Competent Communists

Would you rather die free, or live in a gilded cage? That’s the question posed to us by our masters: the apparent trade-off between liberty and security. They put cops on every corner. They spy on us with our own tools of leisure. They ask our teachers to inform on us. Don’t you remember what Benjamin Franklin said? “Those who would sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither.”

Would you live in a gilded cage? Who cares? That’s not an option that’s been offered to us. We’re not safe or secure: our cage is of rusting metal. It stinks from the remains of its previous occupant, occasionally a bar falls from the ceiling and hits our heads, and there’s never enough food. Precarity is not only the way of the age, it’s the name of the game: a gilded cage would not keep us nearly as well. Our cages are built from insecurity itself.

I’m an anarchist and a communist. But I’m not an anarchist or communist because of some high-minded ideals. I’m no “radical lover of liberty”. My politics come straight from what I need to survive. I believe in autonomy for precisely one reason: because I don’t trust anyone else to know what’s good for me. That’s why I believe what I believe.

Bureaucrats suck. Even when they mean well, they’re incompetent. Why? Because they are insulated from the consequences of their own decisions. Every problem is raised via several layers of indirection, and solutions filter down through just as many. The result is that nobody is ever sure why they’re doing what they’re doing; their actions are based on a white paper that came out of a committee’s understanding of a response to a consultation that didn’t quite ask the right questions. How can such a system help but fail?

We need to shorten these feedback loops. We can’t rely on the so-called experts to tell us what we need: we need to shout for it ourselves, and take it if we can. We are the competent communists. We are communists because we act for the good of all people, and we are competent because we listen before we act. That’s the only way we can win a better world for ourselves, our friends and our descendants.

Fuck the cage. Let’s gild the streets.

Letter to Police Attending Nottinghamshire Pride

This is a letter I intend to hand out to police attending Nottinghamshire Pride 2015 in uniform.

To members of the police who are participating in Pride events:

We are a group of LGBTQ activists who wish to ensure that Pride events are a safe space for as many people in the LGBTQ community as possible. While clearly LGBTQ police exist, it is undeniable that the LGBTQ community has suffered much at the hands of the police. Indeed, the first Pride events were protests against police harassment. For this reason, we believe that a uniformed police presence at Pride is inappropriate, and likely to make people feel unsafe.

While homosexual acts were partially legalised in 1967, the crime of “gross indecency” actually existed until 2003. An estimated 49,000 men were convicted under this law for consensual sexual acts, 15,000 of whom are believed to be still alive. In the 1980s there were around 20,000 convictions for predominantly gay-related offenses. Many of these convictions were obtained by police entrapment, with attractive male police acting as agent provocateurs to provoke people into breaking the law.

Furthermore, police and prosecutors continue to persecute people for consenting sexual acts. In the cases of R v Walsh and R v Peacock, both decided in 2012, defendants were prosecuted for respectively possessing and distributing recordings of consensual sexual acts that were then and are now completely legal to perform.

These issues are not limited to gay and bi men. According to a survey by the Scottish Transgender Alliance, 14% of trans people have experienced police harassment, with half of those people reporting multiple incidents. 34% of trans people were worried that this might happen to them in the future.

We want an LGBTQ community that thrives on diversity, including racial diversity. But police in the UK have long had a strong reputation for institutional racism. Research published by Equality and Human Rights Commission in 2012 found that people of colour were far more likely to be subjected to “stop and search”. Nottinghamshire Police did not provide any data for this research, but the earlier “Stop and Think” review showed that Nottinghamshire Police had one of the most racially disproportionate stop-and-searches in the country. It is highly likely that a uniformed police presence will make people of colour feel significantly less safe attending Pride, running directly counter to the ideals of diversity we strive for.

