In 2012, my friend Rhiannon and I set up a tongue-in-cheek blog for our female friends called the Vagenda. A few weeks later, we were hailed by the press as an example of “feminists on the internet”. We hadn’t studied feminism, but we agreed with the media that we were, indeed, feminists, since we believed in gender equality. We felt no need to eschew the label.
About six months later, I saw something interesting online and tweeted “Hey ladybros, what do you think of this?” with some innocuous link included. Needless to say, all hell broke loose. “What sort of piece of s**t so-called feminist website uses a word like that?” someone replied. “Have you thought about how that could make transgender people feel? Aren’t you educated?”
It stung because, clearly, I wasn’t. I apologised to the person who had been offended and admitted I’d never thought about it, but would do so in future.
Then the same thing happened a few months later when I co-wrote an article that said “in defence of Caitlin Moran, popular feminism has done a lot for the young women of today.” Moran was a racist, I was told (she’d implied she didn’t care much about diversity in the TV show Girls that week), and if we unthinkingly associated ourselves with her then we must not care about racism either. A few months after that, we sat on a panel with other feminist writers when a teenage girl stood up and asked a question about what cultural appropriation meant. “You can Google it,” said the respondent, sharply. “Everyone has Google. It’s not my job to educate you.”
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Yes, everyone has Google – but not everyone has been given the tools to educate themselves. You might have missed the memo on the ins and outs of intersectionality if you didn’t have an expensive private education or go to an elite university with an active Feminist Society where these ideas are routinely discussed. It doesn’t mean you wouldn’t be open to learning about it – but it does mean that what comes out of your mouth might not be quite so polished.
This week threw up a few strange developments for left-wing politics: Theresa May is sick of the “liberal elite”, she announced, while Momentum is supposedly being run by them. The latter is hard to deny when Momentum chair Jon Lansman is a privately educated Oxbridge graduate and every local meeting of the movement seems to be run by a plummy-voiced young man with no day job and a double-barrelled surname. The kinds of people who always know the right thing to say.
What happens if you’re 62-year-old Jackie Walker, mixed race and Jewish, who spent her childhood being shunted around London by social services, living between foster families, her mentally ill single mother’s house, and children’s homes, while the other kids taunted her with aggressive racial jibes?
Walker was, until recently, a vice-chair of Momentum. She was removed from her position three days ago after making controversial comments about how Holocaust memorials should be more inclusive and how she hadn’t found a definition of anti-Semitism she “could work with”.
“[She is Jewish, and she] brought it up at a Jewish event, attended mostly by other Jews,” wrote Sam Kriss, who is also Jewish, for Vice. “It might not be opportune to bring it up on Question Time, or in parliament, but if we can't talk about it in this kind of space, where can we?”
Where, indeed? The spaces are getting fewer and fewer, and now that they are run mainly by upper middle class white graduates championing the causes of the working classes. Other people attend, of course, but their voices are often drowned out by the self-appointed leaders taking control of the situation, the ones who have always been told they are the leaders of tomorrow.
And now the Tories are going to be the “new workers’ party”, according Theresa May’s conference speech this week. She justified the claim by saying that Labour hates “the public”, finds northerners ridiculous and southerners parochial, has abandoned its central ideology and become a gigantic safe space for “left-wing human rights lawyers”. The line works well for the Conservatives specifically because Labour’s so-called “grassroots movement” is now dominated by PhD students who roll their eyes when people like Jackie Walker open their mouths and wander off message – or, worse, shut them down entirely.
When you’re the party of the workers, your members won’t always say the right thing. They won’t have the privilege of a fantastic education or the subtle training in personal PR offered by parents who are lawyers and bankers, whose dining rooms are an early training in how to handle supper with the CEO. It doesn’t mean that their ideas are unintelligent or foolish, merely that they could be unpolished. If you want inoffensive soundbites, honed until they’re stripped of meaning or controversy, then perhaps a fringe event at the Labour conference isn’t where you should be.
Labour voters were lost to Ukip because they want “straight talking” people, not spin. Now the Tory Government that is explicitly stating it wants to reach out to them too.
Claiming that it’s “not your job to educate people” doesn’t really work in politics, where social empowerment is found in teaching one another about experiences, theories and ideology. There is nothing safe about a space where participants are berated for not using the proper terminology to describe a complex social phenomenon. And there is nothing noble or compassionate about throwing “uneducated” people under the bus because you don’t want to have a difficult conversation.
As she made abundantly clear this week, if Labour keeps closed down the dialogue with the working class, Theresa May is more than happy to open it.
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