996: 37).  Emphasis added.

We now know, because journalist Fergal Keene has since shared his recovery narrative, that he was alluding here to his own struggles with alcoholism, in the aftermath of his disrupted relationship with his alcoholic father, the actor Éamonn Keane (see Keane, 2006). The evidence of those who have made journeys from abuse and shame, addiction and despair, or lived in their shadow, suggests that we do have to go back as far as is necessary, and that the process cannot be undertaken only ‘in the present’ (a quick massage, the ‘right’ medication).

White American actor Robert Downey Jr. provides an example of one man’s journey from ‘pharmaceutically-fuelled, headline-grabbing mayhem’ (Wilde, 14.11.03), from addictive self-harm and aggression, to healing process and recovery mode – a return to both domestic commitment and creative / professional responsibility.  His testimony points to the deep roots of addictive and self-destructive behaviour.  He grew up in apparent privilege, but asked when his problems started, he says: ‘You’d have to go way, way back’ (ibid).   His pharmaceutical experimentation started before his teens, with ‘the active encouragement of his film producer father, Robert Downey Sr.’. And he is, after all, Robert Downey Jr..  To be  Jr. to a Sr. for most of your adult life must carry intrinsic disadvantages: always in the shadow of the father.  Downey’s recovery exemplifies a whole person process over time, carried out in the supportive company of others, be they specialists (therapists), peers or intimates.

‘That’s not to say that I’m in the clear yet. I might be shifting out of it, but I’m still the same guy that did all that crap’ (cited Wilde, 2003: 6).

The American novelist, James Baldwin, being poor, black, gay in 1950s America, and unhappily adopted, did not grow up in privilege. He also felt this shadow effect, and his first novel ‘was moulded by the painful relationship with his disciplinarian step-father . . . . who repeatedly told his stepson that he was ugly, marked by the devil’ (Field, 2003: 36).  [Emphasis added.]  Like all oppressors / abusers, his father made sure Baldwin experienced his stigma as written on the body.

Similarly, students on the MOWL project (Moving On With Learning) at the University of Liverpool, testify to the destructive impact of labelling on lives.  In their case, the ‘special needs’ label acted as a ‘ball and chain around my neck’, and with it came a whole vocabulary / stream of abuse:  stupid, backward, spazzy, slow, mental, retard.25  Stigma sticks: ‘I feel that pain deep down’ said Terry in his presentation to the Duncan Society in Liverpool.   And when black British footballer, Stan Collymore, spoke about his problems with depression, he too was mocked (Weaver, 2004).  Celebrity afforded exposure, not protection.

For people with learning difficulties, like Bill and Terry, who started off designated as ‘sub-human’, the struggle is not to recover from a downfall, but, now in their forties, ‘simply’ to achieve ‘human’ status and dignity.  Life history process helps in this, and the narrative power of their witness and public telling helps to educate and change those who work alongside them, and those (be they ministers or the general public) who come to listen and learn from them in their public presentations.  These men aspire to humanity before masculinity, and even in that, teach the rest of us something important.

“I used to be afraid to tell this story because it brought memories back . . . . Before I was nervous, I was shy.  Nobody would believe that now” (Terry, MOWL student: 10.12.03).

Black American writer, Toni Morrison, is in no doubt about the importance of our relationship with our past:

“Until one comes to terms with it, the past will be a haunting – something you can’t shake” (cited Jaggi, 2003).

Academic and social worker, Harry Ferguson, cites Judith Herman’s manual, Trauma and Recovery, and suggests her three-stage conceptualization of healing for abuse victims  provides a valuable insight and guide to working with trauma survivors:

“First, victims need safety. Then, once the violence has been stopped and they feel more secure, the task is to help them to remember the full extent of the violation, to mourn for the lost self. The final stage involves integration of a new self and reconnection with wider society” (Ferguson, 2003).26

Confession and intimacy are normally kept beyond the gates of academia, being seen as contaminants of academic rigour, but Ferguson argues that ‘confessional intimacy goes somewhere really important’, and is part of a process of ‘finding a voice and taking back [their] power’.  The process he describes is not something merely ‘technical’, nor some kind of quick fix, but attends to issues of power and powerlessness, including questions of poverty, resources and life-planning.  It is understood that clients are very often dealing with the aftermath of trauma (loss, abuse, violation), and this makes them vulnerable (and open to [further] abuse) but not necessarily helpless.  Bill and Terry (10.12.03) described how the labels made them public property, and legitimated a range of behaviours used against them, such as:  being shouted at, patronised, bullied, ignored, degraded, abused, disrespected, humiliated and dismissed.27

Abuse and violation are instant, whether as an isolated instance, or repeated over time.  Fear, self-loathing, anger, despair, a lack of self-worth, build up over time: hence the importance of looking back from a position of relative safety.28 Mental health activist, Judith Mawer,

describes ‘talking therapy as the only way to lasting recovery’ (10.02.04), and instead of getting herself married with children, as her doctor suggested, she took herself off to do a scriptwriting course as part of her recovery process.  As Morrison said in her Nobel lecture: ‘Narrative is radical, creating us at the very moment it is being created’ (cited Jaggi, 2003).

As a writer, Baldwin also recognized the importance of one’s roots and early beginnings, as both problem and ‘solution’: resources for self-understanding and change; for psychic recovery and creative purpose; for a kind of functionality (not ‘cure’ or problem-free existence), which wards off self-harm and addictive behaviour.  He too cites the significance of narrative and life history process:

Go back to where you started, or as far as you can, examine all of it, travel your road again and tell the truth about it.  Sing or shout or testify or keep it to yourself: but know whence you came  (Go Tell it on the Mountain, 1953, cited Douglas Field, 2003).  Emphasis added.

As all narratives of healing and self-recovery demonstrate, you need a team.  ‘The students made me feel wanted’, said MOWL student Terry about the university students who worked alongside him.  ‘I am a human being’, he said, claiming and celebrating his new identity.

Women’s peer group process.
As the example of Maria Teresa Macias shows, listening and being listened to are vital to survival.  Active listening is at the heart of human relationship, including intimacy: essential to proper conversation and dialogue.  Speaking plays its part in communication and relationship, but speaking not rooted in a listening habit too easily turns to dominance and control; display and arrogance.   Within the current arrangements, many (older?) heterosexual men seem to think listening is a sign of passivity, femininity, inferiority, lack of power.

“Inclusion isn’t enough.  Women have to be listened to and understood.”
“I’ve only had a handful of conversations with men, “ I said.  “Other than Tom.”
“I’ve had about two.  Two conversations with men who weren’t dying to ‘win’ the conversation.”
“I’ve never had one,” said Sally.  “It’s as though I lack the moral authority to enter the conversation.
I’m outside the circle of good and evil”  (Shields, 2003: 116).

As this excerpt from a conversation in Carol Shields’ final novel demonstrates, women’s peer process facilitates the joining in understanding of private experience, social arrangements and structures, and public pressures.  These are intellectual as well as emotional journeys; peer group process is the vehicle; self and society the targets.   Women’s peer process goes on every day, everywhere: face-to-face, by email, on the phone, in the car, on the sidewalk, up a hill, over a meal, in a group, at a conference (but generally, not in the gym).  It nourishes our lives and creativity.  It is therapeutic.  The best group-work resembles this mutual stimulation and nourishment.

Many women write as ‘self-protection’ during times of greatest turmoil and risk; as part of their recovery process; and as self-maintenance: whether as ‘secret’ scribblers, as members of writing groups, and/or on creative writing or scriptwriting courses; and of course, for publication (see Henke 2000; Butler 2000).  When individual women allude to this, they invariably say: ‘It kept / keeps me sane’.  Others use the visual arts and crafts in the same way.  We know in our bones the link between creativity and mental health and well-being: the importance of creative routine, repair and renewal.  In this process, ‘art’ and ‘therapy’ are not separate or opposed, but fused.29  Baldwin too made love and creativity his ‘redemption’ and healing, in his search for the means to function as a human being not damaged beyond repair.  This is everyone’s odyssey.  He understood: it is the artist in each of us that knows about reparation, regeneration and healing; how to move from damage to creativity / love. 

Working alongside women in five different self-help groups / courses which drew on CBT, I witnessed women growing in self-understanding, social awareness and courage, just as I had previously witnessed women in higher education, on communication studies and women’s studies degree programmes, achieving personal / intellectual change.  These ‘training programmes’ are able to take women’s experience openly as the core of the therapeutic, consciousness-raising, educational, peer process.  By contrast, inside academia the taboo on experiential learning is still very much in place, and women’s studies students and tutors, for example, have to work within its constraints on a daily basis.  Feminist academics are aware of the stigma attached to such work (see Caplan, 1994; Morley & Walsh, 1995); and the danger (see Lee, 2002).

Damage, abuse, loss, a sense of powerlessness, can lead any of us to ask: Tell me what to do, tell me what to think, to take away the pain and danger.  Give me the recipe.  Like going to the doctor to be cured, this invites the professional / therapist, alternative or otherwise, to be the authority figure, to direct and control.  But that is not my understanding of therapeutic process, educational process or creative process, and women’s self-care and healing is all these, as well as being a highly political process, with considerable social and political consequences, not just personal, psychological outcomes (see Butler, 2000; Cardinal, 1991; 1993; 1996; hooks, 1993; Walsh, 1997; 2007).

In conclusion
The historian, CLR James, who championed [Toni] Morrison in Britain, found Sula (her 1974 novel) astonishing and revealing in its implication that the “real, fundamental human difference is not between black and white but between men and women” (Jaggi, 2004).

The increasingly sexualized context of the stereotypes of trauma, damage and the therapeutic in society produce damaging and differential consequences for women and men.  Within a politics of health perspective, gender can be seen as the most denied and the most pertinent factor in the alleviation of suffering, and the development of good mental health as a social as well as personal asset.  A more co-ordinated and diverse approach, rooted in the experiential evidence of lives and testimony, has consequences for professional identity, practice and training.  Narrative is a key evidential and healing strategy in the field, as opposed to ‘rational’ tick-boxes and instrumentalism.  And there is now evidence that gender-aware CBT can be part of a healing, creative process, as seen in women’s self-help peer groups.  Women’s experience and initiatives, as service users and providers, are mapping ways forward, and these creative initiatives offer heterosexual men a potential template for their own development and healing strategies.

The therapeutic / communication skills field is a modern hybrid, which brings together the technical, performative and cultural focus of language and communication work, with the emotional and intellectual self-reflexivity and creativity of therapeutic approaches to identity, trauma and social effectiveness.  Whether this is informed by a conscious, responsible politics of education / health / well-being, will depend on the professional facilitator’s own sense of identity, her/his sexual politics, as well as personal / professional skills and commitment.   This is because first, we are all implicated in the crisis.   Second, the problem of gender is not just a matter of gender difference or differentials (access, provision, respect, and opportunity).  Heterosexual men’s fear of femininity / women / mothers persists in some quarters; the cultural linking of sex, violence and male heterosexual desire has surged; the urge to dominate in the face of overwhelming desire / lack remains damaging; the slag / bitch / cunt mindset, which (young) women are now being encouraged to adopt in the name of ‘equality’, and in turn recommending to other / older women, as a mark of ‘progress’ and ‘power’30 is surely no answer.  All these factors make for a complex and volatile ‘crime scene’.