The police are often portrayed as protectors of the community, but is this borne out by the facts? According to Stonewall’s Gay British Crime Survey 2013, half of LGB people who reported a hate crime were dissatisfied with how it was handled, with 40% having less confidence in the police as a result. A survey sponsored by ILGA-Europe and Press for Change on transphobic hate crime in the EU showed that 36% of English respondents were “not confident” in the police’s ability to deal with transphobic hate crime, with many stating that the police did not take them seriously, or even made derogatory remarks toward them.

Because of the above reasons, it is clear that a police presence at Pride is likely to make LGBTQ people feel less safe, not more. Therefore, we would like to ask that members of the police attending Pride events do so out of uniform, so as to maintain a safe atmosphere for members of the community who have been victims of police harassment.

Thank you for reading.

Talking About Us

"So yes: this column is problematic. I’m yet another of the men who dominate the opinion pages of newspapers." — Owen Jones, "Why More Men Should Fight For Women’s Rights"

Writing is a privileged profession. Being able to write in a national-scale magazine or newspaper is a sign of significant privilege. It is becoming a relatively common practice for writers to draw attention to their privilege: when they talk about this and that, they make sure we are aware that someone as privileged in so many ways as they are could never really understand this and that. (Which doesn’t stop them from writing about it, or getting paid for doing so.) Journalists from all parts of the broad "leftist" spectrum are becoming more and more aware of the various aspects of their social privilege, and they can’t wait to tell us about it.

But why do this? What’s the point of it? Well, the idea is one of "checking privilege" before making comment or action. "Check" here has a dual meaning. In the first sense it means to examine or inspect ones own background and advantages. But it also can be taken to mean "limit" or "control". In order to check my privilege, it is not enough to simply acknowledge it; I must also take some action to reduce the impact of my privilege. Without the aspect of limitation, the practice of privilege-checking is mere performance.

The above quote, from Owen Jones, is perhaps the most accidentally self-aware of all such performances that I’ve seen. Disclaimers like this, while showing a commendable self-awareness, do nothing to qualify the writer to talk about the matter at hand. Quite the opposite, in fact: they provide good reasons not to trust the writer in question. By his own admission, Owen Jones is not the person to tell us about women’s rights, but by telling us this he seems to justify his doing so. And we are expected to accept this. But understanding one’s own position and privilege in the world is no substitute for understanding someone else’s marginalisation.

Let’s think about what a writer can be to a marginalised person. As a trans person, the main thing I have in mind is the relationship between trans people and the press, but I hope that this post will be applicable to other axes of oppression as well. To a marginalised person, a writer can serve as an intermediary, allowing the general population to learn about the struggles of the marginalised group. By explaining our issues in this way, the writer helps to humanise and de-other members of the marginalised group, hopefully contributing to their eventual liberation. At least, that’s the theory.

I imagine that most writers who consider themselves leftists see themselves in these terms. Even those who write for right-wing tabloids will at least use it as a justification; they’re "just helping us to get our stories out there", of course. But what the right-wing tabloid writer knows (and the leftist columnist pretends not to know) is that this is not a relationship of equals. The writer may have to get their work approved by editors, subeditors and lawyers, any of whom can be blamed for flaws in the final product. The marginalised person has no direct contact with these people, and thus has no way of knowing if such blame is appropriately placed; as far as they are concerned, the process is a "black box". As a result, the writer can say more-or-less what they like, and discard all responsibility for what is eventually published. The writer’s position as intermediary thus serves to prevent the marginalised person from having any say in what is written about them.

This issue raises two questions. The first question is: "What can a marginalised person do to use a writer as an intermediary without being exploited?" The second is: "What can a writer do to serve as an intermediary without exercising their privilege over marginalised people?" The two questions are complementary – we cannot answer one without addressing the other. In general, I believe the answer is to move towards a model of journalism where marginalised people are not just passive things that are "written about", but first-class citizens in the writing process. Likewise, the writer must cease to be an intermediary and start to be an advocate, not only in what they write, but also within the writing and publishing processes themselves.

