A friend posted this link on facebook this morning, and for some reason (lack of coffee? lack of sense?) I clicked on it: This Cute 10 Minute Film Of A Deaf-Mute Girl Will Warm Your Heart.

…I’m not even touching that title. The story (omg spoilers, sorry!) shows Swetha, a Deaf schoolteacher, having a (paper) sign-based cross-balcony flirtation with her new neighbour, Ajay. They are about to arrange to meet in person when Swetha reveals her deafness, and Ajay flips his shit (er, signs) and fucks off. Swetha looks sad for a while but then Ajay does a Big Romantic Gesture by apologising via Swetha’s whole class of kids and almost-learning a whole sentence of sign language in order to ask her out on a date. Then they get married and live happily ever after or something.

It’s a familiar pattern in hetero romance stories: Man and Woman are having a flirtation. Man does something rude/awful/offensive/&c. Man apologises, usually by some Grand Gesture. Woman (and audience) forgive him, and love him ever so much more than before. This time with added overtones of “Aww, isn’t he so sweet for loving that disabled person, despite her terrible disability!” Excuse my heart for failing to be warmed.

I want to know where this narrative trope came from. I want to know why it’s still considered so acceptable. Ajay’s apology, while sweetly executed, should really only bring him back up to zero. And yet, again and again, the same story. Man fucks up. Man apologises. Man is always and eternally forgiven. Whereas women? Women just … never fuck up. Ever — unless they’re planning on turning evil forever.


Or: I weigh in on another irritating twitter argument

Yesterday, in the midst of RMT strikes in London, Strike Magazine retweeted this six-month-old article by David Graeber, “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs,” in which he speculates (among much else) that tube workers have little support from the general public because everyone else is totes jelly that their jobs are actually meaningful rather than bullshit.

@muzrobertson replied to question the idea of “bullshit jobs” in the first place, noting that tube workers assist capitalism as much as corporate lawyers. I’m not sure if this was a genuine or a willful misunderstanding of the ideas in Graeber’s (admittedly somewhat turbid) article, but I rather suspect the latter given his later tweet: “On which tube stop do I get off at to see the staff existing outwith of capitalist relations?” In any case there didn’t seem to be any kind of genuine engagement from either side in the ensuing discussion, because there is fertile theoretical ground underneath all this… well, bullshit.

On the one hand, yes, it’s obvious that there are very few jobs that don’t help to facilitate capitalism. On the other hand, it’s also clear that there is some work that is simply more meaningful than other work. The criterion for calling something a ‘bullshit job’ can’t just be that it facilitates capitalism, because that encompasses nearly the entire set of ‘jobs’, and the term is therefore useless. One could of course, say that ‘jobs are bullshit’, and I’d probably agree, but I think that the useful point here is to distinguish alienation from meaninglessness. Graeber appears to be using ‘bullshit’ to apply exclusively to ‘meaningless’, whereas @muzrobertson seems to be arguing from the position that alienation from one’s labour, in and of itself, makes work bullshit – and I think he’s right in that, except in that he is arguing against a strawman constructed from Graeber’s somewhat bombastic terminology, rather than (apparently) anything in his actual arguments.

Still, there’s a really, really easy rule of thumb here: Would your job exist in a non-capitalist society? If so, it is probably meaningful. And in the case of the tube workers, it is evident that drivers and certain station staff would be necessary, while the issuing and checking of tickets likely would not. However, given that the strikes are happening within the capitalist system, and that the meaningful nature of a job bears no relation to the workers’ actual struggles, the whole question seems fairly academic – and certainly not a reason to draw support away from the striking workers. Which, I hasten to add none of the participants in this argument seemed to have any intention of doing. The whole thing reads rather depressingly like yet another “Your theoretical position provides insufficient support for the workers!” “No, your theoretical position provides insufficient support for the workers!”

A few days ago, news broke of the genome-sequencing of DNA from a 7000-year-old skeleton found in Spain. While information about the ancient (variously described) man-or-boy’s genetic information is of course interesting on all sorts of levels — for instance, his lactose intolerance gives clues to the timing of pastoralism — both of the news sources I encountered focused primarily on his appearance. You see, he was (OMG) dark-skinned, but … get this … he had … BLUE EYES! I know right! Here’s the Guardian: Swarthy, blue-eyed cave man revealed using DNA from ancient tooth and the New Scientist: Ancient European hunter-gatherer was a blue-eyed boy.

The New Scientist also noted that in addition to dark skin, the man/boy had “hair like his African ancestors”. Both they and the Guardian chose to illustrate the story with this image:

Three days later, the Guardian ran this story about how nearly 20% of Neanderthal DNA lives on in modern humans. The article goes on to detail how much of the DNA that’s been retained is in keratin, a protein found in hair, nails, and skin. Now, I’m no geneticist, but to me that certainly implies that it’s at least possible that things like straight hair and relatively light skin — i.e., the traits shared by most non-African human populations, who carry Neanderthal DNA — might have come from Neanderthals. Indeed, the New Scientist’s version of the same story goes into detail specifically about Neanderthals passing on at least one of the genes involved in skin pigmentation, and speculates that Neanderthal keratin might have influenced Eurasians’ straight hair. The Guardian, though, chose to illustrate that story like this:

(The New Scientist, to their credit, used an illustration of a white guy of apparently indeterminate species.)