In addition (and like most young men), most young women are still denied an upbringing and education which provide them with an understanding of how they arrived at where they are now (individually and collectively as women), and the economic, social and cultural factors which continue to shape girls’ and women’s lives and prospects.  This unavoidably produces ignorance and social vulnerability.  Or is it possible that ignorance affords protection, enabling women to be and do in new and liberated ways, not determined by the exigencies of male heterosexuality; by still male-dominated, masculinist, domestic, social and working environments; by the unrelenting onslaught of advertising, fashion and popular culture; and by the escalating and widespread routine violence against all kinds of women?   Can ignorance be armour?  Maybe, short-term.

Narrative resources to support change are never written on a clean slate.   Commenting on the dilemma of journalists when China started to open up, ‘like a starving child devouring everything within reach indiscriminately’ (Xinran, 2003: 216), after years as a closed and authoritarian society, Xinran saw ‘a body racked by the pain of indigestion’ (ibid.).

“But it was a body whose brain they could not use, for China’s brain had not yet grown the cells to absorb truth and freedom.  The conflict between what they knew and what they were permitted to say created an environment in which their mental and physical health suffered ” (ibid.).  Emphasis added.

‘The words to say it’ (Cardinal, 1993) are rooted in our bodies, our lives, our relations, our imaginations.  We work together with the materials at our disposal, to create the (narrative) resources we need to go on: this is our co/creativity.  Life process itself.  To forge alliances, to build dialogue and good practice across demarcations, ‘restoring intimacy across social chasms’ (Morrison, cited Jaggi, 2004) is a tall order.  It means challenging academic disdain, media contempt and institutional instrumentalism where we find it.  Owning and flexing our hybridity is part of this process.  For once you acquire a label, you acquire a fixed and singular identity, as Judith Mawer found out.  When it came to returning to her job, she was told ‘either you’re sick or you’re well’ (Mawer, ibid).  Tough if that does not describe your reality, and you want a phased re-entry to paid employment.  While the professional or service provider must allow themselves to say, ‘Sometimes I’m effective, sometimes I’m not’; we all have to be able to say, ‘Sometimes I’m well, sometimes I’m not’.  That’s the reality we share.

Addley, Esther (6.02.04) ‘Fathers who kill’, Guardian G2: 2/3.
Adlam, D (17.02.90) Television News and the Cultivation of Otherness.  Collected Original Resources in Education, cited Information Sheet 1, Headlines: Mental Health Media.
Baldwin, James (1964) Go Tell it on the Mountain.  London, Transworld Publishers. A Corgi Book.
Benjamin, Alison (05.01.2005) ‘Out in the lead.  Interview with Peter Beresford’.  Society Guardian : 6/7.
Beynon, John (2002) Masculinities and Culture.  Buckingham & Philadelphia, Open University Press.
Butalia, Urvashi (2003) ‘When Culture Kills’. New Internationalist, winter.
Butler, Avril (2000) ‘Only for my-self: Creative autobiography as an intimate therapeutic medium’, Auto/Biography, Vol VIII, Nos 1 & 2: 49-56.
Campbell, Jennifer (03/04.04) ‘Stop violence against women’.  Amnesty, Issue 124: 4-7 & 18-19.
Caplan, Paula J. Lifting a Ton of Feathers: A Woman’s Guide to Surviving in the Academic          World.  London & Toronto, University of Toronto Press.
Cardinal, Marie (1991)  Devotion and Disorder. London, The Women’s Press.
——-                 (1993)  The Words to Say It.  London, The Women’s Press.
——-                 (1996)  In Other Words.  London, The Women’s Press.
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Ferudi, Frank (2003) Therapy Culture: Cultivating Vulnerability in an Uncertain Age.  London, Routledge.
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Fox, Michael J. (2002) Lucky Man. A memoir. Ebury Press.
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Gould, Mark, Prasad, Raekha & Benjamin, Alison (11.02.04) ‘No holding back’, Society Guardian: 8/9.
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hooks, bell (1993) Sisters of the Yam: Black Women and Self-Recovery.  London, Turnaround.
————- (2000) Where We stand:  Class Matters. New York & London, Routledge.
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Jaggi, Maya (15.11.03) ‘Profile: Toni Morrison.  Solving the Riddle’, Guardian Review: 20, 22, 23.
Johnson, Mark (2008) Wasted. London: Sphere.
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——–             (10.02.04) ‘Blue Notes: Yoga could be my salvation – it has helped me lose a stone, put a smile on my face and halved the drugs dose’.  Guardian G2: 11.
Keane, Fergal (1996)  Letter to Daniel: Despatches from the Heart. London, Penguin Books / BBC Books.
——–             (2006) All of the People. A Memoir. London, New York, Toronto & Sydney: Harper Perennial.
Lee, Deborah (1.11.02) ‘Contrapower sexual harassment and the feminist academic’.  Conference paper, WHEN (Women in Higher Education Network) Conference, Coventry University.
Meikle, James (11.02.04) ‘Cut down on tranquilliser prescriptions, GPs warned’, The Guardian.
Morley, Louise & Walsh, Val (eds) (1995)  Feminist Academics: Creative Agents for Change. London, Taylor & Francis.
Parris, Matthew (02.04)  BBC or C4?
Parsons, Tony (1999) Man and Boy. London, HarperCollins.
——–                         (2003) Man and Wife. London, HarperCollins.
Rutherford, Jonathan (2000)  I am No Longer Myself Without You.  London, Flamingo / HarperCollins.
Shields, Carol (1998)  Larry’s Party.  London & New York, Penguin Books.
——–             (2003)  Unless.  London, Fourth Estate.
Shifron, Tash (03.03.04) ‘A friend on the other end’.  Society Guardian: 8.
Sparkes, Andrew C. (1996) ‘The Fatal Flaw: A Narrative of the Fragile Body/Self’, Qualitative Inquiry:
——–             (1997) ‘An Elite Body, Illness, and the Fragmentation of Self: A Collaborative Exploration’, Auto/Biography, Vol. 1, 2, 3: 27-37.
Walker, Alice (1984) ‘Saving the life that is your own: The importance of models in the artist’s life’, In Search of our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose.  London, The Women’s Press: 3-14.  Also p xi/xii.
Walsh, Val (1997) ‘Interpreting Class: Auto/biographical Imaginations and Social Change’ in Mahony, Pat & Zmroczek (eds) Class Matters: ‘Working-class’ Women’s Perspectives on Social Class. London, Taylor & Francis: 152-174.
——–             (2002) ‘Equal Opportunities Without “Equality”: Redeeming the Irredeemable’ in Howie, Gillian & Tauchert, Ashley (eds) Gender, Teaching and Research in Higher Education: Challenges for the 21st Century.  Hampshire, Ashgate: 33-45.
——-              (2003a)  ‘Against the Odds: On being useful / hopeful / productive / effective / inspirational. . . . beyond the millennium’.  Panel presentation: writing and research for and by women in higher education.  WHEN (Women in Higher Education Network) Conference, Coventry University (02.11.02).  See WHEN Newsletter, spring / summer 2003: 8-15.
——-               (2003b) ‘From reproductive to productive / from “sexy thing” to Subject:  Re-viewing women’s health and well-being’.  Duncan Society event ( 26.11.03):  Saving Lives / Changing Lives: Women, Education and Health, Blackburne House, Liverpool.
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1 Myths of Madness, a film made by Headlines: Mental Health Media, was shown as part of a Duncan Society meeting at FACT, Liverpool (10.02.04), focussing on mental health issues.  Contributors on camera are presented first in their professional, work-related roles / identities, for example as academic, service provider or researcher.  Later, the same people identify themselves in terms of their experience of mental health problems and as service users.  In terms of the demarcation ‘them and us’, three themes from the film are particularly relevant at the outset: ‘1 in 4 people will experience severe mental distress at some time in their lives’ (cited Mental Illness: The Fundamental Facts, 1993), produced by the Mental Health Foundation; ‘Life experiences and mental distress – discrimination is bad for your mental health’; (Headlines notes on the film); and ‘In the last two decades of the community care policy the number of homicides committed by mentally ill people has not increased while the number committed by others has more than doubled’ (Finding a Place: A Review of the Mental Health Services, Audit commission, HMSO).

The Duncan Society in Liverpool is a public health debating society, which brings together professionals, service providers, service users and other members of the general public in monthly meetings.  Speakers include international and national experts and activists, as well as local and community experts and activists.  Emphasis is placed on full and open dialogue and debate.

2 While this paper focuses on gender as its primary theoretical and political construct, this is not meant to suggest that, for example, social class and racism are seen as separate or excluded categories of difference and disadvantage.  Rather that they intersect and are never ‘isolated’ from one another.  See, for example, the working-class community reported by journalist Matthew Parris on his return to the North East, in which the men had disappeared to leave the women to bring up the children in an environment shaped by extremes of poverty, unemployment and environmental decline.  The sense of abandonment was palpable. Parris noted that, twenty years after his last visit as a new, young MP, all the adults and children he interviewed were on serious levels of medication (tranquillisers, anti-depressants), without which they felt they could not cope with daily life.  See also ‘No holding back’ in which past and present service users and practitioners share their experiences of institutional racism in NHS mental health services. (Gould et al, 11.02.04).  Also Francis (11.02.04).  The problem of long term tranquilliser ab/use is highlighted in Meikle (11.02.04)

3 Peer group process does not refer to the composition of a group (i.e. same age or occupation), but to the relational dynamic of the group, which is based on everyone entering the group process as equal in terms of mutual respect and dignity, and what they might contribute.  It seeks to leave aside the parent / child structure of authority, and assumptions of dominance and submission, of hierarchy, as ‘natural’, inevitable or desirable in group process.  Peer process thus invites and facilitates a conscious, intuitive and responsible working with and through differences of identity and circumstance (such as age, affluence, experience, ethnicity, gender, sexual preference, social class), and differences of values (such as religion and politics), usually in pursuit of some ‘third thing’, such as skills acquisition; social and personal understanding; campaigning goals and strategies.

4 Particularly since the late 1960s, experiential and organisational initiatives within individual lives have also led to what have become enduring projects and organisations, which, in terms of their impact on lives, must be counted within both the therapeutic and political fields.  The London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard, which celebrates 30 years of action and care in 2004, is one such.  See Shifron, 2004.

5 Professor Ashton is Director of the North West Regional Health Authority, and was chairing the Duncan Society event at FACT, Liverpool (see footnote 1 above).

6 See Walsh (2003a; 2003b). Also Doyal (3.11.01) for a summary which provides some general ‘sex, gender, health’ background to the specific themes of this paper.

7 See Equal Opportunities Commission (July 2003), ‘”75 Years On”: Equality for women and men today?’

8 ‘Good stories’ are sensational, ‘shocking’, as the initial coverage by the UK tabloid press, of black boxer, Frank Bruno’s sudden removal to a psychiatric hospital demonstrated.  Such ‘good stories’ are above all about selling papers, not covering issues.  ‘On the news media – bulletins on BBC1 and ITV – of all the people with mental health problems that are presented, 70% of them are associated with violence’ (Adlam, 17.02.90).