That’s theory; now let’s talk practice. A simple way to put these ideas into practice is to offer marginalised people the chance to veto the publication of anything written about them as a matter of course, so that anything published therefore has some degree of approval behind it. Ideally this approval should be sought from a diverse group of people, and the writer should make some effort to avoid asking their friends who may inadvertently function as uncritical yes-people. This is almost certainly incompatible with the usual workings of modern daily print journalism, requiring loose (if any) deadlines and multiple rounds of drafting and redrafting until the editor, writer and the people being written about are all satisfied with the final product. However, this may not be a bad thing: relaxing the time pressures will almost certainly lead to better and more thoroughly-researched content than is usually possible. (It may be that journalists will need to put their own house in order before they can give this kind of work the time and resources it deserves.)

The ideal form of journalistic advocacy may be even more radical than this, however. West German left-wing journalist Ulrike Meinhof believed that the best way to represent people was to include them directly in the writing process itself 1. This is essentially the concept of "Nothing About Us Without Us" 2, but applied to journalism and propaganda instead of policy. A partnership of writer and marginalised people may represent a sort of best-of-both-worlds approach: the writer has access to the experience and knowledge of the marginalised people, while the marginalised people are able to tell their story with the writer providing assistance in preparing it for an audience. Ideally, the marginalised people would be given a decent wage in exchange for their participation, as compensation for their time and emotional labour.

Both of these approaches are built on a kind of consent-model for writing. Consent is key when writing about marginalised groups. When marginalised people are written about in ways they do not consent to, this has the potential to be a source of significant trauma. Furthermore, just like consent in other areas, writers must not obtain this consent by pressure or coercion, be it deliberate or accidental. This kind of coercion is most obvious in cases like the tabloid-writer’s favourite phrase "this story will break anyway, we just want your side of things", but it can be much more subtle as well; writers should err on the side of caution in this matter. Consent under pressure is not consent at all.

Many writers nowadays are fairly eager to take up the standards of marginalised groups. Trans people and women seem to be particularly popular causes today, with some other groups (people of colour especially) falling behind. The subject of which groups do and do not attract journalistic advocates is certainly worthy of discussion, but this post is fairly long already, and I don’t feel qualified to give this topic the attention it deserves.

In short: writers, don’t just write about us. Work with us. If you really want to help, you need to show us that you mean it. After all, actions speak so much louder than words.

  1. "But she went a step further: she no longer wanted to write about or for people, but with them. Meinhof wanted those who have something at stake to have a say in what is being written about them. … She wanted them to participate in the process of writing." — Karin Bauer, "In Search of Ulrike Meinhof". In Karin Bauer (ed.), Everyone Talks About The Weather… We Don’t. New York, Seven Stories Press, 2008.

  2. The phrase "Nothing About Us Without Us", or "nihil de nobis, sine nobis", has an interesting history, which you can read about on the Wikipedia page. The phrase first entered common usage in English with disability rights activism, but has since been adopted by many other marginalised groups.

Cabals, Redux: Facebook, Isolation and Accidental Ruling Classes

This post is a follow-up to my previous post about cabals in activism. If you haven’t read that post, I suggest you do so before reading this one. This post is more focused on the specific notion of the "Trans Cabal".

I would like to make a clarification. The problem is not that all trans people in the UK are in a shadowy group organised in complete secrecy, plotting out what must be done. Quite the opposite, in fact.

The problem is that only some trans people in the UK are in such a group.

Okay, that’s a little facetious, but I hope it gets the point across. We’re not all in a cabal. There are a number of cabals, many of which overlap. I myself am in a cabal: it’s not a very effective cabal and we’ve been working on making it less cabal-like, but it is a cabal nonetheless. It’s difficult to balance the safety of participants with the size of a group. But that doesn’t make the phenomenon benign by any means.

It’s not my intention to cast aspersions on anybody’s motives. These groups are frequently not deliberately constructed. They just happen, by nature of the tools we use and the culture we exist in. We like to feel ownership over the projects we are involved in. But we involved in trans activism need to always keep in mind that our projects are for the good of all trans people, and thus it’s only right that all trans people should have input into those projects. This goes especially for those who are frequently cut out of such discussions.