Now, look. I’m not an archaeologist, or a geneticist, or in any way qualified to comment on the actual science behind these stories. I’m not commenting on the science behind them. And it’s possible (though it seems unlikely) that the two illustrations above are fair representations of something that whatever the actual science behind these stories indicates. If so, though, it got well lost in translation. I try very hard, as a matter of general principle, to give people the benefit of the doubt, to extend maximal argumentative charity. But when one news story says “dark-skinned, blue-eyed man/boy with African-textured hair” and is illustrated with a drawing of a white guy with a tan, while another talks about Neanderthals having imparted skin and hair DNA to Eurasian humans, and is illustrated with a picture of a person with light eyes and Neanderthal brow ridges but who looks otherwise African, it’s hard to see that as anything but the tired, insidious repetition of the old idea that African people are somehow more “primitive” than others, particularly Europeans. The modern human, being human, is made as light as possible given the evidence presented in the story the illustration accompanies, and then a few shades lighter than that, just for good measure. While the Neanderthal, an extinct species whose very name has become synonymous with ‘primitive’, well, they’re well ancient, right? Better make them as brown as possible, no matter what the actual evidence being presented is saying. It is as though whoever makes (or matches) the illustrations for these stories did not even read their contents — they just went with whichever image “felt right”, which of course means “moar primitive = moar darker”. It is not only contributing to the stigmatization of Blackness (a drop in the bucket, maybe, but still); it is quite literally dehumanizing it.

It’s been a week of twitterstorms for me. Or, to paraphrase some dude on Twitter, a fantastic week for the aggrieved white male Leninist academic – and by extension, for those who argue for the need for intersectional critiques within leftist political movements, as these two essays make our point quite (in)admirably.

First, Mark Fisher posted this interminably long and rambling essay bemoaning the practice of leftists calling out other leftists for their bigotry on social media, via the strained and incoherent quasi-Engelian metaphor of a “vampire’s castle“, which is apparently where all the intersectionalists live and practice our evil, movement-draining bourgeois liberalism. A few days later, Ross Wolfe posted up this essay by James Heartfield as a sort of continuation/response, more explicitly addressing the concept of ‘intersectionality’ and why it is oh-so-wrong and divisive.

The thing is, both Fisher and Heartfield are committing a (deeply ironic) category error when they attack intersectionality and its expressions as being “draining” or “divisive”. Intersectionality, like the discourses of privilege that gave rise to its articulation, can actually be summarised in a few very basic principles:

1. The dominant society, while it privileges a very small group of people, oppresses the rest of us in several different ways – e.g. race, class, gender, sexual orientation, etc.

2. People who are oppressed along one axis can still be privileged in others. I say ‘can still be’, but it seems likely that in actuality every single person has some areas of privilege in their lives, and that almost every person (barring only a subsection of the set of straight white rich cis-male able-bodied Westerners) also has some areas of oppression.

3. Even people who are active in the fight against one or more axes of oppression (including, for instance, all self-proclaimed lefties) can still have blind spots from their own areas of privilege, can still be bigots.

That last point includes even those who are within the relevant oppressed groups themselves. Internalised misogyny is A Thing. Internalised racism is A Thing. This shit is structural, y’know? You can’t grow up in a culture steeped in white supremacy, patriarchy, neoliberalism, etc., without that colouring the way you view the world. None of us can. So the point is to work with each other to root out those toxic patterns and build something better in their place.

We can’t do that, though, if every time someone calls out a comrade for their racism, their misogyny, their tranphobia, their ablism (etc.), they get told to shut up because pointing out bigotry “divides the movement”. That silencing tactic is so old, and I was really starting to think that we – the broad left – were finally starting to get over it. Probably because I live in an insular liberal vampire castle on twitter, sucking the living labour out of the righteous working class movement.


Okay. About liberalism. Continue Reading »

The internet is full of “life hacks” lately, and mostly that’s great. Sometimes, however… Continue Reading »

Or: (Incomplete) List of Words and Phrases that Piss Me the Fuck Off

1. “In her own right”

Originally a term denoting an aristocratic woman’s titles as inherited through her parents rather than her husband, this is a phrase you’ll see again and again in biographies and obituaries. Often it will appear as an aside in the biographies of famous men, announcing that their wives (or mothers, sisters, etc.) had also engaged in the activity that made them famous — and this is bad enough. But it also appears with an alarming frequency in the biographies or (especially) obituaries of women who’ve done important things.

That last qualifier is of course a bit redundant, since the only women who usually get biographies or lengthy obituaries written of them in the first place are the ones who’ve done important things, or are famous (or infamous). But this is precisely the point. Many such women were associated in some way, such as marriage, with men who were also famous and/or did important things. Many, because of sexism, were totally overshadowed by said men, or are less well-remembered, and so their biographers and obituarists feel they must assert the importance of the remembered woman’s works.