9 These include talking therapies (psychiatric and/or therapeutic counselling; life history process; health narratives; trauma narratives); bodywork (massage, reiki, pilates, shiatsu, Qi Gong, yoga, as well as dancing, running, swimming, gym workouts); spiritual practices (meditation, chanting); other endorphin-inducing methods, including art and craftwork, film-going, theatre, performance, etc.; nutritional approaches; and finally, but not least, self-help groups, peer groups, networking groups.  This range of therapeutic practices / services demonstrates differences in what would previously have been referred to as diagnosis and treatment.  Avoiding this terminology, I suggest four approaches to life crisis / mental health problems, which in turn shape our therapeutic journeys / decisions:  numb the pain, make me forget; help me remember, understand and mourn; repair the damage, renew my strength; feed my fire, ignite my spirit / ambition, activate my connection to the wider world.

10 Robert Downey Jr, interview, Wilde (2003); and Michael J. Fox’s memoir (2002).  See also the recent interview with Peter Beresford, ‘the first “out” mental health service user to become a professor’ (Benjamin: 2005), as professor of social policy and a director of the Centre for Citizen Participation at Brunel University: ‘Historically, social policy has been about those who solve problems and those who have problems, and never the twain shall meet’.

11 See Walsh (2003b).

12 It is also possible to graduate with few or no tools of consciousness regarding the workings of society.  Since the early 1990s, new managerialism and its business ethos have shifted universities and many degree courses towards the confines of the narrowly technical and ‘specialist’, without contextualisation or the development of critical dialogue.  See Crace (2004); Walsh (2002); Howie & Tauchert (2002).

13 Alice Walker’s famous womanist claim / exhortation (1984); ‘Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender’, see p xi/xii.

14 See for example, Mike Nichols’ TV adaptation of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, shown in the UK on C4, in two parts, at 9 00 pm –12 30 am, 7 & 8.02.04. See Fanshawe (05.02.04).

15 Does self-harming further exhibit the impact of gender differences and distortion?   Are women self-harmers, by ‘taking control’ of their bodies, by taking action against their ‘femininity’, ‘offenders’ in society’s eyes and masculinised in the process?   And are men self-harmers perceived as ‘feminised’ by making themselves visibly ‘victims’ and done to, rather than instrumental ‘action man’?  Both appear to muddy the neat gender binary, masculine / feminine, and in doing so, illuminate both ‘sides’ and their binary relation.

16 The fact that the majority of male prisoners are now black, illustrates how gender, race and mental health issues are imbricated.

17 See for example, Jackson (1998); (1990); (2004); Rutherford (2000); Stoltenberg (1990).  Male journalists and novelists have also started to explore this terrain, e.g. Parsons (2002; 2003).  See also Shields’ novel (1998).  And The Guardian has introduced several columns written as experiential, as well as analytical pieces by men, on disability, prison, alcoholism and depression, and other health issues.

18 See for example, Rowe, Dorothy (1987) Beyond Fear.  London: Fontana/Collins.

19 The occasion was a day conference on World Mental Health Day (10.10.03): New Approaches to People with a Diagnosis of  “Personality Disorder”.  The Wirral Mind Fountain Project, Birkenhead.

20This is excerpted from a letter written by the narrator (mother / wife / writer) to Dennis Ford-Helpern, in Carol shields’ complex and life-affirming novel, Unless.  Ford-Helpern has written a book about moral problems, in which ‘All the problem-solvers in your examples are men, all fourteen’ (ibid: 219).  The narrator writes to protest, in the nicest way possible:  ‘I don’t think you intend to be discouraging in your book.  I think you have merely overlooked those who are routinely overlooked, that is to say half the world’s population’ (ibid: 220).  This is a book of multiple strands and meanings, one of which is what it means to be ‘real, ‘good’, ‘moral’, ‘sane’; and the conditions for and obstacles against these states of consciousness and being.  Shields offers us the means to explore ourselves, our world, in all our vulnerability, frailty, and strength.  We accompany her characters to the edge and beyond.  See also the work of Algerian-born, French writer, Cardinal (1991; 1993; 1996).  The Words to Say It (1993) has been described as ‘world-renowned as the most important book ever written on the personal experience of psychoanalysis and the journey through therapy to recovery’ (The Women’s Press, 1996).

22 Anger is an important message from the self to the self, identifying a (potential) problem: whether about public, social justice issues, or personal affront or abuse.  It is an act of identification and self-protection: a warning.  Left unexpressed, unchannelled in appropriate and creative ways (for example, through language and/or public activism), it festers, and corrodes self-esteem and relationships.  This inhibition is a mark of a sense of powerlessness and fear (the unavailability of language, perhaps; and/or the fear of speaking, of making one’s needs known).  When people (including journalists) talk about anger, most of the time they mean aggression, which is different.  Aggression is a form of attack / dominance; it is violent and destructive (whether physical or verbal); it produces fear and intimidation in others; and is therefore also a violation of others.  Anger in itself is none of these.  So ‘anger management’ may be both a misnomer and misleading.  But bottled-up anger can lead to aggression.

23 The Rotunda Community College was a feminist-inspired, political initiative, set up in Liverpool in the 1980s, to provide a safe and stimulating place for local women to explore health issues together, and take up educational opportunities and skills training.  Today, its emphasis has shifted towards alternative / complementary therapies, and it has recently set up Rotunda Angels, a business run by fully trained, former College students, offering ‘treatments aimed at improving well-being and lessening tension’ (Rotunda Angels information leaflet).   Such ‘upward mobility’ can be seen as a feminist trajectory: moving from isolation, poverty and low self-esteem towards self-determination and greater financial independence.  It can also be seen as a retreat from political activism into the ‘pamper’ industry; an industry based on a recognition that many women are still having a very bad time living their lives; that more women have greater spending power today; that we will be allowed to address each other as service providers and service users, without opposition, because we thereby establish a new, expanding and profitable market segment; that the pamper end of the therapeutic field, can be conducted without politics (as a turning-away from the sources of pain and damage), as opposed to the education / healing / recovery end, which is more designed to help develop a politics of health and well-being perspective, enabling women to make life changes which support survival and well-being.  Another important difference, is that massage, for example, is individual and private; the self-help group is semi-public and collective.  These observations should not be taken to deny the value of bodywork (I trained as a shiatsu practitioner in the 1990s); but like the remedial and therapeutic field itself, we are variously positioned as active and passive within therapies, as ‘patients’ or partners, and that remains an important distinction.   I am aware that yet another industry is being built both on the back of women’s exhaustion, pain and desperation, and some women’s increasing affluence.  This is a political issue, not a medical matter: alternative therapies can act to disperse us as ‘consumers’ and clients, as opposed to facilitating collective awareness and action ‘as women’.  Any chance of a feminist constituency could be ‘pampered to death’ in the confines of the steam room and sauna, or on the massage bench.  While we may come away feeling more relaxed and invigorated, some alternative therapies serve to perpetuate denial, which as we know, is a short-term strategy while we gather our strength to do what has to be done.  A similar move appears to have taken place at The Health Place, Blackburne House, Liverpool, which offers ‘Holistic Health and Fitness for Women of all Ages’ (information leaflet).  Another feminist-inspired initiative, even down to its two women architects, when it opened about twenty years ago, Blackburne House was seen by many women in the city as the long-hoped-for hub for women’s networking and feminist-inspired education and training.  We were not thinking ‘creative nails’ (a recent event), more creative minds.  Has the politics bled out of these two inspired feminist projects from the 1980s?   In 2005 neither the Rotunda nor Blackburne House printed its information on recycled paper, so I assume they have no ethical / environmental policy.  Indications of a broader, environmental, internationalist perspective, such as has grown up in the UK since the 1980s, for example in relation to using local, organic and/or Fair Trade products, are not evident.  Any women’s business must beware commodifying women for its own purposes.

24 See Parsons (1991):  ‘But now I got it. Now I could understand the attraction.  Men of my age like younger women because the younger woman has fewer reasons to be bitter. . . .  It was cruel but true. The younger woman is far less likely to have had her life fucked up by some man. . . . ‘ , p 211.  See also Beynon, ‘Masculinities and the notion of crisis’ and ‘Millenium masculinity’ in Beynon (2002):  75-97 & 122-143.

25 The MOWL project at the University of Liverpool brings undergraduates together with students previously designated with learning difficulties, and left to languish in day-care centres.   MOWL is committed to their students rights to: choices, community participation, relationships, respect, rights as adults; and to this end provides support and opportunities for learning and achievement.  E-mail

26 And aggressors (like Robert Downey Jnr.) are first victims. See Mark Johnson’s (2008) account of his desolate childhood; his drug-fuelled youthful criminality and general love-lack; the trail of human casualties; and his path, from the age of thirty, out of chaotic behaviour and self-loathing, towards connection with others and wider society.

27 The new Mental Health Act introduces new labels, such as Anti-Social Personality Disorder, to identify those who are dangerous.  See Personality Disorder:  No longer a diagnosis of exclusion (23.01.03)

28 We have seen, in the recent surge of testimony from abuse victims, from residential homes in the UK, and the Catholic Church in the USA and Ireland, for example, that it can take many years, almost a lifetime in some cases, before survivors feel able to bear witness to their own and others’ systematic and often prolonged abuse by those in authority over them.  This measure of sufficient safety is not achieved individually, but collectively.

29 Speaking at a meeting of the University of Liverpool Creative Writing Society for Lifelong Learning, Tim Diggles of the Federation of Worker Writers noted a shift amongst its writers since the Federation was set up in 1976, from ‘anger to creativity’ (2.03.04).  The Federation had been male-dominated in its early days, and it is therefore possible to link this shift to the greater participation of women, as well as the passing of time and changes in the social and political climate in this period, which of course encompasses the Thatcher Years (1979-198 ).  This shift in emphasis and purpose would seem to echo the trajectory of the Rotunda Community College and Blackburne House, discussed in

footnote 23 above.  Anger has been historically important for working-class men’s politics.  Does the power and pleasure of ‘creativity’ enable people to throw off victimhood and/or channel anger differently?  Is this a turning away from the traditional politics of the left, and/or a redefining of politics and purpose?  Is this ‘feminization’ retreat or advance?  Certainly, moving away from anger as a motivational drive is significant, and I got the impression that in the Federation of Worker Writers, this shift did not just apply to the women.

30 This recent conversation with a young Norwegian woman highlighted what are probably both generational and cultural issues: we disagreed that this was misogynist language and therefore off-limits to women.  It is also a question of experience and education: by this I mean that, if you do not know any women’s / feminist history, feminist sociology and anthropology (cross-cultural knowledge), for example, it is all too easy to deny their importance for women today, and to believe that as young women you can create a ‘clean slate’.  (But saying it does not make it so.)

val walsh.  2004 / 2005

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.

Thinking through and beyond ‘sexism’:

Thinking through and beyond ‘sexism’:

Reflections on the challenge for the ‘Left’ (and willing others).

