Saturday, March 26, 2011

On Naivety and Renewed Hope

Cross-posted at Where's the Benefit?

Three years ago I wrote a terrifically na├»ve post for the BBC Ouch! Blog entitled Who's afraid of Wellfare Reform? At the time I believed that there was some real fear-mongering going on, brought about by conjecture on the part of a desperate unpopular government heading into a financial crash. I thought that it was all rhetoric – categorising unemployable people as employable makes for bad statistics. A financial crash was coming and in the next few years, the last thing any government would want to do was risk an artificial rise in unemployment.

I have to counteract the humility with which I admit to such a mistake with the only explanation I have; I am smarter than the government. It's not exactly a boast. Even if I shared the current administration's contempt for people without alarm clocks, the assault on disability benefits is becoming a political disaster. If things are allowed to carry on as they are going, hundreds of thousands of unemployable people will be added to the already record unemployment. Further hundreds of thousands, who they government is spending money on trying to support into work, will never get into work because either they are totally unfit for work or there is no work flexible enough to employ them. And then there is the shift in the media and public feeling, as the human cost increases.

There are three dominant narratives in our culture about disability; triumph, tragedy and villainry. Disabled villains are self-pitying wretches who frequently exaggerate or even fabricate their impairments in order to manipulate others. Thus the media's love of disability benefit fraud - the more audacious, the better. And thus the Daily Mails's recent glee in spinning disablity benefits statistics to make unremarkable facts, like some people have been disabled for more than ten years, sound scandalous.

But that can't last. Until recently, everyone had an anecdote about their friend's uncle's neighbour who claimed Incapacity Benefit for an ingrowing toenail, had one of those mythical free cars and spent half the year skiing on the Costa Brava. Increasingly, everyone has an anecdote about someone they know who has a serious chronic illness, but who has been denied disability benefits, is being subjected to months of stress as they appeal, isn't able to leave the house any more because they can't afford the energy and expense, isn't getting the practical care they need to keep clean and eat properly and so on.

Some people are in deadly danger. Only being a notch or two smarter than the government, three years ago I wrote “All we can be subjected to is yet more hassle and insecurity - not good, but not disasterous.” It was very clumsy to suggest that any increase in the hassle and insecurity we have always experienced wouldn't be disasterous for some of us, but I can't berate myself for failing to imagine that things could be handled this badly. There has always hassle and insecurity - this autumn I was dealing with DLA renewal forms and divorce papers at the same time, and I really couldn't say which was the greatest source of stress. But it is as if the holes in the safety net are widening and falling straight through is becoming a serious prospect for people who don't have the resources or the energy to reach out and cling on. Our most vulnerable have become so much more vulnerable.

It was a matter of time before the tragedies associated with the disability benefit cuts became the story. This has already begun, chiefly in the Guardian and the Mirror. And this government have done as much as they could to turn the public against disabled people – hate crime which includes a reference to DLA simply cannot be unconnected to government rhetoric on disability benefits. But they have forgotten that disabled people are the public. Disabled people are the public's friends, neighbours and family members. Disabled people are what non-disabled people frequently become with age. Disability benefits and the public services we rely upon are part of the deal that everyone has been paying tax for, so that if they or those they love have the need, the support will be there.

Thanks and good wishes to everyone marching today from those of us whose impairments prevent us from doing so. If you're at home today, you can still participate in the DPAC virtual protest and follow the @wheresbenefit gang on Twitter.

Friday, March 25, 2011

My young man is a feminist

Of course, Stephen was always a feminist. Feminism is simply the acknowledgement that there is social, cultural and political inequality between the genders and although that can hurt everybody, this is especially disadvantageous to women. Stephen already knew all that, but he didn't imagine that he could be called a feminist - even after I pointed out that he shares a birthday with that great he-feminist and father of liberalism, John Stuart Mill.

I have always called myself a feminist and it was very late in the day that I realised that many people who share this world-view nevertheless find the word problematic. And they give similar objections to those that Stephen raised:

  1. Feminists believe that men and women have exactly equal attributes and abilities.

This is what a feminist looks like, sometimes

Stephen thought this because he had encountered self-proclaimed feminists who really did believe that.

