Tuesday, January 15, 2013

First, Believe Them

If you do just one thing in the promotion of equality and social justice, it should be this:

When someone gives an account of their own experience, believe them. 

If at some point along the way, something jars, something doesn't feel right and you begin to doubt what's being said, then by all means, doubt away. But always start off from the default position of faith in your fellow man.

One of the defining experiences of belonging to a marginalised group is to be mistrusted at every turn. You go to the doctor, they won't take your symptoms seriously. You go to the police about a crime committed against you, and justice is a pipe dream. You're treated as suspect because of who you are. You wish to marry and you're told your love isn't what it feels like. Every time you try to make your own life better - or simply more bearable - you are up against gatekeepers who don't trust your motives, who don't believe your account of things. You assert your faith or lack thereof and are told you are deluded. Then when people, whether this week's comedian or fashionable activist, say disgusting and insulting things about people like you, any argument you make will be dismissed as if you are the one throwing the shit, spoiling the fun and turning positive movements in on themselves.

I've often suspected that there's something about me which makes me particularly credible. But in common with anyone (especially a woman) who has seen enough doctors, I have been told on occasion that my perceptions of what is happening to my body (particularly gynaecological events) are wrong. Not the cause of my experience - I'm not a doctor - but the very symptoms I am experiencing.  As a bisexual person, I've been told that whatever I say about deep-seated emotional experiences, I am in fact straight.  Not that I have misunderstood what bisexuality is, but that it is impossible that I should feel what I say I feel.

Nobody has directly questioned my experiences of various forms of violence and abuse, but this is largely because I have not given them the opportunity; I certainly live in a culture which treats these experiences with scepticism and I read and hear opinions which question experiences just like mine. I read and hear questions about;

  • Whether these things really happen.
  • Whether these things are really all that big a deal.
  • Whether in fact, both parties are equally to blame. 
  • Whether victims may be motivated by the prospect of compensation, a favourable divorce settlement, a legal advantage in custody battles, malice, the need for attention or a wish to cover up their own misbehaviour.
It isn't that nobody ever lies.  People do lie and some people will tell lies in just about any context you can think of.  But most people don't lie, most of the time.  And when someone is vulnerable and needs support, medical treatment or police help, when someone comes out to you, or expresses a fear, tells you a secret or recounts the hurt they have felt, they have a particularly strong motivation to be telling the truth.  Nobody does any of these things for no reason. They have a huge cost when they go wrong - some have a huge cost whatever happens - a cost that a casual fibber is unlikely to risk.  

Meanwhile, the only way to get to the truth is by listening to all the information. The only way to do that is to start from a position of faith in what you are being told. Automatic scepticism shuts down this opportunity; you will never know whether you were being told the whole truth, a half-truth, a complicated truth or an outright lie. 

This isn't all about power, but it is power that ties all these strings together. Whilst many of us have faced this mistrust, all of us have the power to mistrust others. And folks do. In newspapers and around dinner tables, we regularly see this kind of scepticism applied to those with less power than us.

Take fat as an uncomplicated and sadly socially acceptable example. Roughly every week or so, there's a news story about the Obesity Epidemic with angst about how fat everyone is. And do you know one of the big reasons it's still acceptable to talk about fat people in derogatory and judgemental terms? Because, many believe, they tell so many pork pies. I'm afraid my family are weird and anxious about food, weight and health, so regularly have discussions where I hear that fat people;

  • lie to themselves and the world about how much food they eat and how much exercise they get.
  • lie to themselves about how heavy they are, and pretend they don't have a problem.
  • lie to themselves about what they look like.
  • lie to the world about any medical conditions, medications or other life circumstances that make weight much harder to control. 
  • lie to the world if they have mobility problems; a fat person who can't walk, can't walk because they're fat.  Fat people are immune to ill health unrelated to their weight.
  • lie to the world if they say that they're fit and healthy. 
  • lie to the world if they say that they're happy the way they are.

(Incidently, these discussions frequently involve one or two people who would fit medical criteria for morbid obesity, but of course, aren't fat fat and anyway, in their case, it's glandular. Meanwhile, there are invariably people there who smoke or eat no fruit and vegatables or indulge in similar behaviour in breech of universal guidelines for healthy living. But exposing the lies of those others, these absent fatties who are not there to defend themselves, gives folk at the table such power.)

Less often, in my presence, these conversations are about disabled people - not me, you understand, or anyone else we know, but those others, most so-called disabled people in fact, who are just exaggerating things, or making them up entirely, and just looking for attention and money - so much money to be made by affecting a limp! I try to tell them how much - I can provide figures and stats - but they don't believe me.