 Val Walsh

This essay is a plea to give misogyny and heterosexism the boot: to give the same concerted attention our society (and latterly Liverpool) has rightly moved to give to racism and homophobia.[1] In Liverpool, these shifts have come on the back of violence, murder and grief: attacks on young black men and young gay men; for example, the racist murder of Anthony Walker in 2005 (b1987)[2] and the homophobic murder of Michael Causer in 2008 (b1989).[3] But the routine assault, rape and murder of girls and women in the city region, whether in their homes, in a taxi or on the street (notably between Friday evening and Sunday morning)[4] has failed to ignite the same widespread horror, revulsion or publicity.  And civic concern and action remains scattered through the various women’s groups and organisations that try to pick up the pieces after the violence.

Bonding rooted in misogyny and heterosexism.

Entrenched, all-male environments, whether football, the military, the City, the trade unions or Parliament, are sub-cultures that have variously institutionalised élitist, sexist, racist, homophobic language and behaviour, designed to perpetuate hierarchy, dominance and submission; and these practices have remained largely hidden, unscrutinised and unchallenged until relatively recently, in the wake of C20 and C21 anti-racism, the American Civil Rights Movement, post colonial theory and politics; and sexual politics (Women’s Liberation and Gay Liberation movements).

In media and political circles, this largely remains the case, particularly for gender issues. For example, in a recent discussion chaired by Samira Ahmed[5] contributors were invited to compare the relative merits of the Olympics (feelgood fair play and harmony) and UK football (violence, sexism, racism, homophobia, etc. and inflated financial rewards). The discussion floundered and was ultimately superficial, being hampered by two (connected) factors: first, contributors seemed unaware they were not comparing like with like; second, there was no gender analysis brought to bear on the issues under discussion.

There was no reference to the fact that Olympic athletes are a collection of mixed and diverse people, regarding gender, class, culture, ethnicity, sexual preference, etc., whereas footballers constitute a sub culture made up of all male teams with a notably heterosexist vibe, a narrower social class base, and recurring problems with racism, amongst both players and fans. The key factor surely in addressing the phenomena of male violence, racism, misogyny, homophobia in British football, is the issue of masculinity  (NB working-class and/or celebrity) and the problem of a men-only players and managers institution sitting uneasily astride its working-class roots and contemporary neoliberal, for profit, celebrity culture, which has legitimised these attitudes and behaviours for too long and which continues to ‘protect its own’ when a public crisis blows up, and generally resist change (censure and/or regulation). Heterosexist masculinity and its misogyny have so far been kept off the agenda for change in UK football, as they were kept out of this TV debate.[6]

Meanwhile, another male-dominated institution is feeling the strain. Reflecting on the latest attempt by the General Synod of the Church of England to decide whether to allow women to become bishops, Dr. Giles Fraser, priest-in-charge at St Mary’s Newington in south London,[7]  reports that:

 The current bishops didn’t think the proposed new legislation as it stood afforded sufficient protection to              those who think a ‘”woman bishop is an ontological impossibility”’. [8]

This, he observes, is ‘commonly referred to as a “deep theological conviction” – though the difference between this conviction and common or garden misogyny has never fully been explained’.[9]

AndBea Campbell wrote recently, on the occasion of the election of the first ever woman leader of the TUC, Frances O’Grady, about the dismal track record of the trade unions in the UK: ‘wrought in the image of men’, where ‘institutionalized sexism has been part of the Labour movement’.[10] It is a history of resisting and containing women’s influence and opportunities (notably, working-class women and women of colour; and stigmatising middle-class women) in the world of paid employment; and worse.

This is the back story of many older men on the left (Freedland’s generational fault-line[11]); the culture within which their politics has been forged and their manliness exercised. Just like in the organisations and institutions the unions were set up to oppose, patriarchal relations within the trade union movement have entailed the subjugation of men by men, not just women by men. O’Grady’s unopposed election signifies a shift in attitudes and values, affording a moment of optimism. 

These examples further demonstrate the gendered continuity over time and across social class differences in the UK, with regard to the lack of value placed on women by men’s organisations and institutions, and the role of patriarchy and its twin engines, misogyny and heterosexism, in perpetuating gender-based exploitation and injustice: the resistance to allowing women to ‘get too close’ (beyond the bedroom) on our terms.

And while the examples of routine, extreme and overt sexism experienced and witnessed by writer and broadcaster Bidisha[12] on her first visit to Palestine in 2011, could be viewed as culturally specific evidence, they nonetheless face the western woman reader with both a sense of recognition of behaviours still familiar here in the public domain (p27, 57,91,93, 94/5), for example:

[A colleague] asks him a question about his work. He stares at her in loathing for five seconds Then he answers with one word and immediately goes back to talking to a man – any man’ (p91/2).

A sense of shock, at behaviours now thought to be removed from UK streets and workplaces (p17, 83, 84/5), for example:

I’m talking about the shouts, leers, stares, tongue-clicks, whistles, jeers, beeps and good old-fashioned hounding (p83).[13]  [Reminiscent of the UK Parliament?]

And, on reflection, some behaviours not yet uncommon enough:

The sloppy-lipped facial gestures, slimy handshake and unwanted touching (p85).

While it is true that, as Sara Khan[14] notes, following the murder of 17 year old Safilea Ahmed by her parents in Warrington, Cheshire, ‘ethnic minority women can face multiple barriers and injustices: racism in society, and misogyny within their homes and communities’,[15] as a society we must resist the desire of sections of the media, the political establishment and extra-parliamentary bigots (such as the BNP and the EDL[16]) to make racist capital from such shocking situations. Whatever the ethnicity or social class of the perpetrators, it is misogyny that drives predatory sexual and gender-based violence and abuse, including turning it into a business opportunity, such as the trafficking of girls and women, the grooming of girls, and lap dancing clubs. And the misogyny that Muslim women are subjected to will not (as Khan, perhaps inadvertently, seems to imply) be confined to their homes and community, but will also be encountered in the wider society.

‘Whore’, ‘slut’, ‘slag’, ‘bitch’ were among the insults secretly filmed on the streets in Brussels by Sofie Peeters.[17]  At the same time, the men’s sexual harassment included asking for sex. In other words, what is desired is sex with a ‘whore’ / ‘slut’ / ‘slag’ / ‘bitch’  (perhaps, in this case, white European or the woman whose head is not covered), thereby neatly combining racism and misogyny.  For these men, sex is ‘dirty’: both taboo and obsession; wielded as power and violence against girls and women.[18]

Stieg Larsson, pre-eminent Swedish anti-fascist writer and activist, and described by his biographer and former colleague, Jan-Erik Pettersson, as ‘a conscious feminist‘,[19] became convinced that ‘feminism and anti-racism were linked’.[20] He contrasted the media and political coverage of the murder in 2002 of Fadime Sahindal, a young, Swedish Kurdish woman, by her father, and the murder of 22 year old Melissa Nordell from Âkersberga, ‘who was ill-treated, tortured with a stun gun, subjected to sexual abuse and finally suffocated by her former boyfriend’.[21] Larsson wrote: ‘there was no attempt to explain this murder in cultural terms. Such reasoning is exclusively reserved for “immigrants”, “Kurds” or “Muslims”’.[22]

Pettersson’s account of Larsson’s public persona, his ‘conscious feminism’, relentless anti-fascist activism, investigative journalism and, finally, culminating in The Millennium Trilogy[23] and the creation of the unforgettable character of Lisbeth Salander, ‘a dream of omnipotence in the shape of a victim of violence’[24], conveys  Larsson’s holistic grasp of issues that others on the Left and Right preferred to keep apart; what I am here referring to as the hate-and-fear package of fascist ideology and its ‘claim’ on mainstream thinking. Pettersson mentions the impact of Theweleit’s two volumes about the Freikorps, and how extensively it was reviewed at the time, in the late 1970s (when Larsson would have been in his mid 20s). His summary (lucid, disturbing, poignant even) makes clear the relevance of Theweleit’s research and theorising of fascism and masculinity, for Larsson’s own political activism and (subsequently) the writing of TheMillennium Trilogy:

What Theweleit was chiefly interested in was men’s attitude to sex and their complex relationship with   women and women’s bodies. How their concepts of purity and motherhood were at odds with a      compelling and anxiety-ridden sexuality: everything that they cannot admit, cannot talk about, but that     bursts out in extreme situations of violence and lack of social inhibition in which these men find      themselves, expressed in abusive fantasies directed at those defined as the enemy, and most especially at women.[25]

It is a terrible indictment, over 40 years after Theweleit’s publications, that Pettersson’s statement stands as testimony to the extent that this analysis has remained ‘specialist’; and its consequences for mainstream society and politics largely ignored. But this could be about to change.

The mass murder perpetrated in the name of militant Norwegian nationalism by Anders Behring Breivik  (white and middle class) in Oslo and Utøya island in 2011, that left 77 mainly young Labour Party members dead, and had been five years in the planning, has culminated in a verdict of guilty, that has consequences beyond those of simple justice.[26]  Because the Court refused to allow a plea of insanity, ‘the Breivik verdict means the hard right cannot distance itself from his rhetoric of hate.’[27] (Emphasis added.) Psychiatrist Tad Tietze argues that this ‘clarifies the connection between his crimes and how rightwing ideologies have infiltrated an apparently “sane” mainstream discourse’ (drawing inspiration from, in the UK, the likes of Melanie Phillips, Mark Steyn, Pamela Geller and the EDL). As a consequence:

This is a problem that cannot be expunged simply by labelling it as mad, but must be tackled as the political threat it is.[28]

Stieg Larsson understood this as a young anti-fascist activist in the 1970s, and it fuelled his activism and his writing, including The Millennium Trilogy.Most people are likely to recognise that the social context of the Lisbeth Salander character is that ‘the defenceless trapped in the claws of the powerful have usually had no other choice than to submit’.[29] The cultural and political significance of Larsson’s creation is that she confronts and overturns this reality, and therein lies the personal/political subversive power and therapeutic imaginary of this character, especially for victims of violence and abuse, of whom there are many:[30]


             [But] for Salander the whole point is not to submit under any circumstances. Her story is a fantasy on how              the most oppressed and abused can become invincible if they do not allow themselves to be broken.[31]

This fierce moral and physical determination/desperation to survive and thrive[32] lies at the heart of all liberatory struggles, not least the feminist project. And avoiding being broken is not simply an individual effort, but a collective achievement.

John Harris points to the difference between politics and cutural action (and their relative strengths and purpose within social struggles):

             Politics is about increment and compromise; in the cultural sphere, you are free to be as exacting and       impossible as you please, and thereby say and do things that the moment actually demands.[33][Emphasis   added.]

This is what Larsson did in his work / activism, and in turn, he understood the power of crime fiction for his political purposes. Pettersson describes the Trilogy as:

             not least an exposition of female suppression as society’s permanent legacy, perpetuated by thosein        positions of respectability or authority. . . .  and of the everyday disparagement of women, which has the     potential to flare up into outbursts of raging hatred’.[34] [Emphasis added.]

In the home, on the street. . . . Or on stage.

