Murder in a UK Catholic classroom.

Unpublished letter to The Guardian. 30 04 2014

Both local comments and national media reporting of the murder of teacher, Ann Maguire, at the Corpus Christi Catholic College in Leeds, by a 15 year old male pupil during a Spanish lesson (‘Boy, 15, held after teacher is killed in classroom’, 29 04 2014) have reiterated a double set of assumptions/emphasis.

First, that this was “an isolated incident”, quite exceptional as well as unexpected. “Isolated”, as opposed to the word unusual, implies disconnection, inexplicability within and by prevailing circumstances. By extension, both police and the head teacher have stressed that “no-one could have foreseen or prevented this ‘incident’”.

Second, talk of “mental health problems” was quickly being assumed as an explanation for the violence. Both these frames emphasise (and ‘isolate’) the school as a social environment, as perhaps contained (“safe”) and apart from society; as well as implying that this aberrant behaviour (murder) is to be explained by forces outwith (and inexplicable within) the school environment. Both these positions argue ignorance, in the sense that: ‘it’s nothing to do with us’.

It is understandable that the immediate, reflex reaction of those responsible for safety and order in a school and/or community / society, is to distance their organisations from such acts of violence. To describe these reactions as a form of denial may seem harsh at this most sensitive time, but it is not meant as accusation, rather to point to both the impact of institutional pressures, and the power of internalisation of social and/or religious assumptions.

The perpetrator has been described as male, a “high achiever”, “a loner” and “troubled”. Academic research, such as Professor Michael Kimmel’s on violences and masculinity, is surely relevant here. There are therefore other frames of reference that could be as or more relevant to this murder, such as the incidence of and circumstances surrounding male teenage knife crime in the UK; and the phenomenon of boys’ and men’s murder of known women, e.g. their girlfriends or mothers. No doubt the police investigation will establish whether the boy routinely carried a knife, and/or whether the attack was premeditated and specific (i.e. that the victim was the intended victim that day, as opposed to random).

There have been repeated references by pupils and school staff to teacher Ann Maguire as “mother” to the school and generations of its children over a period of 40 years (‘She was amazing. Even after we left she was a friend, like a mother figure to us’, 29 04 2014). So this boy has killed their / his “mother figure” (and as a “troubled” “loner”, we can assume he would have been on her radar, part of her pastoral caseload).

We are all too familiar with the phenomenon of the “troubled”, male “loner”, who kills a woman with whom he has or had an intimate / familial relationship. Male violence against women and girls is one of society’s most serious and under-acknowledged gender issues (as opposed to mental health issues). This killing is not just about this particular Catholic school, but it is too.

val walsh

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Gender-neutral language ‘disappears’ men and masculinity.

Unpublished letter to The Guardian, 16 04 2014

People, foreign insurgents, extremists, foreign fighters, individuals (Social media used to recruit new wave of British jihadis,16 04 2014); Syria recruits, questionners, youngsters, Britons, jiadis (Syria recruits feared to be terrorists of the future (16 04 2014). All these words are gender-neutral, therefore misleading; acts of misrepresentation, because in these reports they are all different words for men, without acknowledging that fact.

The persistent use of such gender-neutral nouns contributes to the masking of men’s gendered presence, behaviour and dominance, for example in conflicts and war zones. And the lethal consequences of this masculinity and its distinctive role in these zones continue to be disregarded, bypassed, normalised as ‘natural’ and inevitable. Left unchallenged yet again.

val walsh

 

The appointment of Sajid Javid to the Department of Culture, Media and Sports.

Letter to The Guardian, 14 04 2014. [Edited extract published in the Guardian,15 04 2014].

The prospect of another investment banker, another multi/millionaire being put in charge of any major government department fills me with dread (Robert Booth, 12 04 2014: It’s a wonderful life: hard work, wealth and success but little time for culture), and the writers and poets, Blake Morrison, David Edgar, Michael Rosen, and actor Samuel West, between them spell out the problem, the offence and the inevitable crisis to follow, with passion and lucidity (Mark Brown, 12 04 2014. Writers have no great expectations of Javid). Their words also exemplify the quality they themselves bring to the arts of which they speak.

The record of Javid’s predecessors as listed (12 04 2014), in particular the contrast between Tory Jeremy Hunt’s slashing of the arts budget, and the personal, political and financial support for the arts under Labour’s Tessa Jowell and Chris Smith, marks out the fundamental social and political divide between the two parties: ignorance, arrogance, philistinism, and hostility to widening participation, on the one side; passion for and participation in the arts on the other, and commitment to arts as a human right.