I was thinking about all this in a week where the police report into Jimmy Savile's prolific abuse of women and children was published, and folk come up with all manner of explanations for how he got away with it. One big reason - not the only one, but a whopper - is that we treat young people, especially girls and young women, especially poor youngsters, especially those identified as troubled on account of their mental health or family background, as if they cannot be believed. We treat almost anybody who complains of sexual assault as someone who is probably lying, even when any reason we can dream up for such a lie is far less likely than an actual sexual assault taking place.

Also this week, following the reporting of malpractice allegations against a particular gender reassignment doctor, there's been the #Transdocfail hashtag, which has flooded my Twitterstream with tales of mistreatment, dismissal, neglect, misdiagnosis, personal insults and sexual harrassment endured by trans people seeking medical treatment. There was then an almighty row over the language used by femininist Suzanne Moore (in this piece, the non-apology, but particulary on Twitter). Moore left twitter and several prominent powerful journalists and writers spoke of her having been hounded off by a politically correct mob - folk like Paris Lees, who wrote this beautiful letter to her. There then followed the single most vile piece of hate speech I think I've ever read in a national newspaper, by Julie Burchill, which has been taken down for now and I can only conclude was a cynical move on the part of the Observer to get more website hits when everyone flipped out over it.

So trans folk are certainly a group who are not believed about their life experiences. People seem to doubt;

  • Whether they are transgender in the first place (and whether that status exists). 
  • That a trans person can have medical and mental health problems unrelated to gender.
  • That a trans woman is a woman, like other women, who experiences sexism and other gender nonsense (let alone additional gender nonsense). 
  • Ditto trans men. 
  • That when a trans person says they feel hurt or upset, it is because they feel hurt or upset.  

We could add to this list that trans people are not a powerful and aggressive political lobby, braying to lynch anyone who uses out of date terminology. But I suspect people only pretend to think this when called out on their own abusive behaviour. See, as with all things, there is a time for doubt.

Trans is an area where I had a long way to travel. I used to think that, whilst magnanamously believing that the happiness of people alive now was paramount, one day we would achieve complete sexual equality and everybody would be happy in whatever bodies they'd been born into. I believed this, partly because of nonsense I had been fed (my feminism being forged in Greer) and sheer ignorance, but partly because I had gone through something of a struggle to come to terms with being a girl.  What's more, as a younger woman, I really did believe that being a decent sort, believing in equality in principle,  meant that I couldn't go far wrong.

I didn't analyse it then - the ignorant aren't all that introspective - but it must have made me feel superior. There were these people, making themselves utterly miserable, undergoing a humiliating process of psychiatric assessment, hormonal treatment and sometimes multiple surgeries in order to feel okay in their own skin and here was I, having worked it all out, feeling absolutely fine in mine.  I always had great sympathy for trans people, probably the single most discriminated group of people and one manifestly less fortunate than myself (more likely to be abused at home, more likely to be harassed and attacked in the street, more likely to be murdered, more likely to live in poverty etc.), but for some years, I went round believing that they simply hadn't figured things out as well as I had.

I'm not going to swear at my younger self and I'd rather you didn't - she's no longer here to defend herself.  She met people, she read a lot and acquired a great deal more compassion.  But it wasn't all about what she didn't know, it had to be a bit about power. After all, it is an incredible leap of faith to believe that you understand someone's profound experiences better than they do. It's not impossible - there are circumstances, with close kith and kin where we perhaps do understand a situation better than the person in the middle of it all. But these are very complex experiences effecting thousands of people.

It's not nearly such a leap of faith to take someone's account of their own life at face value. It just requires us to bite the bullet of not knowing better. I have struggled with this more than once. Other people - including people who are, as it was put the other day, "on the right side" - seem to share this difficulty.

(By the way, if someone is offended by something you've said or done, that isn't an automatic reason to stop doing it. Lots of things offend lots of people. But it is impossible to work out how best to proceed, to behave decently, if you do not believe that someone has been offended. Listen!)

I guess scepticism makes us feel clever, the opposite of gullable.  It is a bit like when you read a murder mystery and you've got your eye on the friendly tea-sipping parson for the murder, as opposed to the ill-mannered thug of a scarf salesman who was found with the body. Only, in the last book, you fancied him for the village fete poisonings when he had a rock solid alibi, and in the book before, you had him down as chief suspect for the bank robbery when he wasn't even in the country. Sooner or later, you've got to admit you've got it in for that parson or else, at the very least, you're behaving as if you do.


Matthew Smith said...

I read Emma's story of how the magistrates let her ex-boyfriend off and was astonished - they saw him acting out in the dock, asked her why she was frightened of him when it was obvious, prevented her from telling them why, then found him not guilty because she seemed "over-emotional". I've met Emma and she is quite a reasonable person, her writing is not hyperbolic or hysterical and doesn't have other characteristics of a fantasist or self-publicist (e.g. having a tale of woe going on years and everyone they meet turning out to be a bastard).