At the internationally renown culturefest that is Edinburgh each August, Tanya Gold reports that at the Edinburgh comedy festival 2012 ‘there are rape and domestic violence jokes bouncing through the town (sic)’.[35]  As entertainment and tourist attraction for some; as sexual harassment and traumatic reminder for others. The examples she quotes are deeply shocking, and having conveyed the unrestrained intensity of these men’s misogynist ‘comedic’ material, she makes the well worn feminist point that:

             All this normalises and diminishes violence towards women: if it is easy to laugh about, it is hard take         seriously.[36]

‘Misogyny ‘ she argues, ‘has been a constant in standup, since the feminist revolution got shagged by Loaded.’[37] But it is doubly disturbing that many of these ‘comedians’ are young men, with famous, older role models, the likes of Russell Brand, Jimmy Carr and Frankie Boyle. (Now there’s a sexy line-up.) After describing one particularly gruesome standup act, Gold concludes: ‘This is not comedy, of course, but rage disguised as comedy’.[38]  This is street misogyny flaunted on stage for public approval and applause, and designed to render the audience complicit through laughter. These guys are just being themselves, and like football, nobody on the inside of the institution seems to be willing to stop them. Gold notes gloomily:

             Comedians that don’t do misogynist material are protective of those that do, because they are wary of    censorship and contemptuous of hecklers’.[39]

There’s that male bonding rooted in misogyny and heterosexism again, in yet another male-dominated area of public life. And like the others described here, this is definitely the personal as political. And ‘professional’. For without women in particular as their comedic ‘material’, through which they can give vent to their misogynist sexual fantasies and fears, they would lack a script: their ‘acts’ would be cut short. And at the risk of sounding like a footballer: ‘pricks’, unaroused, would droop.

Like the hecklers who attempt to challenge the misogyny of these UK standups, Pussy Riot, the anti Putin, young women’s punk band in Moscow,[40] has attracted virulent misogyny. One prominent pro Putin writer twittered:

             Not one normal (sic) Russian person would ever support the ‘acts’ of these cunts. Note that only emigrants, fags and kikes support them.[41]

There’s that hate-and-fear package again: the fascist mindset and language[42] neatly combining racism, homophobia and misogyny. He could do standup at the Edinburgh comedy festival…….. he’d fit right in.

But there are positive lessons for those of us despairing of mainstream UK politics:

             Putin may have more serous critics, but Pussy Riot have shown the west how artistic dissent can still          make a difference. . . . The trio are an object lesson in what cultural provocation can do, while orthodox               politics often remain           impotent.[43]

The evidence suggests that, like Hitler’s Freikorps, and the misogynists roaming the streets of Gaza, Brussels, Moscow or Liverpool, for example, for these men, women and sex are both taboo (shock value) and obsession. At this point, dear reader, we must surely conclude that societies are getting something badly wrong about the masculinity ‘scripts’ on offer for too many boys and men. Misogynist masculinity is not a side dish requiring some minor adjustment to its flavour or presentation; it is the famed but flawed main course, which is beyond salvage, and needs binning.

It is not class or cultural difference that is proven by these examples, but the sameness of certain men’s behaviour towards girls and women, across cultures, communities and societies, tracing the line of misogynist desire and violence across time and place. That Sexual and Gender-Based Violence and Abuse (SGBVA), now an international term/category, is wholly unacceptable and illegal in UK society, is a message that has not been sufficiently promoted within all sections of our society.  As a society, we are therefore equally responsible for the murder of Safilea Ahmed, as we were for the murder of Anthony Walker (2005), Sophie Lancaster (2007)[44] and Michael Causer (2008). It’s 2012, but:

             While the UK has legislative recognition of domestic violence for women, public perception and universal              practice are yet to consistently demonstrate the same level of recognition. Two women are killed every week by a partner or ex-partner. The measure of domestic abuse experienced by younger women is yet to be quantified.[45]

The judge sentencing Elliot Turner, aged 20 (05 2012) to a minimum of 16 years for the murder of his girlfriend, Emily Longley, aged 17, had this to say:

             Loving someone is not telling them they are a whore, it is not trying to control them, it is not threatening              them . . . . You did not love her, she was your trophy.[46]

If living with misogyny, homophobia and/or racism, for example, doesn’t kill you, it will certainly make you ill. And this puts too many women in the hands of mental/health practitioners. This might not guarantee escape or even survival.

White UK taxi driver, John Warboys, was found guilty of 19 charges of drugging and sexually assaulting 12 women; linked to 85 sex crimes; and suspected of being responsible for more than 100 attacks.[47] The professional incompetence of police officers was acknowledged too late:

             Last year, an Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) inquiry found Warboys remained free to               prey on women because officers made serious mistakes and failed to take victims seriously.[48]  [Emphasis        added.]

This contempt for women’s words as evidence, to be taken seriously, testifies to a combination of misogyny /racism / social class prejudice, that police officers bring to the job from their own personal lives. Have we learnt nothing from, for example, the long drawn out investigation of Yorkshire’s white serial killer of women, Peter Suttcliffe, who was allowed to escape arrest for years, largely because women identified as prostitutes neither counted as credible witnesses, nor mattered as dead victims?[49] This combination of sexual categorisation and contempt is also manifest in the high incidence of sexual attacks on women with disabilities, dementia and/or mental health issues. And most of this abuse takes place within the family or in residential accommodation at the hands of those with an institutional duty of care.[50]  Like prostitutes, or abused wives / partners / daughters, these vulnerable women are accessible fodder (their status as human beings/women annulled) for the abuser’s sexual fantasies, and his internalised sense of entitlement for sexual power/dominance as a man in this society.[51]  In line with their more famous counterparts, cited earlier: Assange, Boyle, Brand, Carr, Eriksen, Galloway, Suttcliffe, Warboys.

In UK society, we do not require girls to throw themselves on the funeral pyre following the death of a husband; nor do we publicly stone a woman to death if she has committed adultery (though individual men murder ‘their’ wives and girlfriends). No longer is a husband allowed to beat his wife with a stick, providing it is no thicker than his index finger; and rape within marriage is now legally recognised. Change has happened, largely as a result of concerted social and political struggle by victims and their supporters. But too many men humiliate, intimidate, violate, abuse, torture, rape and murder girls and women, because they are female (frequently intimates), and because, on the evidence, they see that men can get away with it. As we have seen, society lets it pass.

Stieg Larsson recognised that ‘there really were men who hate women (the title of the first volume of his trilogy in its original Swedish)[52]  far more than we think.’[53] And he argued that the debate on honour killing gave a free hand to Swedish men.[54] Rejecting cultural anthropological approaches, the explanation, he said, was much simpler: ‘The problem is that in male-dominated societies women are killed by men.’[55]

SGBVA is, shamefully, a feature of UK society, in Liverpool as elsewhere. Central to a feminist perspective is the belief that it can and should be stopped and prevented: as an urgent human rights abuse;a public health and well being issue; and as corrosive of both lives and democratic process. Ask yourself: do you agree or disagree with these definitions and with this goal?

As Egyptian novelist and activist, Ahdaf Soueif, observed in response to a question at a recent talk after her involvement in the Arab Spring uprising,[56] ‘I think today any decent man is a feminist’. And at a Liverpool Arab Arts Festival event,[57] after I had asked how women (as opposed to the male poets being showcased) were processing the Arab Spring events, a local activist present, Saad Alshukri, made a point of handing me a  postcard afterwards,[58] with the caption, in Arabic and English: ‘No spring without women’.  Such gestures of solidarity are deeply touching, make me smile, and keep hope alive.

Class and gender issues: the problem of ‘separation’ and political hierarchy.

As Steve Higginson notes, ‘in the post industrial city, the local economy becomes driven by the “service tourism” sector’,[59] and the implications for girls and women can be catastrophic. ‘Misogyny and patriarchy, having been central to industrial society, are now at the core of post industrial society as well.’[60] But local decision makers in Liverpool appear to be still in thrall to Marxist privileging of production as the sole human activity that can account for every form of social experience, a discourse that marginalises, stereotypes or disappears women’s social contributions into the domestic/familial ‘sphere’ . As a consequence, the development of ‘service tourism’ / the sex industry is categorised and promoted unproblematically as job creation, economic expansion. There is no gender analysis brought to bear, resulting in denial of the problem of VAWG (Violence Against Women and Girls), and the urgent need, as recently advocated by the Liverpool Women’s Network[61] for the City Council to develop a coherent VAWG policy and practices (as has already been done in Bradford and Lambeth, for example), to make Liverpool a safer City for girls and women.

Lord Herman Ousley, Chair of UK football’s anti-racist campaign, ‘Kick It Out’, recently countered the suggestion that it is time to shift the focus in football from racism to homophobia and sexism, as if racism had been ‘sorted’/eliminated.[62] He is only part right, as well as more than part wrong: his words reiterate the view that homophobia, misogyny and racism occupy separate political ground, involve different sets of people, and are discrete items on a political list, which can be ranked (and by extension, used to divide and pit us against each other).


But the reality is that misogyny, heterosexism, homophobia, racism and male supremacist thinking generally, comprise a social, psychological and political conjunction: as exemplified by Hitler’s Freikorps (who were meant to epitomise the ‘perfected’ masculinity honed by Nazi ideology)[63] and their modern counterparts in Poland and elsewhere. The isolation of these attitudes and behaviours into separate compartments is both wrong (a category error) and dangerous (a strategic mistake): as Stieg Larsson recognised, it allows the far right to inflame tensions and hatred, and thereby claim political relevance.

Before the recent Race Liverpool event,[64] leaflets were being handed out by two white male activists, publicizing a march and demonstration planned for the weekend: ‘Working-class solidarity against racism’.  Asked whether black middle-class anti-racists would be allowed on the march, the first activist I spoke to just looked at me, seeming not to hear what I had said. The second, handing out the leaflet after the event, countered dismissively with: ‘Well, we’ve got to start somewhere’. This, after I had pointed out that the flier’s wording overtly excluded middle-class people’s participation, including women, whatever our ethnic identities. There are a number of problems with ’working-class solidarity against racism’ as a political project:

  • The campaign publicity explicitly privileged identity ([born] working-class) over political values and affiliation; thereby marginalisinganti-racists who do not identify as working-class, but share these social and political concerns. This stance reveals no recognition that different constituencies can identify with each other across social and cultural differences: so history itself is denied.
  • Committed political affiliations and activism, rooted in people’s social experience, and modern, hybrid identities, and forged by spiritual and/or political values, appear to carry no weight with the organizers of ‘working-class solidarity’, compared to the implied virtue, simplicity and ‘fixity’ attributed to being ‘born and bred’ working-class. 
  • This ideological stand positions everyone else as the ‘enemy’, while claiming inherent ‘radical’ credentials (in this case, anti-racist) for working-class identity per se.
  • Marx’s C19 analysis privileges working-class identity as ‘radical’. Yet it has been clear for a very long time that the experience of being black, Jewish, Muslim, working-class, gay, Catholic, a woman, etc., does not in and of itself constitute a ‘radical’/ ‘progressive’ political identity.

             Whilst personal experience undoubtedly influences one’s perspective and understanding, many current              references to it are determinist and essentialist. Experience / identity is substituted for, or deemed to be              equivalent to, politics, as if critical awareness and understanding are inscribed on a person through forms               of oppression, with an implicit or explicit presumption that such awareness is inaccessible to those who     have not ‘lived’ such experiences. Whilst not seeking to deny differences in experience, critical                consciousness involves developing a perspective on, a politics of experience.[65]

      The politics and class identity of many of these men have been forged within the crucible of Marxist analysis, with its emphasis on industrial relations and paid employment as the key determinants of social and political life, and class relations. But Marxist analysis provides no insights into or explanation of women’s lived experience or our lives. For these we had to wait to hear our own voices; in the UK that meant waiting on feminism in the 1970s. For many socialist women, feminist consciousness-raising, activism, research and theory problematised Marxism in ways that meant we could never return to that initial (youthful) theoretical /political position.

