I’m going to let you all into a secret. It’s one so hidden that much of the modern world seems unaware of it. Are you ready? Here goes:
It is possible to like someone, support their politics, and to disagree with bad behaviour on their part. As a seemingly vital corollary to this – and this is the important part – liking someone does not mean that they can do no wrong.
Of course, I’m talking about Alex Salmond and his recent comments in Parliament. In case you missed it, while being harangued by Anna Soubry, he responded angrily and ended his statement with the words, ‘behave yourself, woman.’
For some reason, there seems to be discussion on whether or not this is sexist. Of course it’s sexist. Of course it is. When Cameron told Andrea Eagle to ‘Calm down, dear’, it was sexist. If, say, IDS had said this to Mhairi Black, we would easily see the paternalistic, patronising, dismissive tone to the statement. The fact that it is a sexist statement should not in any way be in question. It is, though, because we, as a society, are totally incapable of accepting that people we like and support act badly sometimes.
We see it all the time, and it is thankfully being highlighted more and more: in its more extreme forms, a footballer rapes a woman and people declare that he couldn’t possibly have done it, with their only evidence being that he plays for a team they like. A film director cannot have raped a child because he is a genius at directing. A man responsible for bringing massive governmental abuse into the public eye cannot have raped a woman because his work is worthwhile. All these men must be the victims of vile harridans seeking to smear his good name, using cries of ‘sexism’ and ‘rape’ because it makes them sympathetic.
Obviously, Salmond’s offhand statement was nothing like these cases, but the reaction to it is part of the same problem. The logic goes like this:
- I am a good person.
- As a good person, I like good people and dislike bad people.
- I like this other person.
- Because I am a good person who only likes good people, this person must be a good person because I like them.
- If they are, in fact, not a good person, that means I like a bad person and that makes me bad, which is unacceptable.
It’s terrible logic. It’s a logical fallacy called ‘Affirming the consequent‘, represented by ‘If P, then Q. Q, therefore P.’ It would be a ridiculous argument even if one of the core tenets wasn’t wrong. However, even if you dismiss this fallacy as philosophical nonsense, what you can’t ignore is that society itself has created a straw man argument (another famous fallacy) surrounding what makes a ‘good person’.
All of us have been raised in a flawed system. All of us have been educated by and have grown up in a society in which various oppressions are core parts of the structure. We’ve been working hard to unpick those elements, to work towards a fairer society, but there is still so much work to do and not one of us reaches adulthood without a set of programmed beliefs and ideas about, among other things, gender, sexuality, race, class, worth, ability, moral superiority, religion, education, background, accent, identity. It is the ongoing work of a lifetime to divest yourself of the unthinking prejudices and assumptions that are just part of breathing in and out in our society. These are part of us all, before we ever get to the question of whether or not we are good, or how we act on those unconscious beliefs. It takes effort – real, conscious effort – to stop acting on them, even if we wouldn’t do anything as heinous as rape or as overtly sexist as telling a woman to shut up and get back in the kitchen. If you don’t even know that you’re supposed to make that effort, if you still think ‘I am a good person, good people are not sexist, therefore I am not sexist’ then you’re not doing the work. You’re not even attempting to unpick the behaviour that maintains the structures of oppression in the world. Jay Smooth – an NYC DJ – has a fantastic video about this very thing, made in the days after the Oscars when people were very confused about why some people were not thrilled with Patricia Arquette’s speech and press conference statements about the wage gap, called ‘Learning the craft of being good’
We want so much to believe that we don’t do harm that we twist ourselves in knots to rationalise both our behaviour and that of people we support. We all screw up. All of us. All the time. It doesn’t make us bad, unless once we’re aware of the harm that we do, we decide that we just can’t be bothered trying to be better.
And so we’re back to Alex Salmond. Do I think he’s A Sexist? No, I don’t. He clearly works very well with many women, he does not seem to need to put women down in order to make himself feel better. Do I think that he displayed sexist behaviour in this instance? Yes, of course I do. Women have fought so hard to even be admitted into the halls of power – we are still nowhere close to parity in representation, although this is one of the more equal parliamentary terms we’ve had. Once there, women are still fighting every single day to be taken seriously, to be listened to. Study after study after study has shown how much more work women need to do in order to prove that they’re worth listening to in situations where men’s authority and knowledge is accepted at face value. And what is the easiest way to silence a woman? To dismiss her and cut the credibility out from underneath her? To remind her of her place. You remind her that she is a woman, daring to speak, and therefore already violating the conventions of behaviour and politeness that have held women in stasis for centuries. You remind her of your position – even if she is the senior figure in this interaction, you are still the man. These sentences – these dismissive, insidious statements like, ‘behave yourself, woman’ or ‘calm down, dear’ – come with hundreds of years of weight on them.
And now we get to the main point: the left wing reaction. For people who spend so much time trying to get people to understand the ways that structures of oppression are perpetuated by everyday decisions, who so frequently talk about the clearly biased language used in the national print media, who seem to understand that small statements can be indicative of much bigger problems, when it’s one of our own we suddenly decide none of that is true. I have spent much of today arguing with people who think that all the women who are upset about this should just sit down and shut up and stop being so hysterical because they’re clearly overreacting. That we should stop rocking the boat because it gives them ammunition. If it were only this one single incident, I may be more willing to comply. It isn’t, though. It’s the same incident, over and over again, through years and decades and centuries. If you want to know why many feminists won’t share a platform with the SWP, you only have to look at the way a rape within the ranks was handled and how the people who spoke out against it were treated. If you are telling people to stop talking about rape because it makes us look bad, you’re telling women that their safety is less important than ‘The Struggle’. Which is literally what a lot of women were told – that we’d get round to stuff like rape when capitalism was brought down, but for now we have to focus on the real problem.
I want our movement to be better than that. I want our leaders to be held to account when they screw up, not rationalised and excused and for people with concerns to be told they’re no longer welcome. If you think that holding someone to account is the same thing as saying that they’re a terrible person and all of their ideas and opinions are now invalidated because of this, then the complexity of politics and society possibly isn’t for you. If we’re going to position ourselves as the movement for social justice, perhaps holding our own representatives to reasonable standards is a worthwhile aim? Maybe it isn’t just undermining the SNP from within because we’re hysterical women who don’t understand what sexism really is?
Soubry was totally out of line. She was. She was acting terribly and should have been called up on it by the Speaker. She was acting like the boorish snob she is, and Salmond was absolutely within his rights to retaliate. It isn’t over the top for us to hope that he would retaliate by attacking her ideas, her statements, her history, her party, and not her gender, though. The SNP have so far been a breath of fresh mountain air in those stuffy halls of power – challenging the status quo with class, respect and steel. Let’s celebrate that, and accept that sometimes we and the people we like make mistakes, but we can learn from them and move on without alienating whole swathes of people who are an integral part of our political movement.