The situation is not helped by the fact that a significant amount of activism these days is organised via Facebook. Facebook is not a good method for broadcasting your intentions in a fair and public manner. Facebook is explicitly designed as a content filter, deciding what its users should see. It’s already well-known that Facebook page posts aren’t seen by most people who "like" the page. It’s also the case that Facebook filters what posts I see based on what it thinks I want to see. And yet still I tend to receive a significant amount of information about activism via Facebook, simply because its use is so ubiquitous. I’m not saying we should all give up on Facebook (well, it might be nice?), but we do need to be aware of its limitations as a tool.

Every so often I see something that might as well be signed "anyone who’s anyone in UK trans circles". But neither I nor anyone I know gets to hear anything about it before it hits the pages of The Guardian. The message is clear. We are not anyone. We are no-one.

It sounds dramatic, doesn’t it? But that’s what this exclusion is. To be continually shut out of what is supposedly "my community" is maddening, and I mean that in a quite literal sense. It does real damage to my mental health.

And I’m white, and I’m from a middle-class background, and I do have some friends. The exclusion that must be experienced by a trans person without those advantages is, to me, simply unimaginable.

And that is the problem.

Sorry, But The Cabal Is Real

The so-called "Trans Cabal" is a relatively common joke in trans circles. One perhaps imagines the various party activists, journalists and poets that make up the trans ruling class meeting around a large dining table, drinking fine wine and plotting out the course of The Movement for the next twelve months. A nudge here, an e-mail there, and suddenly we have a motion in parliament, an article in The Guardian, a restructuring of a major charity.

But such an organisation could not possibly exist. It’s pure fantasy. The Trans Cabal is something we just made up to scare budding activists, surely?

Oh no, my friends. The cabal is real.

If you’ve spent any time in an activist group, you’ve probably seen it. The in-jokes, the subtle nods, the way half the room seems to be on the same page before anyone’s even started talking. You can attend all the meetings and pour your heart and soul into the organisational structure (if there is one), but if you don’t go for a pint with so-and-so every Wednesday then nobody cares about your ideas. If you were any good, you’d be best mates already, right?

This isn’t just a feature of trans groups, though UK trans people may have a pretty idiosyncratic sense of humour about it. In any situation there’s always some hidden social structure that’s not immediately apparent. This happens everywhere, and on every scale: from local groups, to entire organisations, to entire movements. I’ll name no names but I’ve seen first-hand, and occasionally been a part of, the work of various cabals. It’s never what you know, but who you know.

You’re not just paranoid. There is an in-group, and you’re not in it. Sorry.

The existence of an in-group is problematic for a number of reasons. Firstly, the in-group makes things inaccessible for people who struggle in social situations. The process of making one’s way into the inner circle can be delicate and fraught, and it’s easy to make a slip-up and be deemed "the wrong sort".

Secondly, the unconscious biases and privileges of those in the in-group effectively dictate who can and cannot be fully included in a group. It would be difficult for a PoC to become fully accepted in an all-white inner circle, for example. UK trans activism in particular has a significant problem with class, where certain forms of activism are totally inaccessible to anybody not from a middle-class background.

Finally, sometimes there are multiple competing inner circles, making it even more awkward to work out how to align oneself. Often there is one group that functions as a de facto or de jure government of a group, with another group serving as a sort of semi-official opposition. The choice faced by a new activist is thus between being a "sellout" on the one hand, or a "contrarian" on the other.

Some groups like to kid themselves. "Oh, they’re a cabal. But we’re not like them. We’re grassroots." Unfortunately, this often simply isn’t true. These groups are larger, yes, and perhaps better at internal democracy. But it is frequently no easier for a given individual not already heavily involved in activism to participate. A bigger and more democratic inner circle is no substitute for true horizontalism, for a true grassroots movement.