      The working-class solidarity discourse also offers no recognition of the resistance (aversion?) of many young women in 2012 to the idea of identifying themselves as ‘working-class’. This may not be an identity they wish to ‘claim’. It may feel too much of a victim status; neither aspirational nor ‘sexy’/‘cool’. Perhaps they fear it would deprive them of their ‘feminine’ identity/credentials, which they know have pre-eminent social and sexual currency in today’s consumerist / celebrity culture. (And this they do aspire to.)[66] For these young women,

there may be no profit in (class) politics (about which, given the role of the media and education, they probably know very little anyway).  And working-class men cannot (nor should they, even if they were interested) dictate the terms of young women’s political involvement. But ignoring them smacks of sexism: the ‘father’ not yet taking the ‘daughters’ seriously, as peers and potential comrades. Not noticing, not listening, not caring.

The sectarianism described above cannot transform society for the better, for at its heart is a classed, gendered and racist binary thinking (with generational overtones) that is content to dig in and look back all the time, refusing to imagine another way. This intransigence, and resistance to political dialogue and alliance as a living breathing process, promises further social and political defeat: no social and political partnerships; no transformation of society’s conditions and major institutions. No change to power relations. No elimination or further alleviation of poverty and other social inequalities and injustice: such as racism, misogyny, homophobia, heterosexism and class-based disadvantage.

Experiential learning is complex and hybrid, and is not just about sharing what we already know. As a creative, intellectual and therapeutic process, it takes us beyond our individuality, the ‘I’, towards a better understanding of the wider social structures and forces that frame and shape us as, for example, service users / activists / citizens / partners / parents / professionals. Experiential learning is therefore also potentially a highly political process, because it involves us in considering power relations and the exercise of power (including our own) in our lives. It opens up new human possibilities (not just intellectual).

This is what academics and activists mean when we cite the power and excitement of theory as part of this process of learning and understanding (feminist theory, post colonial theory, queer theory, disability theory,for example), which engenders new knowledge production, that empowers marginals to both articulate personal experience and work for social change. In other words, theory from the margins constitutes itself not just as intellectual work, but as politics. This critical self reflexive practice is neither a technical nor a ‘private’ matter, but part of a wider, social conversation.[67] Rather than embedding us within a designated, familiar identity group (anarchists, socialists, feminists, service users, working class, community activists, BAME, gay, academics, etc.) it is a process that propels us out into our society: re-equiped, renewed and revitalised.

Issues of social justice have been historically cast in terms of social class divisions and antagonisms in the UK, not least in Liverpool. The equality and social justice issues variously foregrounded by the liberation and identity politics and environmental politics of the period from the 1960s, have been seen as ‘single issue’ campaigns, marginal to ‘proper’ party politics, or as add-ons. Black women were told to ‘get to the back of the bus’ by their male comrades in the American Civil Rights movement, while the men took charge; and in the UK, men on the left have seen gender issues as separate and secondary to social class issues (as have many women on the left). The feminist slogan, ‘the personal is political’, was waiting in the wings…

But these liberation, social justice, environmental, peace and community movements, with their global / international embrace, while lacking coherent parliamentary representation, have changed politics, from a singular, established institution, to a social and political process: so we now talk about the politics of, for example: racism / gender / homophobia / the environment / education / literacy / lap dancing / development /globalisation / oil / food / the media, etc.. These approaches to power, control, ownership (dominance and subordination) have exposed the workings of society and political process (aided most recently by major financial, banking, media and political scandals, plus people’s use of the internet and social media)[68] in ways that go beyond conventional left/right politics and start to reconfigure the relations between previously disparate constituencies and campaigns (acknowledging interconnections); including asking and attempting to answer, ahead of politicians, two key questions:

First: What kind of society do we want to be?

One in which we ‘depend on co-operation, reciprocity and empathy, or one in which [children] learn that we are all rivals who must fend for themselves and not trust others’.[69]  The choice is that stark and straightforward.

Second, with Gary Younge: Who are we? And should it matter in [C21]?[70]

This could be described as a movement (a swarming?) from margin to centre, without abandoning those critical ‘margins’, those fertile, liminal spaces, where political discontent and social creativity well up and are enacted within communities. And without these social justice changes, environmental degradation and chaos will continue to go unchallenged.[71]  And that’s the scenario we will foist on our children and future generations, if we fail to come up with something radically different and fit for purpose: by building a ‘together’, a new ‘we’ that confounds the classic divide-and-rule of the far right: the Tories / UKIP / the BNP, and now the Coalition Lib Dems.. But the signs are not promising ‘at the top’. A new thinktank was launched in May 2012: Class, the Centre for Labour and Social Studies,[72]and there are a number of immediately visible problems with this initiative:

  • First, I counted seven men (mainly MPs and trade unionists) named as involved in its setting up and running; and one woman, journalist Polly Toynbee. (And it’s 2012.)
  • The Labour Party has a serious problem if its ‘thinktanks’, campaigns and policymaking continue to skirt gender issues and generally marginalise women as creative agents for change.
  • Faced with talk of the need to ‘take Labour back to its roots’,[73] the question is: which roots might these be? And which members of society does that automatically leave out in the cold?
  • For most marginals, the years since Labour’s roots have (with some help from Labour governments) afforded substantive changes and opportunities as a result of major social and political movements: anti-racist politics, the women’s liberation movement, lesbian and gay rights, human rights, disability politics, environmental politics, asylum issues.
  • We do not want to go back. That is the task the current ConDem government has set itself, in dismantling the public sector and its values, unravelling human dignity and any semblance of mutual respect and trust, as well as major attacks on democratic process itself. Returning people to squalor, indignity, despair.

We want to continue to expand and build on the changes made, which have helped forge a more diverse, less  

divided and more multicultural society than ever before. So when MP Jon Cruddas, appointed by Ed  

Miliband to shape Labour Party thinking in the run-up to the next general election, declares his stance as ‘Less    The Spirit Level, more what is England?’,[74] my feminist (and socialist) heart sinks. It sinks further, when I read

that Miliband believes that Cruddas has ‘identified key themes – patriotism and tradition – that will help Labour

reconnect with working-class voters’. (Old, male and white, presumably [no disrespect guys, some of you are

really ok]; or those inclined to vote for the BNP perhaps?) It’s as if the last 40+ years of social and political

history (Cruddas teaches Labour history!) never happened. Well it did, and the Labour Party needs to attract

and hold the votes of those who are living proof of those social changes and achievements.


It is clear from this summer-in-the-City scrutiny, that the elephant in the room is misogyny / gender issues / patriarchal masculinity, which have been consistently ignored and denied as party to the social and political conjunction of misogyny / racism / homophobia / heterosexism, suggested here as the fascist package.  


Owen Jones, the thinktank’s media adviser, says it will be ‘a thinktank rooted in the experiences of working people’.[75]  For politicians on all sides, ‘working people’ does not mean, for example: mothers and carers, or homemakers; the unemployed, those with mental/health problems (temporary, chronic or terminal); those with disabilities; anyone on benefits; students or children; or community volunteers.[76]


On the Left, the term ‘working people’ is a substitute for working-class, in an effort to sound more inclusive (and less Marxist), with an eye on the ‘squeezed middle class’. It belongs within the equally problematic rhetoric of ‘hardworking families’: and aside from the contentious issue of defining or debating what we mean by ‘hardworking’, there is also the ethical issue of affording social and political status only to those in a ‘family’ (and perhaps the right sort of family too): so the unattached, or single parent, or same sex parents, or child-free adults living together are overlooked: left out. And this, despite the fact that many of these willl have had to work especially hard over many years, to keep afloat and support loved-ones (whether partners, offspring, or elderly parents). Not to mention the emotional labour of dealing with prejudice, discrimination and abuse, for example.


      The thinktank’s declared ‘core agenda’ is ‘developing economic and industrial policies, and tackling the housing crisis and inequality’.[77] The influence of Marxist assumptions haunts this ‘technical fix’ list. While not denying the importance of economic and industrial policies or housing, aside from missing any reference to the questions raised earlier (what kind of society we want to be, and who we are), I am left in grave doubt about the actual meaning of the word ‘inequality’ here, as it hangs off the end of this list. It is probably a word that should be banned from political use, unless politicians can actually say and debate what it could or should mean, at any point in time. In 2012, it functions as a ‘free-floating’ bureaucratic box to tick: cut loose from the politics of oppression, disadvantage, social justice; poverty, violence and public health, for example, that informed its emergence as a core political category for so many of the C20 liberation and rights campaigns.


There is no excuse for this patronising, lack-lustre, ‘more-of -the-same’ approach, with not a whiff of the values and priorities of the social movements that have marked our society in the C20 and C21.


Mercifully (or elsewhere), UK-based philosopher, Julian Baggini, discerns a shift taking place in the importance attributed to and the understanding of ethics in society, arguing that ‘if ‘morality concerns the ways in which our social interactions affect the welfare of others’,[78] this renders morality ‘essentially social, not personal’,[79]  thereby opening up social, ethical and political possibilities, not as separate issues, but as a powerful conjunction.


And because it is social, that means the only way to deal with it is socially. So we shouldn’t be looking for new moral authorities to replace the church. Rather, we should see public moral issues [such as those raised by Steve Higginson’s research f98 above] as requiring a negotiation between all of us.[80] [Emphasis added.]


And that is pretty much the methodology adopted by American philosopher, Michael Sandel, in both his published writing[81] and his acclaimed (televised) teaching and public lectures, which combine group problem solving / learning / knowledge production, via a mix of: exposition, exploratory questioning, analysis, conversation, attentive listening, exchange and reflection. Instead of the parent-child model of authority (of Transactional Analysis) which limits behaviour to telling and instructing on the one side (Sandel as ‘parent’), and listening and obedience (or disobedience) on the other (the rest of us / students as ‘children’), Sandel proffers mutual and convivial thoughtfulness: a different kind of rigorous engagement with ideas and social and intellectual problems; and each other.[82]


This process echoes my own best relationships with women,[83]and it also shifts the emphasis from ‘experts’, towards the mutual development and sharing of expertise. Similarly, sociologist Richard Sennett identifies three essential elements of co-operation: listening skills, subjective expression and empathic skills.[84] The Labour Party needs a methodology that is fit for purpose, for now, rather than harking back to times gone by. To the feminist cry, ‘We don’t need another hero!’, we should perhaps add, in the light of recent political scandals, city fraud and other wide-ranging criminality: ‘We don’t need another (exorbitantly paid) “expert”!’


No going back.