I remember a Randy Newman concert in London 3 or 4 years ago. The huge auditorium was packed with people of all ages and buzzing with anticipation. It was just Randy and a piano. We gave him a wild welcome as he came on, and as he began each song, after two notes on the piano a wave of recognition swept through the auditorium. We all knew all the songs by heart. The sense of community was powerful and joyful. And it was also respite from and resistance to what was happening in our societies (his, ours and beyond). This unique musician and performer has given us over many years, songs that embrace our social and political values and concerns, as well as our personal and intimate lives. He writes of both power and love, bigotry and community, and he does it with insight, compassion, daring and humour.

What a pleasure it was on this occasion to see Tessa Jowell and other members of the Labour Party there; not as politicians and as a PR exercise, but as fans. Guardian writers were also in attendance I noticed.

val walsh

 

Anachronistic conduct

Is Lord Rennard refusing to apologise for his conduct because he will not admit guilt? And/or because he does not understand the nature of the stated “offence”? And/or because he takes for granted his right to behave in this way? And/or because he (and his many Lords supporters) see this behaviour as “normal”, nothing to complain about? (Rowena Mason & Decca Aitkenhead, 18 01 2014. No apology, no whip for Rennard, activists tell Clegg; Patrick Wintour, 20 01 2014. Rennard’s allies say he is victim of conspiracy.) In this context, apologising for “distress caused” (especially after protracted refusal to do so) becomes an irrelevance and compounds his liability.

The problem of language:
Referring to Rennard’s behaviour (of inappropriate, unsolicited sexual touching of several colleagues, for example) as causing “distress”, reduces the women complainants to ‘damsels’ and glosses over the nature of the charges as an abuse of power / sexual harassment / personal violation – all indications of a heterosexual man with inherited power and influence, who knows no bounds / boundaries: his sense of (sexual) entitlement a function of upbringing, social position, age(?), ignorance and power. He is therefore now a liability, no longer an asset for his Party.

The word “offence” needs an adjective to make sense. For example, unless we speak of criminal offence or sexual offence, the word “offence” carries insufficient and nebulous weight and meaning, communicating no sense of a power inbalance, abuse and/or injustice; and little sense of either the personal and social seriousness of the allegations, or consequential injury (to mental health, safety, social status, dignity, etc.) of the complainants. Sexual harassment and sexual violence undermine and damage, not just individual women victims, but the class of women: the prospects of all women.

Intent.
Or the proclaimed absence of, can be no defence in 2014. Rennard’s social incompetence (as charged) in committing acts that repeatedly violated the boundaries of contemporary acceptability (morality) demonstrates a disregard and/or contempt for women as citizens and colleagues, which means he is not fit for purpose as a member of the Lords. The significance of repetition over time should be noted (as in all the other recent cases that have surfaced). Someone who relates to women in the public domain, with whom he does not share intimacy, as heterosexual targets, the droit de seigneur, constitutes an obstacle to the safety, wellbeing and equality of opportunity of women colleagues. And it sets a bad example to children, young people, and other men.

In the Upper House.
The widespread condoning of Rennard’s behaviour and attitudes by Lib Dems in the House of Lords suggests that there may be many more old bottom pinchers, thigh rubbers and breast oglers in the Upper House, who are now somewhat nervous about their own backstories. And of course there are all those, including (mainly older) women, who have witnessed and/or experienced sexual harassment in the House, and let it pass, as either “just normal” or “a bit of fun”. . . .  The surge of Lib Dem support in the Lords for Rennard indicates how serious a problem both the House of Lords and the Lib Dem Party still present for women in 2014. Anachronistic is here a euphemism. It means ignorant and culpable. Your time is up.

val walsh / 20 01 2014

Afterword.
Polly Toynbee (Why make such a fuss? Here’s why, Lord Rennard, The Guardian, 21 01 2014) notes how “we are left with the impression that one man’s evidence seems to have carried more weight than four women complainants, sharia style”. She shares her own firsthand experience in a 1980s newsroom, as well as remembering how “more than one (Labour) cabinet minister needed his women staff protecting from slobbery kisses and aggressive fumblings”.

The good thing about the sleazy disclosures this and other recent cases have exposed, is that women of all ages and everywhere are talking and sharing about “slobbery kisses and aggressive fumblings”, and worse: in the cafe, at the gym, on the phone, by email and text and at meetings; finding memories jogged, as long-buried experiences resurface and flashbacks remind us of the insults and violations we have endured, kept to ourselves, or shared and been told to keep to ourselves. (See poems section.)