I remember reading Emma's post about the "Just World" hypothesis as an explanation for why people didn't believe her, or blamed her for her experience. There is another reason why people don't believe victims of abuse, which is that believing it gives them responsibility which they don't want: they don't want the possibility of her sleeping on their sofa, or having to deal with him banging on their door, or even just having to provide long-term emotional support. In the case of people in authority faced with stories about abuse or bullying, it means they would face some 'onerous' task (or having to get off their arses) rather than telling the victim to just get on with it, or not do the thing (meaning: a trivial, normal act which gave someone else passing annoyance) that got them assaulted, or anything else that spares them a bit of work. I know this because certain people who had a duty to protect me from abuse when I was a child are now all too sympathetic, but at the time (when it would have meant a disruption to their lives to protect me) told me it was my fault, or "don't do that then", or it was just the way of the world, or some such excuse.

Where I'm less likely to believe is where someone obviously has an agenda, or comes out with a ridiculously generalised comment about oppression or 'trauma' where the use of those words is really inappropriate. Another cause of conflict is where someone relates a personal experience and then generalises from it in a way that casts a bad light on people like you - yet doubting that aspect of their story is treated as if you disbelieved their own story and collaborating with their abusers.

Anonymous said...

I saw an ad on the TV several times over Christmas. It was aimed at men, carrying the message, 'If you could see yourself, would you call it rape?'

It had the air of having been made by sophisticated advertising professionals rather than the worthy public information type film.

I don't know who initiated or financed the ad. I would be very interested to know if any follow-up research is going to be done to see if the message worked.


The Goldfish said...

Thanks Matthew and yes, it is an astonishing and upsetting story. Emma is ace.

I think the Just World hypothesis has a lot to do with this and responsibility can be a huge factor - I see that a lot in my own and other families, where someone in some kind of trouble makes other family members feel so guilty that they go into denial about it, at least for a while (the situation I've seen this most often is parents whose children develop chronic illness - it's as if they believe that, having done all the right things, this couldn't possibly happen to their well-looked-after child).

I find that a very difficult behaviour, perhaps because, whilst extremely lucky in many ways, I have experienced a few hard knocks - principally illness and abuse - so I don't find it surprising when bad things have happened or are happening to other people and I consider it something of a privilege if there is something I can usefully do to help (so often I can't, and that's painful). I think some people manage to get through life with a much stronger sense of it all being very fair, or even a sense that they, with a bit of a work stress and a creaky elbow, have so much on their plate they can't possibly worry about other people.

I also think that, because of the way this stuff is often discussed, people with certain identities feel automatically defensive when confronted with evidence of prejudice and discrimination. Some white folk seem to treat the discussion of racism as if they are being held personally responsible - ditto men and sexism, straight folk and homophobia, etc..

There are certain circumstances where it is fair to be sceptical. I think the major one is where someone has messed up and upset other people and has now become defensive. "Oh, I'm sorry you're upset but I've suffered X, Y and Z, and you should feel very sorry for me instead!"

Of course, such a person could be telling the truth about their experience, but their experience isn't relevant to any mistakes they've made in any case (I think a bit about the teacher who commented on your blog, complaining about their hurt feelings.)

Thanks for your comment, Janet, I hadn't seen the ad, but google revealed it's a government thing called This is Abuse. I don't know if there's any data collection into the impact of the ads, but the site looks pretty good, perhaps especially for young people struggling to frame their experiences.

Anonymous said...

I am in the Greer mode in that I disagree that a "transwoman" is in fact a woman. She shares little of her experience with born women and should not speak on our behalf. Secondly, I don't get how you "feel like a woman". I feel like me. I share many feelings with women. I share many feelings with men. But I am me. No doubt about. And I have never been anyone else. I don't speak on behalf of Amazon Indian women. A "transwoman" does not have my consent to speak on my behalf.

I think there is a category of experience that is "intersex" and it's there that trans people live. I think we can and should reject binary relations/categories and the insistence that "transwomen" are in fact women is false and a missed opportunity.

The Goldfish said...

Thanks Anonymous,

As two cisgender women, there will be some major life experiences you and I share, and some we don't. Some of these similarities and differences will be to do with our bodies, some our upbringing, some our culture, class, sexuality and so forth.

Given that I don't know a thing about you, I can't think of any potential single experience that I can be sure that you and I share which could not also be shared by a trans woman. There are no universals, except that we are women and we suffer in a sexist world.

As for feeling like a woman, these are our own feelings we're speaking of. I don't know how it is to feel like a woman, except that I am one, and I know it. I presume being trans is a lot like that, only starting off with an external identity which doesn't fit. Trans women start off as girls, only girls who others see and treat as boys.

And if that's their experience, then that is their undeniable experience. It cannot hurt us to recognise that. If trans women ever do speak for us, they're no more likely to get it wrong than any other women. Those representatives of feminism we see in national newspapers and on television currently come from a very narrow band of life experience, and none of them are trans.

But us shutting them out? That can and does hurt us all.