QotD: “far from toiling in the furtherances of whichever noble cause they think they are, those who feed the internet outrage machine are under an illusion”
At what point do the outrage police become the outrage Stasi? Or at what point did they? For a measure of how far we haven’t come since the turn of the millennium, compare the cases of the Brass Eye episode entitled Paedogeddon and a forthcoming Netflix show called Insatiable.
In 2001, Channel 4 announced it would air a one-off special of the Chris Morris show, which would satirise the kneejerk populism and hysteria around the coverage of paedophilia. The outrage was predictably swift, as people fell into the old trap of confusing the subject of the joke with the target of the joke. Leading the protests was Beverley Hughes, a junior Home Office minister in Tony Blair’s government, who began by calling the programme “unspeakably sick” and worked up from there. The affair became quite the governmental pile-on, with seemingly every minister keen to find a microphone or TV camera into which to unleash their outraged take on it all. On behalf of the prime minister himself, a Downing Street spokesman wondered pointedly whether the UK’s regulatory framework was sufficient to cope with such a thing.
Quite a few days into her crusade, Hughes managed to land a spot on the Today programme. All was proceeding as might have been expected, until the minister committed a spectacular unforced error – she admitted she hadn’t actually seen the show. “To be honest, I don’t really want to,” Hughes continued, adding helpfully that the equally irate home secretary hadn’t seen it either, “of course”.
OF COURSE. It was too perfect, doing almost as much to satirise what Morris was chipping away at as the show itself. Not everyone shared this view, of course – plenty remained furious about wholly and often deliberately inaccurate summaries of something they also hadn’t seen. At some level, that’s the way of things. Hysterics gonna hysteric.
But, for many of us, the Hughes admission was so exquisitely hilarious because it felt like it represented one of the last howls of a dying era – a sort of silly, self-parodic throwback to the heyday of Mary Whitehouse and all the other frothing censors who were largely untrammelled by even a distant acquaintance with what the hell they were frothing about. Or to put it another way: wildly overpromoted junior ministers in the Blair Home Office WERE the joke – and it felt as though progressives got that.
Once again, my optimism turns out to have been preposterously, cosmically misplaced. We are all wildly overpromoted junior ministers in the Blair Home Office now. Or, rather, those who pelt furiously round the hamster wheels of social media outrage are.
And so to Insatiable, a Netflix comedy-drama that has yet to air, but is already the subject of a petition calling for it to be banned. A single one-minute-52-second trailer has been released, from which it can be inferred that the story concerns an overweight girl who is the victim of bullying. Owing to a plot device, she has to have her jaw wired shut during a summer holiday. The side-effect of this is that she loses weight. She returns to school looking like the classic high school princess – and hellbent on bloody revenge. From the looks of the trailer, chaos ensues. As one might expect in a comedy-drama.
At the time of writing (although the number is climbing fast), almost 170,000 signatories are demanding Insatiable never be aired, on the basis that it is “fat-shaming”. When I read this, my naive assumption was that the entire series must have leaked online, giving a complete overview of the story arcs, nuances and so on. But no – people who really do imagine themselves to be progressives really are calling for a creative work to be banned on the basis of a trailer. All manner of furious commentators weighed in, railing against what they think it is about, producing some fantastically witless statements, including a widely quoted one from someone who explained “physical violence is not an OK response to bullying”. Good point! Also, murder is terrible. There should be no shows about it.
Now, Insatiable’s creator has been pressured into defending her artistic endeavour from detractors who have not even seen it. “When I was 13, I was suicidal,” wrote Lauren Gussis in a statement. “My best friends dumped me, I was bullied and I wanted revenge. I thought if I looked pretty on the outside, I’d feel like I was enough. Instead, I developed an eating disorder … and the kind of rage that makes you want to do dark things. I’m still not comfortable in my skin, but I’m trying to share my insides – to share my pain and vulnerability through humor. That’s just my way. The show is a cautionary tale about how damaging it can be to believe that outsides are more important – to judge without going deeper. Please give the show a chance.”
Well, quite. From what I have seen – to repeat, a mere 1 minute and 52 seconds – Insatiable does not remotely condone fat-shaming any more than Morris’s show condoned paedophilia (something plenty accused it of). The subject of the joke has once again been confused with the target. It is clear the accidental weight loss precipitates a classic upending of the order, a hierarchy-busting plot device in which exciting and perhaps amusing dramatic conflict can flourish. I mean, honestly. Chaos, often questionably achieved, has been an intrinsic part of drama since for ever. You might as well try to ban A Midsummer Night’s Dream on the basis that its plot glorifies date-rape drugs.