When the accused seeks to present himself as victim (Rennard’s latest ruse) of women as the attack dogs, and accuses his disapproving colleagues of a “lynch mob mentality” (Rowena Mason, ‘Rennard threatens legal action after Lib Dem suspension’, 21 01 2014, The Guardian), it is clear that Rennard’s struggle to retain power and dominion has an ugly way to run yet. But looking increasingly ridiculous as well as anachronistic, is surely the slippery slope, even for someone accustomed to power and dominance.

val walsh / 21 01 2014

Renegotiating the Union.

Linda Colley’s article (A bolder vision is needed for this disunited kingdom, The Guardian, 06 01 2014) is timely and welcome. Chewing over the situation with a friend in Wales via text the previous Friday, we identify with Scottish distaste for the current direction of travel in the UK/England, but also share our (selfish) horror at the prospect of an England irrevocably and forever overruled by rightwing Tories, in the event of Scotland leaving the UK. (Please don’t go.)

On Saturday, another friend and I are tearing our hair out (yet again) over tasty Lebanese food in Liverpool city centre, about the devastation being inflicted by the UK government (without mandate), and we go on to bemoan: ‘the lack of imagination and creativity thus far displayed by most of those seeking to make the unionist case’ (Colley, 06 01 2014). Exactly.

We decide we should convene an event in Liverpool, under the banner of ‘Renegotiating the Union: Peer (not power) relations, the possibility of federation.’ That is, putting England in its place, not as patriarchal head of the ‘family’, but as a peer. We would ask: What are we proud of about the UK? About England? What don’t we like? What kind of society are we? What kind of society do we aspire to be? What’s wrong with existing power relations, political relations (inequalities) etc., between Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, the isles and England?

What do we need to do to improve relations, make these fairer, for example? What legal, constitutional and institutional changes do we need to make, to create a sustainable and fair federation with oomph? ‘Home rule all round’ could kick start an imaginative political campaign for redrawing the map of England in terms of its values and purpose within the Union that also manages to confine toxic Tory power and influence to history. (And do we want to ring fence London as a kind of Monaco, for example?)

Out of the dissatisfaction (and despair) that is thickly spread across large stretches of the UK at the moment in the face of the Tory-led rampage, can come hope, ideas and action. We need to stop slumbering on this. Any takers? Linda Colley’s R4 series this last week, in daily 15 minute chunks, or the Friday night one hour compilation, together with her book on the same subject, could provide a real springboard for this positive process.

 

                                                                                                val walsh / 07 01 2014

 

 

 

 

Way to go: feminism as a shock to the system.

Unpublished letter to The Guardian (expanded).

I cheered Lucy Mangan’s succinct statement of the obvious re. the unnecessary idea of ‘rebranding’ feminism.[i] Dead right. And:

“Everyone just needs to keep at the forefront of their minds the fact that ‘check your privilege’ and ‘intersectionality’ are revolting words but    beautiful concepts, and proceed accordingly”.

Fab, feminist and funny.

But probing the problem of inequality and the obstacles presented by the historical and cultural role of male dominance in so many fields remains itself a ‘problem’, too often the ‘elephant in the room’: unnoticed, unmentioned, unscrutinised, glossed over. For example:

Fergal Keene, Professorial Associate at the Institute of Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool, was in conversation with Professor Marianne Elliott, the Blair Chair, Director of the Institute this week (14 11 2013) to a packed auditorium at the Eleanor Rathbone Building, on the subject of ‘Terror Through Time’ (ahead of his 25 part series for the BBC). He highlighted historical continuities and variations, and responded to questions and comments from the floor at the end with openness, sensitivity and an acknowledgement of the seriousness and complexity of the issues raised by ‘terrorism’, and our responses to it. He emphasised the centrality of the process of talking across differences, hostilities and in the context of violation and violence. And he stressed the importance of “facts” (sic) as a basis for understanding and action.

From the floor, I briefly voiced my concern that over time and across societies, terrorism was overwhelmingly the behaviour and actions of men, and that this fact seemed hardly addressed: i.e. noticed, discussed, critiqued, analysed, theorised and acted upon. My manner was low key and non confrontational.

At the end of the event, as we got up to leave, the woman in the next seat (a stranger) turned to me and asked: “So are you a member of a feminist organisation?” Startled (in the thematic circumstances of the occasion, it felt a bit like being asked if I was a member of a ‘subversive’ / ‘terrorist’ group. . !), I replied: “Yes. Several.” She added: “Those were strong words” and turned to follow her male partner out. I would have been happy to engage in further conversation with her.

That my quiet statement of the obvious but overlooked fact should draw what felt like a sharp (shocked?) reaction, tells us we have some way to go on our feminist journey towards equality and justice. Was she judging me ‘out of order’ / ‘extreme’? It felt like she thought I had lobbed a grenade into this public meeting at the University, and disturbed its decorum. She was tall, white and middle class in manner. Ah well, hurdles remain between us it seems . . . .

val walsh / 16 11 2013


[i]  Lucy Mangan (16 11 2013) ‘Forget rebranding. Feminism just needs to keep its eyes on the prize.’ The Guardian Weekend.