The problem is that “in her own right”, by its very assertiveness, calls into question the ability (or, indeed, even the right) of the discussed woman to do the things or fill the role that she did. This is surely the opposite of what most biographers mean to be denoting with it, but it shouldn’t be surprising. Consider the origins of the phrase: aristocratic women in Europe usually did not inherit titles, except where they inconveniently lacked brothers or close-enough male cousins to take them instead. For a woman to hold a title in her own right was exceptional, remarkable, very much not the norm. To use this phrase of a woman is therefore to define her in terms of her husband (or potential husband), and not — as is supposedly the point — in her own right.

2. “Vagina”

My objections to this word are remarkably similar to the above. Latin for ‘sheath’, it inherently defines itself in terms of the penis (or, at the very least, phallus). A sheath is, after all, only even meaningful as a thing in its property of covering or being made or intended to cover or surround some other thing.

3. “Cunt”

CUNT. Not for its own sake — ‘cunt’ is a wonderful word — but because of all the bullshit around it. Etymologically, cunt is actually very much the best word for female genitalia, since (as far as I know) it is the only word that originally and always meant just that, with its other senses derived from its sense as ‘genitalia’, rather than the other way around. It is also, as recently pointed out to me by Lucy, one of the only words whose referent both actually is and is commonly understood to be the whole thing, rather than just the vulva, the vagina, or pubic hair. (‘Vagina’, of course, is popularly used, and understood, as a synecdoche for the whole of the female genital system, but that is wrong. Properly speaking, it only refers to the sheathy bit.)

Why, then, are so many people offended by this perfectly cromulent word? My theory is that it is in fact because of its above-mentioned original and continuous referent of ‘female genitalia’. Long before anyone started raising “feminist” objections to its use in reference to ‘a woman’, delicate 18th- and 19th-Century writers and even lexicographers were replacing it with “the monosyllable”, and the long lists of often quite circuitous slang terms for it speak very strongly of our collective cultural discomfort with cunts-qua-body-parts, as much or more than of ‘cunt’-qua-word-for-one.

I do understand the feminist objections to using this word as an insult. I do. Spears’ Dictionary of American Slang reportedly defines ‘cunt’, in its insulting sense, as “women considered as nothing more than a receptacle for the penis”, which is indeed enormously offensive (see: ‘vagina’). But I’m not sure that most or even many people who use ‘cunt’ as an insult mean it in that precise a sense. ‘Cunt’ when one simply means ‘of or like female genitalia’ (or even ‘of or like a woman’), and thus deployed with intent to wound, is also kind of offensive, sure — but it is no more offensive than ‘pussy’ used in the same way. ‘Cunt’ is also an all-purpose insult along the same lines as ‘dick’ or ‘cock’, and while I do wish that our society were not so configured that words for genitalia were considered appropriate swear words, I fully defend our right to use them, and I’m not going to get angry about ‘cunt’ used as a generalized swear word until ‘dick’ and ‘cock’ have also fallen out of use.

In any case, what really frosts my cunt about all the supposedly feminist hoo-ha over ‘cunt’ is that the same people who get so offended on behalf of women’s poor little lady-feelings about our lady-bits seem perfectly okay with the use of words like

4. “Hysterical”

Not in the sense of ‘very, very funny’* but as in ‘mad’, ‘crazy’, ‘characterized by hysteria‘, this is the most offensive word in the English language — or at least the most offensive that isn’t regularly labelled in dictionaries as a ‘slur’.

Although the wikipedia entry on ‘Female Hysteria‘ contains a carefully placed disclaimer that it should not be confused with the undifferentiated ‘Hysteria’, its own section on the history of the term gives the lie to that disclaimer. ‘Hysteria’, from the Greek term of the same usage meaning literally ‘suffering in the womb’, is an inherently gendered word. For most of its history, the term ‘female hysteria’ would have been a redundancy, because ‘hysteria’ was a disease of women. Women and their strange, dangerous, uncontrollable emotions. Even when applied to men, it was (and, let’s be honest, still basically is) a feminizing term; to accuse a man of being hysterical is to accuse him of being ‘like a woman’ — just as to accuse a woman of being hysterical is to accuse her of being ‘like a woman’. The very, very worst thing of all.


* The ‘very, very funny’ sense is of course related — it means ‘so funny as to make a person laugh as though hysterical’, only so truncated that the adjective becomes attached to the object of the emotion rather than its subject, thus making it so tangential that to be offended by its etymology would be a bit much, even for me.

… for that particular feeling of hesitant trepidation, or trepidatious hesitancy, felt before turning off a hot shower on a really cold day.

It could be generalized, I suppose, for any situation in which one must leave an intensely comfortable but ultimately untenable situation. Your warm, cozy bed. The warm, cozy kettle which you must eventually put down, and stop hugging to your body like a beloved child. An industrial economy based on fossil fuels. Capitalism. Money.

Because, like, this shit can’t go on forever, right?

Stupid fat hobbits