We need a new politics, not a newer version of the old, rooted in traditional and fiercely defended social and political divisions and demarcations. We need a political culture infused with this holistic, syncretistic awareness and ethical purpose, which embodies, for example, knowledge honed by liberation movements, social justice movements and environmental campaigns of the previous 60 plus years; a politics which acknowledges complexity, but does not resort to prejudice, sectarianism or violence to cope with it. As Beresford, Sandel and Sennett demonstrate, it is not just about content, but process; and process as content. It happens that art and culture exemplify this, and perhaps most acutely in times of social turmoil and/or political authoritarianism.[85]


Only this will enable us to build the social and political alliances powerful enough to counter fascist values and behaviours, on the Right or Left; and to forestall economic, environmental and social meltdown (these being connected). This must be the politics of the 99%. Power sharing, not power play. And we need to get a move on, for time is not on our side, because Neo-liberalism and its turbo consumerism have engulfed society and masked the evasion, denial and lies that pass for political process and democracy.  And on the Left, as Ahdaf Soueif noted regretfully on her recent visit to Liverpool,[86] we are still too inclined to attack each other, instead of facing down the enemies of social justice, democracy and multiculturalism.


‘Keep your eyes on the prize!’ was the American Civil Rights invocation, which still serves to remind us of the conjoined political importance of both unity and strategy (even unity as strategy) in the struggle, for example, against the enemies of the Anthony Walker Foundation’s goals, shared by the Michael Causer Foundation and the Sophie Lancaster Foundation: ‘diversity, equality, harmony’.[87]  In contrast to the Class thinktank’s agenda, this is not a list or a slogan, but a conjunction felt on the nerve endings and in the heart. It is a qualitative statement that provides a conceptual and ethical framework for a social and political project that is neither unambitious nor simplistic. And necessary. It is both a what and a why: simultaneously politics and ethics.


The Liverpool Pride Official Finale this year (05 08 2012) was held in aid of the Michael Causer Foundation. It was the outcome of a working partnership between the union, UNITE North West, the Merseyside Police Gay and Lesbian Support Network, together with Hope [University] LGBT and Love Music Hate Homophobia. Now, if we can just extend that model of partnership a bit . . . .


With the advent of the ConDem government, we have ceded political discourse to a terrifying gang of privileged, over powerful, élitist fraudsters / smug bullies / thieves and thugs; and their PR campaigns and manipulations in the service of their own, longstanding, vested interests. In these two years, lives have been taken, mental/health broken, young people’s aspirations trashed, as the ConDems have set about dismantling the public sector and its values, bit by fast bit, and starting with the most vulnerable, the most fragile, the least well placed: turning society into a ‘war zone’ filling up with victims. While the environment and the economy are abandoned to greedy profiteers, the health and well being of the poorest and least educated is plummeting.[88]  None of this damage is incidental. 80 year old psychiatrist Suman Fernando ‘warns that the coalition has walked away from the vital issue of race in mental health treatment’.[89] And he links this to the wider themes of this essay, for example:


             You can’t mention equalities [within the Department of Health]. There is a sense that race is off the          agenda. It’s the idea of ‘post-race’. That is what they are saying.[90]


Fernando concludes his interview by suggesting that it is crucial for BME activists to build closer ties with service users and revise their campaigning approach. ‘Maybe we should be making more alliances.[91]  [Emphasis added.] Being, for example, BAME, gay, a woman. working-class, disabled, a carer, poor, uneducated, stigmatised, homeless, abused or violated, in a racist, homophobic, misogynist, class-prejudiced society, makes you ill (and/or maybe angry). So yes, it is time (and wise) to build those social and political alliances.


This summer in the City, thinking through and beyond ‘sexism’, has tracked the severity of the problem over a ten week ‘media slice’: demonstrating the extent to which violence and abuse in the name of racism / homophobia / heterosexism / misogyny pass unobserved and unchallenged: normalised by ignorance, apathy and indifference; and institutionalised by those in power. Heather Wood, the official investigator for the NHS, with extensive experience of monitoring failing organisations, points to the problem of organisations that are ‘hierarchical, closed and bullying’,[92] and where defensiveness results in only paying lip service to transparency.[93] In our efforts to organise for a better society, a better City, and to build alliances, we should be alert to this problem; another example of process as content: in this case, élitism and authoritarianism.


With so much information and evidence (too) readily available, we are justified in identifying public and political apathy and indifference as culpable complicity with wrongdoing of a high order. Fascist ideology and behaviour is a political threat to a diverse, liberal, multicultural society, as Norway’s recent tragedy made clear. Breivik, recognised by the Court as a far-Right-wing terrorist, intended to kill all the young Labour Party members at the two targetted sites, ‘whom he accused of spreading multiculturalism’.[94]


This summer trail over 8-10 weeks, has made clear that misogyny and heterosexism, as the twin engines of patriarchy, are embedded within our political economy and social institutions at every level, fuelling violence and abuse, delivering racism and homophobia, and trans and disability prejudice, in a society ruled by the same gendered privilege and muscle that busted the banks. Exposing the interconnections between oppressive social practices in this way provides a basis for rethinking our values and our politics before it is too late.


Identifying, challenging and eradicating misogyny and its related oppressor forces must be placed at the heart of any adequate and ethical politics capable of removing the current obstacles to a safer, more equal, and more sustainable multicultural society and economy. The immediate response of Norway’s leader, Jens Stoltenberg, after Breivik’s criminal attacks on Norwegian society, was to declare: ‘The Norwegian response to violence is more democracy, more openness and greater political participation’.[95]


No one constituency is capable of bringing down a/this Tory government. None of us can do it on our own, inside our preferred/primary communities of interest and identity. Our power will come from heartfelt and well organised alliance and cooperation (akin to the London Olympics and Paralympics 2012). This is not only a strategic necessity, it is also ‘the change we want to see in the world’ (Gandhi): engendering a process capable of repairing social damage and reconstituting what we mean by ‘the people’ (the 99%) in a multicultural, environmentally intelligent and fair society.


Our task and responsibility as humane citizens in the UK, in Liverpool, must be to build a ‘we’ that can take creative and political responsibility for the peace and reconciliation we, and the earth, need: in the name of diversity/dignity, equality/equity, harmony/sustainability.[96] And in honour of all the Anthonys, Michaels and Sophies, who, because of our negligence, lack of vigilance and complacency as a society, paid too high a price for being who they were: and for ‘standing out’.












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] To quote gay American activist and San Francisco Mayor, Harvey Milk (1978): ‘At what point do we say Enough? At what point do we stand up, as a total group, and say we will not allow it to happen any more? Enough is Enough!’ [Emphasis added.] Used as part of Lesbian and Gay Foundation campaign, and by The Michael Causer Foundation, Liverpool.

[2]The Anthony Walker Foundation was set up after Anthony’s murder: ‘to promote equality and diversity through education, sport and arts events and to support law enforcement agencies and local communities to reduce hate crime and build cohesive communities’. Its message is: ‘diversity, equality, harmony’.

[3] The Michael Causer Foundation was set up after Michael’s murder: ‘to educate: challenging prejudice; to accommodate: creating a home; to motivate: making a difference, for vulnerable LGBT youth [homeless or at risk] in the North West of England’.

[4] This concentration of sexual violence is exposed by Steve Higginson (08 02 2012) Liverpool after dark: sexsumerism and misogyny in the party city. This was one of the 2011/2012 Critical Research Seminar Series convened by the Centre for the Study of Crime, Criminalisation & Social Exclusion, Liverpool John Moores University. His research powerfully combines local statistics with participant observation undertaken at various key sites around the City, and in theorising the evidence and the issues, he left his audience in no doubt as to the mounting vulnerability and exploitation of young women in the ‘party city’, as well as the question of society’s / the City’s role / responsibility.

[5]Sunday Morning Live(19 08 2012). BBC1.

[6]One of the 3 contributors was Owen Jones, author (2011) of Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class. London: Verso. (More on Owen later.)Similarly, BBC2 Newsnight anchor, Emily Maitlis, chaired a discussion on sexual grooming and abuse via the internet (07 09 2012). The panel comprised two women (a Tory MP and a representative from Barnado’s), together with actor Dominic West, who had made a film report on the subject, using interviews with victims, which preceded discussion. The focus was on the girls and young women victims (apart from one boy).The children were seen as the ‘problem’: what could be done about them / for them? The problem of the new social media was discussed; and the dilemma of parents. The subject of the male perpetrators / abusers was ignored; there was no gender analysis; no analysis and/or critique of men and heterosexist masculinity; and certainly no mention of misogyny. No mention that all these men had started out as boys/children,as sons in this society. A gender-neutral approach to the issue of men’s sexual violence and abuse against girls and women has been tried. It is what has kept the grievous status quo ticking over: unchallenged and apparently getting worse.

[7]Famous for resigning in 2011 from St Paul’s Cathedral, London, in support of the presence of the Occupy movement camped on its steps.

[8]Giles Fraser (10 07 2012) Analysis. A mysterious gap between ‘deep conviction’ and plain misogyny. Guardian.  Emphasis added.

[9] Ibid.. [Emphasis added.]

[10]Bea Campbell (11 07 2012)  Frances O’Grady: the future of the TUC. Guardian.

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

[12]Bidisha (2012) Beyond the Wall. Writing a path through Palestine. Calcutta: Seagull Books: 17, 27, 57, 83, 85, 91, 93, 95).

[13]See also Angelique Chrisafis reporting from Paris (04 08 2012) Gauntlet of sexism on Brussels streets. Hidden camera films daily harassment of women. Guardian. The film referred to, Femme de la Rue (made by film student Sofie Peeters after moving to Brussels to study) is described as ‘a shocking account of everyday sexist insults in the street’, and has provoked considerable response from women in France, and much sharing of experience by women in two hashtags: harcelementderue (street harassment) and harcelementdemetro (about harassment on the underground).

[14]Director of Inspire, a Muslim women’s human rights organisation.

[15]Sara Khan (04 08 2012) Turn a blind eye no more. The Guardian.

[16]The British National Party and the English Defence League, two UK fascist organisations with links to other far right groups in Europe.

[17]Chrisafis (04 08 2012).

[18]And if these men are not speaking in their first language, does it mean they have made a point of acquiring this foreign vocabulary (from other men) in order to sexually harass women on the streets of Brussels?

[19] Jan-Erik Pettersson (2012): Stieg: From Activist to Author. Translated from the Swedish by Tom Geddes. London: Quercus, p 280.

[20] Daniel Poohl, Expo’s editor in chief from 2006, cited Pettersson (2012): 203..

[21] Cited Pettersson (2012): 204.

[22] Ibid.. Larsson was also highly concerned that the ensuing public discussion ‘revealed some feminists as racists, and anti-racists were accused of being reluctant to oppose violence against women’. Pettersson (2012): 2004.

[23] Starting with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2005); followed by The Girl Who Played with Fire (2006) and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (2010). In the spring of 2010, six years after Larsson’s death, this last was the top-selling book in Britain and the trilogy had sold 5 million copies in total.

[24]Danish writer, Carsten Jensen, cited Pettersson (2012): 277.

[25]Pettersson (2012): 277.

[26]SeeTad Tietze (25 08 2012) Justice has been done. The Guardian. ‘


[28]Ibid. However, the Norwegian Court’s verdict does not bring closure of itself: see Dr Paul McMahon (27 08 2012) Flawed judgement in the Breivik case. Email to The Guardian. This UK-based Consultant psychiatrist was quick off the mark in his disagreement with the Court’s process and verdict, referring to Breivik as a ‘seriously deluded killer’ with ‘deranged beliefs’. He seemed to want to deny Norwegian society a role, preferring to defer to established medical definitions to explain Breivik’s violence, thereby removing his responsibility for his own actions.