Feminism rejects gender essentialism – the idea that there are fundamental physical, intellectual and psychological differences between all men and all women. There are approximate physical markers when we talk about sex, but all these differences are about typicalities – typical combinations of X and Y chromosomes, typical shape and function of reproductive organs and so on. Sex is biological and messy enough, but gender is a social construct and much much messier. (See Sex and Gender: An Introduction, which gets daily hits from people looking for the "gender" of their goldfish.)

When it comes to non-reproductive attributes and abilities, again, there are some typical differences. For example, a typical man can run faster than a typical woman of his age and equivalent level of fitness, but a younger woman is likely able to outrun an older man and an athletic woman can outrun most men. This means that out of any group of people, your fastest runner is likely to be a man, but it wouldn't be remarkable if it turned out to be a woman.

There also appear to be some subtle differences between a typical man and a typical woman when it comes to intellectual and psychological attributes. However, it is impossible to say which of these, if any, are innate, because gender programming is all-pervading and starts at birth. It is very difficult to study gender without inadvertently encouraging participants to live-up to gender stereotypes within tests.

But popular science, especially sound-bite science in the news media, loves stories about how gender stereotypes are either being proved or dramatically disproved, frequently missing the point of the original research in order to exchange a knowing “Men, eh?” or “Women, eh?” with the reader. From the last 24 hours we have Modern Men Prefer Powerful Women, some research by a gaming company, Women as Likely as Men to Enjoy Casual Sex, some research which spoke only to men and women who did enjoy casual sex, and Losing Virginity Makes Women Feel Less Pretty, more thorough but depressing research which concluded that over the course of college, everyone's self image deteriorated.

This is not to say that there are no innate intellectual or psychological differences between the typical man and the typical woman. There may well be lots. But, they will be subtle, there will be a great deal of variation and it seems extremely unlikely that any difference will ever justify unequal treatment or opportunities.

  1. Many feminists hate men.

This is a very difficult area, because (a) the idea that feminists hate men is the basis for all lazy refutations of feminist arguments (b) feminist arguments are frequently misconstrued because the most extreme position is the most attention-grabbing one and (c) some feminists probably do hate men. There are a lot of troubled people in the world and feminism is yet to exercise an effective vetting program.

The idea that feminists hate men is an (ironically) ad hominem argument which people get away with because to hate men is a ludicrous, irrational and immoral position. If you're disagreeing with man-haters, who wouldn't be on your side? But feminism is not a position on what men are like - in fact, in rejecting gender-essentialism, the sentiment that all men are bastards (or cheats or rapists or whatever else) is decidedly unfeminist.

Which brings me onto misconstruction. Marilyn French was the feminist who is often accredited as stating that “All men are rapists.” Only she didn't. A fictional character (complex and not wholly sympathetic) in a novel she wrote, The Women's Room, said, “All men are rapists and that's all they are. They rape us with their eyes, their laws and their codes.” So not only the words of a fictional character, but one talking about metaphorical rape. It was years after having read The Women's Room that I realised that this was the context in which that famous "feminist" sentiment was uttered. And yet all over the internet this and other sentiments are attributed to feminists, paraphrased and out of context.

I have, however, occasionally encountered female feminists who have such a profound mistrust of men that it is prejudice. This is a problem for feminism. However, in all my reading and listening, the worst any misandrist feminist wishes on a man is distance. This cannot be compared to the misogynists of this world who never want distance from women. They want to control and dominate women and often feel that violence is justified against those who deviate from their ideals. All hatred is bad, but some hatred is more dangerous than others.

  1. Feminists are unconcerned with ways in which gender inequality effects boys and men.

My favourite feminist group blog, The Pursuit of Harpyness, helped me correct this misconception with three posts from the last few weeks:

(a) A blogger reports on a news article which makes titillation out of sexual exploitation of male prisoners by female prison guards in NY Post sez Prison Sex is Romance, Not Rape

(b) One blogger's husband is driven to desperation by unemployment and the cultural expectations of the masculine provider and protector in On Shaking It Off and Moving Forward

(c) A male blogger talks about his frustrated desire to be a father and the lack of sympathy he gets from those around him in Guy, Interrupted.