As for where this latest outrage fits in to your week in outrage, it is difficult to keep track. I first heard about this row just after the defenestration of Guardians of the Galaxy creator James Gunn, which was orchestrated by Mike Cernovich, an “alt-right” goon and “men’s rights” wingnut whose chief claim to fame is having spread the lie that Hillary Clinton had something to do with a paedophile ring being operated out of the basement of a Washington pizzeria. So, yes, I heard about the Insatiable thing after the James Gunn thing, and just before the attempted defenestration of Community and Rick and Morty creator Dan Harman for a paedophilia sketch. Cernovich is in the vanguard of that one, too.
This is the way we live now, on left and right – but cui bono? If you haven’t read Jaron Lanier’s short but brilliant book Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, I can only recommend. For technological idiots like me, who need the machine explained to them in a wonderfully eloquent and engaging fashion, it is a true mind-opener. Using evidence and his vast insider knowledge of Silicon Valley, the author and tech visionary makes it very clear that, far from toiling in the furtherances of whichever noble cause they think they are, those who feed the internet outrage machine are under an illusion.
They are nothing more than busy data ants, who in reality – BIG REVEAL – work for the likes of Facebook and Google. These are mass-behaviour-modification machines that thrive off discord and – without wishing to downgrade anyone’s genuinely impassioned and sincerely held beliefs – it really doesn’t matter what sort. Everyone’s participation, on whichever side, hastens the dystopia. Your causes, my causes, everyone’s causes are essentially meaningless – they are plot devices. And the plot is the mass, unprecedented manipulation of human behaviour and its subsequent exploitation for money. Everyone works for the machine, which doesn’t think that fat-shaming matters, or paedophilia matters, or black lives matter, or you matter. For a honeymoon period, it may feel as if that is a price worth paying if you are furthering a cause in which you believe – but, as Lanier shows, this always turns out to be a mirage.
Back when the Brass Eye furore was raging, Christopher Howse lamented that people couldn’t tell satire from voyeurism. From the looks of the Insatiable trailer, an awful lot of people can’t tell satire from fat-shaming. Maybe the show itself will get it wrong – but you simply can’t tell until you’ve seen it. That should be a basic principle for anyone, let alone people who wish to think of themselves as progressive. Instead, they are indulging in another form of kneejerk populism, which happens to emanate from people who imagine themselves as “the good guys”, but could just as easily be one of the plays of the “alt-right”.
Still, on it goes. Ban it; pre-emptively destroy it; don’t begin to attempt to understand it. One sadness is that we’ve yet to hear from Hughes on Insatiable. She is currently Manchester’s deputy mayor for policing and crime. We must hope she can be persuaded into a trenchant comment article in the coming days, as historical farce increasingly repeats itself as tragedy.
The BBC news website recently published an article about customised prosthetics and equipment for people with disabilities, titled ‘Pimped-up and ready to go’.
I have sent the following complaint to the BBC:
A recent article about customised prosthetics used the term ‘pimped-up’ in its title; a pimp is someone who uses psychological manipulation and/or physical violence to control someone in prostitution. Language matters, the BBC has a duty to use language responsibly; by using ‘pimp’ to mean good or improved, the BBC is normalising and trivialising violence. Even if one of the organisations featured in the article uses the word ‘pimp’ in that way, that is not an excuse for the BBC to do the same.
Please feel free to copy or adapt the above (adaptations are better), you can complain to the BBC here:
“You often get them late afternoon on a Friday. If somebody doesn’t want to go home, that’s when you get these conversations,” says Alison Hamnett, director of operations across the north for Brook. They may start with asking for free condoms, but eventually the real story emerges: sexual exploitation, abusive relationships, precarious lives. Girls who don’t even feel entitled to refuse sex, let alone insist on protecting themselves.
Some are guarded. “Particularly if they are being groomed, they will have the answers to the questions down pat,” says Hamnett. “But the receptionist will say she saw a car outside drop them off – and the same car is coming with lots of young girls …” Posters hanging in the waiting room of the Manchester clinic where we meet explain the difference between exploitative and loving relationships: no, it’s not OK if he offers a roof over your head and expects sex in return.
The Burnley, Blackburn and Oldham clinics tend to see more grooming-gang victims, says Hamnett. In Liverpool, she found them dealing with a young homeless man, released from prison, who had been having sex in broad daylight in a car park while intoxicated. Manchester saw a young Muslim girl who was being radicalised. The checklist used with clients ranges from female genital mutilation to mental health issues. “We had a young woman of about 17, very intelligent, got all her A-levels and went to university,” says Hamnett. “She was bipolar and, when she was on her meds, she was great. When she wasn’t, she’d sell herself for sex.” The clinic helped her until she was too old to use its service, which is restricted to under-19s. They don’t know where she is now.
Brook’s expertise is in this area – where sexuality, deep-seated social problems and mental health issues collide – and is, says Hallgarten, what makes them “very good value for money”, as identifying the root cause of sexual risk-taking offers more chance of changing it.
But specialist clinics for vulnerable young people such as these are increasingly merging with more general services to save money. There is a push, says Hamnett, towards using GPs instead for contraception. That may work for young people with happy sex lives, but there is a reason appointments here last for up to 40 minutes, not the 10 minutes a busy GP might offer. “I feel as if we’re almost waiting a few years down the line for teenage pregnancies to go up,” she says ruefully. It is this sense of a clock being turned back that worries many.