I suggest that people aiming to create a true grassroots effort perform the following thought experiment. Firstly, imagine earnest activist Janet Weiss. She doesn’t know anybody in your group, but she is sympathetic to your aims and your methods, and she may well be useful to your efforts. Now, having imagined Janet into existence, ask yourself four questions.

  1. How easily could Janet find out about your group or its planned activism? Are you well-publicised? Are you on Twitter? Are you on Facebook? Are you on YouTube? Have you been on the news? Do you expect most people to hear about you via word-of-mouth? Do the people that could tell Janet about you realise that she might be interested? Do you expect most people to hear about you at all?

  2. Having found out about your group or its plans, how much work would Janet have to do to get involved? Do you have a mailing list sign-up somewhere visible? Or is it hidden away on a website? Do you have regular meetings? Would Janet need to contact an actual person via e-mail, or worse, phone? That might cause her a lot of social anxiety.

  3. Once participating in the group, how much sway would Janet have? Could Janet’s opinions have as much influence as those of a founding member? Are your plans set in stone, or do they adapt? Are all of your decisions made in official meetings? Or are a lot of decisions just rubber-stamped by meetings, having already been made in private?

  4. Are the difficulties that Janet would experience in participating in your group justified by the circumstances? Are you trying to keep a low profile? Do your plans rely on a surprise element? Are you under time pressure? Do you need to keep cops out of your group? Are you sure there aren’t any cops in your group already?

I’m not going to prescribe any particular answers to these questions. Sometimes locking things down is a good idea, and sometimes it isn’t. But you should think carefully about these issues when deciding if your effort can truly be called "grassroots".

And if you don’t understand what this is all about, it might just be about you.

And if you do understand what this is all about?

It might still be about you. Sorry.

Do Prisons Work?

Justice Secretary Chris Grayling came under a lot of fire back in March over his decision to effectively ban books in prisons. This decision has recently been found unlawful, and quite rightly too. But this is just a part of a wider pattern in which the prison system is made ever more inhospitable and cruel. This year we’ve heard about death from overcrowding in prisons, sexual abuse in prisons, and all of this in front of a backdrop of increased privatisation and cuts to legal aid, both of which serve to make the system less accountable when abuses happen.

Now, if you believe the justice system is primarily for hurting those who have done wrong, maybe you don’t see any issue with that. But I believe the purpose of the justice system should be to rehabilitate offenders, to help them get into a place where they are less likely to commit crimes in the future. I think that’s the best way to ensure what’s best for society. But are prisons compatible with the idea of rehabilitation?

Let’s look at some demographics. 11% of the UK prison population is black, compared to just 2.8% of the general population; in other words, there are four times as many black people in prison as you’d expect. When you combine this with the racism endemic in the police force (see Mark Duggan and events like Ferguson in the US), it’s clear that black people are getting a raw deal from every stage of the justice system.

For mental health issues, the situation is horrific: according to the Prison Reform Trust, almost half of female prisoners in the UK have attempted suicide at some point in their lives. Now, mental illness is something I myself struggle with. I can only imagine how much worse it must be to have to deal with depression from the inside of a prison cell.

But maybe it’s worth it. Maybe prison is effective enough to offset this, right? Well, according to government statistics, almost half of people given prison sentences go on to reoffend – and half of those people just go straight back to prison. There’s also analysis done for the Ministry of Justice that shows that community orders, suspended sentences and court orders – all sentences that don’t involve going to prison – are all better than short prison sentences at reducing reoffending rates.

Now, the Ministry of Justice itself admits that an important factor in whether criminals reoffend is whether they have non-criminal social connections. In that respect it seems bizarre that our default response to crime is to put the offenders all in a building together. And contrary to what you’d hope, some people end up dependent on the prison system to survive, though this is hardly surprising when more than a third of employers deliberately avoid recruiting people with a criminal record.