[29]Pettersson (2012): 277.

[30]Compare the challenging but potentially empowering experience for women, of reading the book or watching the film of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, with being the butt of the misogynist standup acts described by Tanya Gold (18 08 2012). No contest.

[31]Pettersson (2012): ibid.. See also Suzanne Moore (02 08 2012) Pussy Riot, who face prison in Russia for their anti-Putin protest, are a reminder that revolution always begins in culture. The Guardian G2: 5.

[32]Maya Angelou quote from TV interview: ‘The question is not how to survive, but how to thrive with passion, compassion, humour and style’. Aids Action Worldwide.

[33] John Harris (20 08 2012) From Russia’s riot grrrls, a lesson in the power of punk. The Guardian.

[34]Pettersson (2012): 276.

[35] Tanya Gold (18 08 2012)

[36] Ibid.. See also Rachel Williams (25 08 2012) How latest outbursts on rape reflect and feed common myths. The Guardian.

[37]Gold (18 08 2012)

[38] Ibid.


[40]Three members were arrested for singing an anti-Putin ‘prayer’ in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, while         , dressed in bright clothes and balaclavas (to retain anonymity). They have been sentenced to 2 years imprisonment for ‘hooliganism’.

[41] Eduard Bagirov, cited Miriam Elder (18 08 2012) ‘What Putin wants, he gets.’ Verdict met with defiance. The Guardian. This kind of language and visceral hatred echo the sickening (and unrepeatable) islamophobia targetted at and reported by journalist Mehdi Hasan (08 08 2012) We mustn’t allow Muslims in public life to be silenced. The Guardian.

[42]See Theweleit (1987 & 1989).

[43]Harris (20 08 2012).

[44] Sophie Lancaster (1986-2007) was murdered on the street because she and her boyfriend looked ‘different’: they were Goths.

[45]Carlene Firmin, principal policy adviser at the Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England, writing in a personal capacity (30 05 2012) Domestic violence has no age limit. The Guardian.

[46] Carlene Firmin (30 05 2012).

[47]Rachel Williams (21 07 2012) Women sue police over handling of assault and rape cases. Met police accused of violating human rights. The Guardian.


[49] See Nicole Ward-Jouve (1988) The Street Cleaner.The Yorkshire Ripper Case on Trial. London: Marion Boyars. Ward-Jouve provides a feminist analysis of the inadequacies and failures of both the police and media investigations at the time. She was herself living and working in the area throughout the period of the 14 murders.

[50]Julie Matthews (12 08 2012) in conversation.

[51]See Theweleit (1987 & 1989).

[52]Changed (and sexed up) to The Girl [sic] with the Dragon Tattoo for Europe and the international market. On the basis of the posters and publicity, I wouldn’t go near the film, until a feminist friend alerted me and lent me the book, and I saw who had written it.

[53]Larsson cited Pettersson (2012): 205.

[54] Ibid.

[55]Larssen cited Pettersson (2012): 205.

[56]The Arab Spring with Ahdaf Soueif & Bidisha. (30 05 2012) Liverpool’s annual WOW (Writing on the Wall) Festival. Kuumba Imani Millennium Centre.

[57] 3 Arab poets perform their work. (14 07 2012) The Bluecoat, Liverpool.

[58]Liz Gascoigne Postcards.

[59] Steve Higginson (08 02 2012).


[61]See Val Walsh, Hannah Ryan & Jackie Patiniotis (15 02 2012) Response of the Liverpool Women’s Network (LWN) to Liverpool City Council’s Single Equality Scheme (SES).

[62]Cited Simon Hattestone (14 07 2012) ‘This is football. It’s not war’. Mainly interviews with black players. The Guardian Weekend.

[63]See Theweleit (1987 & 1989).

[64]Convened by the Runnymede Trust and hosted by the Slavery Museum, Liverpool: 20 07 2012. Although there were plenty of women in attendance, including one of the four platform speakers and the panel Chair, for the entire meeting (more than two hours), discussion focussed exclusively on the plight of young blackmen. This went unremarked.

[65] Liz Kelly, Sheila Burton & Linda Regan (1995) Researching women’s lives or studying women’s oppression? in Mary Maynard & June Purvis (eds.) Researching Women’s Lives from a Feminist Perspective. London: Taylor & Francis.

[66]The differential positioning and experience of working-class women and men in relation to working-class identity and politics, was signalled by historian Carolyn Steedman (1986) in her landmark book, Landscape for a Good Woman. A story of two lives. London: Virago Press.  I was gifted a copy by an outstanding working-class student after her graduation in 1993, as she headed off to start her M.A. in Cultural Studies. Her inscription finished: ‘Hope the book speaks to you as I found it did to me’. How many (working-class) men have actually read this text? And then discussed it. . . .

[67]See later references to Michael Sandel and Julian Baggini.

[68]See Ulrike Guérot (11 04 2012) The Pirate Party rises as German politics is all at sea. Guardian Also article on Pirate Party in Germany (06 08 2012) Guardian.  And Mike Harris (17 07 2012) What can we learn from pirate politics? Guardian Professional / Public Leaders Network.  And for an eloquent outline of a way forward for a new participatory politics, one based on the wholesale reform of the media, see Dan Hind (2010) The Return of the Public. London: Verso.

[69]Richard Wilkinson & Kate Pickett (06 08 2012) The poison of inequality. A year on from the riots, the government is still failing to identify their underlying causes. Guardian. See also Wilkinson & Pickett (2010) The Spirit Level. Why Equality is Better for Everyone. London: Penguin Books.And Danny Dorling (2011) Injustice. Why Social Inequality Persists. Bristol: The Policy Press.In addition to those already quoted, also helping explain the recent past and present, as well as plot the way forward, is the critical journalism and writing of Ha-Joon Chang, Aditya Chakrabortty, Larry Elliot, Mehdi Hasan, Paul Mason, Seamus Milne, Peter Newsom, Peter Scott, Polly Toynbee and Peter Wilby, for example.

[70] Gary Younge (2010) Who Are We? And should it matter in C21? London: Viking.  Younge is a black British journalist currently based in the USA. See also, Janice Mirikitani (1995) We, the Dangerous. New and selected poems. London: Virago Press. Mirikitani is a 3rd generation Japanese American born in California, interned as an infant with her family in an American concentration camp in Rohwer, Arkansas during the Second World War.

[71]For a powerful, holistic analysis, see Susan George (2011) Whose Crisis, Whose Future?. Towards a greener, fairer, richer world. Cambridge: Polity Press.

[72]Cited Hélène Mulholland (17 08 2012) Unions back thinktank to take Labour back to its roots. The Guardian.


[74]Cited Nicholas Watt (18 05 2012) Fishing for votes: angling MP has the future of Labour policy in his hands. The Guardian.

[75] Cited Nicholas Watt.

[76]See Guy Standing (20 08 2012) The work we do after work. The Guardian.  Also Standing (2011) The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

[77]Mulholland (17 08 2012).

[78] Julian Baggini (25 07 2012) The return of morality. The Guardian G2.

[79] Ibid..

[80] Ibid..

[81] For example, Michael Sandel (2009) Justice: What’s The Right Thing To Do? London: Allen Lane.

[82]There are signs of an emerging ‘values-based’ approach in an increasing number of schools in the UK. See Dorothy Lepkowska (07 08 2012) Witney family values. Education Guardian. A values-based educational ethos emphasises ‘mutual respect, courage, honesty, compassion and integrity among the school community, underpinned by high expectations’. The movement was set up by a former head teacher, Neil Hawkes, who maintains that ‘when children use the vocabulary of ethics they gain confidence and self respect, and respect for others.’ Emphasis added. This is not new, but the fact that it is emerging as a ‘movement’ at this point in time, is perhaps significant.

[83]Outlined in Val Walsh (1010 2012) Sexism and activism: What’s the problem?’ Companion discussion paper.

[84] Richard Sennett (2012) Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Co-operation. London: Penguin.

[85] Since his return to China 20 years ago, after living/studying/working in New York for ten years, there can be no better example of this than the interdisciplinary, multi-media practice of Chinese artist / dissident / activist, Ai Weiwei, whose aesthetic confounds the conventional western demarcation between art and politics, to achieve embodied, collaborative, public exhibits / events / interventions, not just in designated art/gallery spaces, but on the street and online (e.g. via twitter and uploaded documentary images and narrative fragments). See Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (2012), a film overview of Ai’s life and work, 2008-2011, directed by Alison Klayman, which demonstrates and illuminates his artistic/social/political praxis, as an embodied ethics. The issues raised by the film and by Ai’s work, are highly relevant to the themes of this essay. See also Walsh (08 06 2009) Intercultural  co-creativity: more than liminal adjustment..The Distinctive Contribution of the Arts to Intercultural Dialogue: A View from and on the Arts.  European Forum of the Platform for Intercultural Europe Conference, Brussels, Belgium.

[86] Ahdaf Soueif (30 05 2012).

[87]This essay started life on the day of the meeting at the Social Centre, Liverpool, about sexism in activism (08 07 2012). It is paused in the wake of the celebratory closing event (13 08 2012) of what has been an incredible London Olympics 2012: not because of the medal haul, but because, after the ambitious, diverse and meaningful opening ceremony, conceived by film maker Danny Boyle and his team (including Liverpool’s Frank Cottrell-Boyce), which took the UK by storm, and the final musical flourish at the end, what has distinguished these Olympics has been the sight (not just the vision) of the UK’s diversity, (improved) equality and harmony. Not just spectacle (sporting, technological, artistic, musical, organisational), for social and political meanings abounded everywhere you looked (both planned and unforeseen): the freedom fighters and social justice campaigners (including Doreen Lawrence, mother of murdered Stephen), who carried the Olympic flag at the opening ceremony; the stadium roar that went up at both opening and closing ceremonies, for the increased numbers of women athletes taking part, including Muslim first timers; and the resounding standing ovation for the thousands of volunteers involved. The BNP, the EDL, the Tories et al. were effectively routed by the quality and ethos of these two weeks; by what it showed we are already, and for future reference, what we are capable of becoming; what we can do next. This was knowledge production on a grand scale, not between the covers of a book, but broadcast widely. We must not throw this away, but use it as a springboard.

[88]Denis Campbell, Health correspondent (23 08 2012) Class divide in health is widening, thinktank warns. The Guardian.

[89]Cited Mary O’Hara (18 04 2012). ‘We keep coming back to racism.’ The Guardian.

[90] Ibid..


[92] Cited John Carvel (02 05 2012) ‘Hierarchical, closed and bullying’. The investigator who exposed catastrophic failings at Stafford hospital berates the Care Quality Commission regulator. The Guardian.


[94]Tony Paterson (25 08 2012) A clenched fist and a smirk as court declares Breivik sane. The Independent.

[95] Cited Owen Jones (25 08 2012) An admirable response to terrorism. The Independent.

[96]Read Ben Okri’s epic poem (2002) Mental fight. An anti-spell for the twenty-first century. London: Phoenix.