Denial and ignorance: the legacy of elite upbringing and (Oxbridge) education.

Unpublished Guardian letter 07 01 2012

‘Divide and rule’ (Andrew Sparrow, ‘Abbott survives sacking call’, 06 01 2012) is what oppressors do, whether on the home front, within an organisation or society, or globally. It is how the powerful (most commonly, historically, élite and white and male) deploy and abuse their power for their own purposes, to reinforce advantage and inequality. It is a routine feature of power that shades into dominance and abuse. I thought this fact of life was common knowledge.

What seems less understood is its link to the strictures of white western epistemology and its binary discipline: either/or; black/white; male/female, gay/straight, civilised/native, right/wrong, etc.. The evidence of history, sociology, psychology, feminism and postcolonial literature and theory, for example, bear witness to the dominance of this culturally specific mode of operating, which, as a result of relentless promotion, becomes normalised and internalised as both ‘natural’ and ‘right’.

Black American feminist scholars, theorists, novelists and poets, and postcolonial thinkers have suggested otherwise, drawing on their own cultural heritage and its ‘epistemology of connection as opposed to separation’ (Patricia Hill Collins’ Black Feminist Thought [1991]), where ‘both/and’, hybridity and dialogue, for example, are central to thought and understanding (see also the work of Audre Lorde, bell hooks, June Jordan and many others.) Toni Morrison’s words (1987) cited by Angelita Reyes (1996) in Etter-Lewis, G. & Foster, M [eds], Unrelated Kin: Race and Gender in Women’s Personal Narratives, testify to this difference, which I believe also resonates  in the lives of other non-élite women:

‘Black women seem able to combine the nest and the adventure. They don’t see conflicts in certain areas as do white women. They are both safe       harbour  and ship; they are both inn and trail.’

The cheap jibes, knee-jerk reactions and point-scoring that Diane Abbott’s comments triggered in England in 2012 are thus rooted in both ignorance and prejudice They demonstrate that these politicians and journalists, of the right and ‘left’, are unaware of these important cultural differences and their value, because they have seen no reason to explore anything beyond their own gated communities, that might dent their class-based / race-based / gender-based certainty, privilege and power.

By contrast, as a politicised black woman living in the UK, and as a very minority MP working in a white, male dominated parliament, Diane can and must bear witness to the realities of, for example, women / BME women and BME men. As a member of a long oppressed constituency, she is in a position to testify regarding inequalities, cultural differences and power differentials (i.e. the violence inherent in and consequent on inequality).

Diane is not implying that all white people are racists; but we have to admit the risk is high for us, given our resistance (as a constituency) to giving up our power and taking responsibility for our bloody historical record of cultural and economic dominance, exploitation and enslavement. White people have been very bad at even listening, never mind learning from the colonised Other. This is surely historical fact, not racist observation. But we also, on the evidence so far, have shown that we can refuse to be determined by that history: we can learn and develop, and across our differences, work for a more humane and just society.

The awareness, understanding and knowledge required at this special moment, if we are to forge a new politics and a dramatically revised society in the wake of both the financial crash and Doreen Lawrenson’s 18 year struggle to get the Metropolitan Police to do their job properly and bring her son Stephen’s murderers to court and to justice, have not hitherto been fostered by an élite (Oxbridge) education. That’s another fact, surely?

Feminist and postcolonial citizens / scholars / theorists, as cultural and political activists, have been mainly marginalized, ignored and demonised by powerful élites in academia, politics and the media. Society is paying a heavy price for this   ignorance and prejudice. But it is not too late to listen to these Other voices.

Shame on the Labour Party for not having the intelligence, integrity and courage to address the issues, as opposed to taking the patriarchal, bureaucratic route, by requiring Diane to deny hard-won knowledge, so as to appease our rightwing masters and oppressors. It is pretty close to implying that, in voicing her view, she was being ‘too black’, as well as too feminist (outspoken and articulate translating into ‘naughty girl’/‘troublemaker’).

Managed change, as opposed to the current social and economic catastrophe, requires the expertise of inquisitive minds and open hearts: reading, study, debate, and participation in multi-ethnic and feminist-inspired communities on as equal a footing as possible, not just looking on from your own enclave (whether in fear and/or superiority). This is not a lifestyle option or a PR opportunity, but both necessary and right: simultaneously both politics and ethics. In assuming the link between racism and misogyny/homophobia, will I now be accused of sexism?

val walsh