All this evidence says one thing to me: that prisons don’t work. That means that beyond resisting efforts to make prisons crueler, we need to be working towards replacing the whole system with one built around an evidence-based approach to reforming offenders. We can’t let our instinctive response to wrongdoing be to simply lock people up in a system designed to rob them of their humanity. If we want a truly safe society, we have to be kinder than that.

How to (Actually) Be a Trans* Ally

Recently I’ve been seeing a poster making the rounds entitled "How to be a Trans* Ally". You can see the poster here. Now, this poster isn’t exactly new, but it does seem have garnered particular attention in the run-up to this year’s Transgender Day of Remembrance, which happens to be today.

Now, TDoR itself has its own problems, which I’m not going to touch upon here. What I will discuss is the idea of being an "ally", what it means, and what it ought to mean.

It seems that most people consider being a trans* ally as more-or-less equivalent to not being a transphobe. The poster I referenced above represents this position well; its tips on how to be an ally are simply the same basic 101 we give again and again to cis people to stop them from being actively oppressive, and to stop them from being counterproductive to trans* liberation. But getting pronouns right and not asking about "real" names aren’t magical amazing things that make you a wonderful person. They are the bare fucking minimum you should be doing if you don’t want to be an utter dick. That’s not being part of the solution, that’s merely failing to be a part of the problem. Being an "ally" should be a badge of honour, representing someting above and beyond the call of duty.

As a cis person, your mere presence may well make trans* people uncomfortable, as it is nigh impossible to create a space totally isolated from the oppressive forces of mainstream society. Thus, as an ally you should be willing to make yourself uncomfortable to make trans* people comfortable. Furthermore, rather than just not obstructing trans* liberation, you should bear some of the weight of the struggle, being a campaigner in your own right, while still allowing trans* people to take the lead in their own liberation. I’m not saying that everyone should do this. What I am saying is that if you want me to consider you an "ally", you must.

So here are some things I think you can do to be a true ally. I write this with particular reference to being a cis ally of trans* people, but it’s my intention that the items on this list be adaptable to deal with other axes of oppression.

  • Adopt and Internalise Anti-Cis Memes: You know stuff like Die Cis Scum? That’s about you. Until proven otherwise, you are scum to me, and you need to respect my right to see you that way. You need to be almost sorry for not being trans*, because that is what keeps your experience apart from mine and prevents you from being able to see the world through my eyes.
  • Always Consider Yourself Wrong Until Proven Right: If I disagree with you about a trans* issue? I’m right, and you’re wrong. If I disagree with you about whether something is a trans* issue? I’m right, and you’re wrong. You don’t get to argue with me. You get to ask questions about my position, and I get to decide whether to answer them. If I’m interested in a debate, I’ll tell you. Otherwise, you have to trust me on my ability to understand my own liberation.
  • Always Call Out Other Cis People On Their Transphobia: At the biggest estimates, there is one transgender person for every 99 cis people. That’s absolutely ridiculous. That means if cis people say something fucked up once a week, on average trans* people need to call them out on it 14 times a day each. That’s once every 100 minutes. I don’t have time for that. You do it.
  • Campaign for an End to Transphobia and Transphobic Practices: Again. My energy reserves are limited and I can’t do it all. You need to help. And if I tell you you’re doing it wrong, you need to listen and fix it.
  • Respect Trans*-Only Spaces: No matter how hard you try, you’re not ever going to succeed at making trans* people totally comfortable with your presence. Thus, you need to let us have our own space if we need it.
  • Be an Ally to Other Oppressed Groups: This should go without saying, but you can’t be an ally to trans* people without at least trying to be an ally to other groups. If you don’t care about feminist struggle, then you’re only going to be an ally to trans men. If you don’t care about race, then you’re only going to be an ally to white trans* people. And that’s fucked up.
  • Never Call Yourself an "Ally": You don’t get to decide if you’re doing enough. You never get to decide if you’re doing enough. That’s up to us.

Now, go forth and don’t be a shit. And if you think you can handle it, try to be an ally.