Anything which hurts women hurts men and vice versa. The whole point of feminism is that we are all human beings, all equally deserving of respect, freedom and protection, socially and politically. There are ways in which men and boys are disadvantaged by dominant ideas of masculinity and femininity. There are even some ways in which things are getting worse -like the problems of boys, especially black boys, in education. But feminism isn't doing that.

Gender equality or inequality are not travelling on a smooth trajectory, powered by feminism and always heading in the same direction. Overall, things are improving, here and throughout the world. But sometimes things get worse for women, sometimes things get worse for men and it all matters to feminists.

Whether feminists talk about the problems of men enough, I really can't say. But lots of people feel marginalised by that vague entity of mainstream feminism, the sort of you see in major blogs and newspaper columns, which tends to focus almost exclusively on the experiences of middle class, highly educated, heterosexual, white, young, non-disabled, cis-gendered women. But if something isn't being spoken about enough, the only solution is to start talking about it.

[Image description: A black and white image of a handsome young white man with dark hair and spectacles pulling a very silly face, as if suddenly alarmed at the realisation of his lifelong feminism.]

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Being, Doing and Nothingness

Recently, I've been feeling rather positive about my health. I'm not used to thinking about my health at all, except in terms of how much can I do today and when something changes. But recently, a little hope has crept in. My health is not improving dramatically, but I am now in a better position to really take care of myself than I have been for as long as I have been ill. As a result, I feel a very great deal healthier. Functional impairment has barely shifted, but my skin is clearer, my muscle-tone is wonderful by my standards and I haven't had so much as a cold in eighteen months. I am more robust than I can ever remember being.

It's an alarming thought that I have been sick for approaching fifteen years, and up until the last six months or so, I have always lived in a very physically and psychologically difficult environment. I have never really had a chance to look after myself properly.

One downright dangerous thought to follow this would be how well might I have been now if things had been different? But therein lies madness, or at least profound silliness – some of the the journey was no fun at all, but I wouldn't have wanted to change the destination. Much.

I hadn't noticed how much the way I experience illness has changed until the random but substantial dip that I'm climbing out of now. For many years, there was tremendous pressure, both internal and external, for me to be as functional as possible. To be able to do things. To be able to study or write or keep house or look after other people. This meant I was in the habit of pushing through things until I collapsed, sometimes literally. I took the existence of this pressure for granted - I thought it was an inevitable part of the reality of living with chronic illness. I took the constant questioning of what my limitations were to be an inevitable consequence of living with another person whilst having chronic illness. And then suddenly, the pressure lifted.

If I am under any pressure at all at the moment, it is to look after myself. Not so that I can get well enough to be able to do more, but simply so that I am okay. Because I keep moving about the country, there are up to five people at any one time, who are highly invested in my being as comfortable, calm and contented as possible and nothing more than that.

Even so, it is difficult to shake off the idea that to be more ill is to be in people's way, holding them up, making work for them and inviting the suspicion that I'm milking it and that my perception is not to be trusted. And this makes me a difficult patient. Pushing myself, expecting to be ignored and apologising for everything makes people worry and fuss. It is a revelation to me that, if I'm hurting a great deal and struggling to stay awake, the best thing I can do for other people is stay still and ask for the things I need.

A part of me thinks that I am being spoilt in my current situation, because I am being looked after, unconditionally. And I know it is a lucky position to be in. But the idea that there is anything wrong here only works if you believe that every individual must fend for themselves, practically and financially. And most people don't. Most people live and work in teams of some sort or other, disabled or not. I have my dips, but so do everybody.

Yes, a bit of a ramble. But so much is changing in my life at the moment, I feel inclined to put some of that down. But of course I am living mid-story and I'm still not terribly awake.