I think consistency matters a lot in feminism – consistently condemning homophobia and threats of VAWG, defending sexual boundaries, talking clearly about the body and what it means. Picking and choosing for political convenience treats it as a hobby, not a moral imperative.
The final words of Kathleen Stock’s essay can stand as a summary for the whole of this series: “there are more things to consider than some trans activists would have you believe.” The contributions that have argued for the self-declaration of gender identity have offered affecting personal stories (Charlie Kiss and Emily Brothers both movingly describe the peace that transition has brought them), but rarely reckoned with the political and cultural conflicts that writers with more critical standpoints have raised.
Only Vic Valentine of the Scottish Trans Alliance referred to the problem of balancing rights, and then only very subtly, by writing that trans women’s “thoughtful inclusion [in women-only services] is not an undue threat”. What, then, would that thoughtfulness entail? What would thoughtless inclusion look like? And what constitutes an “undue threat” to service users? These are questions of policy, and answering them is a vital stage for the trans rights movement. In short, the trans rights movement needs to articulate exactly what rights it is seeking, and give frank consideration to how those rights would interact with protections currently afforded on the basis of natal sex or transition.
Deborah Hayton and Kristina Harrisson, both trans women, express the fear that corroding public trust in the Gender Recognition Act will cost trans people dearly. Recent polling data supports their case: public backing for gender self-identification is low. But, more positively, the polling also shows that trans activism in Britain is not a culture war issue. Unlike America, where this is a defining schism between liberals and conservatives, in Britain support or resistance to self-identity doesn’t map onto any one political group.
That means that British politics—if it resists the toxic terms of debate exported from America—has the chance to conduct a serious discussion about trans rights and inclusion, in which voices such as Pippa Fleming’s and Kathleen Stock’s are listened to rather than swept aside with the charge of bigotry, and in which trans people are not reduced to proxies in a war of political identities. Only open conversation, like that fostered by The Economist in this series, can produce good law; and bad law will be bad for women and trans people alike.
Samantha the Sex Robot first showed up in the public eye last September, when a version of her was left in need of repairs after being displayed at a tech fair: “The people mounted Samantha’s breasts, her legs and arms. Two fingers were broken. She was heavily soiled,” said her creator, Sergi Santos, at the time.
“People can be bad,” he added. “Because they did not understand the technology and did not have to pay for it, they treated the doll like barbarians.”
Leaving aside the suggestion that the way to convince Samantha’s prospective suitors go a bit easier on her was to pay for her, Santos’s surprise at her treatment here makes him seem naive. Isn’t this exactly what he built Samantha for, after all? Allowing behaviour that actual women wouldn’t tolerate?
In the same month, an undamaged version of Samantha made her debut on breakfast TV, with her owner-lover, father-of-two Arran Lee Wright.
Wright is a co-founder of Synthea Amatus, a website that sells lifelike sex robots, with prices starting at £2,000. On his site, Samantha is described as “much more than a sex doll”. During the interview, Wright elaborated on this argument, declaring: “She can talk about animals, she can talk about philosophy, she can talk about science. She has programmed a thousand jokes, I don’t even know all of them. There’s a lot to Samantha, she’s advanced.”
In particular, he stressed the benefit of Samantha’s so-called family mode. The switch stops her blurting out overtly sexual things, such as “I can take many times, much more love, just because you can give it, and I take it all.”
Wright claimed that his children, aged three and five, play with Samantha, and watch TV alongside her. Wright’s wife even said: “I am not worried she will replace me. She is just someone there like a family member.”
As well as giving Wright an opportunity to plug his site, the interview provokes a curious question. Feminists have already raised fears about the implications of sex robots for the way men view and value women. But if in-house sex robots are becoming a feature of 21st century life, how do children make sense of them?
Just as today’s teenagers take broadband for granted, the next generation growing up will be accustomed to non-sexual robots in their day-to-day lives. Dr Alison Gopnik, professor of psychology at Berkeley University, says that children will most likely learn to get along with such robots in the home better than their parents ever could:
“Technologies that seem weird, disruptive and challenging when they are introduced, from the printing press, to the train and telegraph, to TV, become banal and taken for granted by the next generation,” she says. “My bet is that children will quickly understand that robots are a category that shares both similarities and differences with people and with other machines.”
However, even a non-sexual robot in the house could damage children, says Dr Susan Newman, social psychologist and author of Little Things Long Remembered: Making Your Children Feel Special Every Day. She says: “Children thrive developmentally and socially on human contact and interaction.
“It would seem that robots in a house with babies and young children would significantly reduce, and thereby curtail, the essential ingredient and influence of human touch and verbal interaction.” Robots have programming, scripts and limited facial expressions, if any – they just can’t match human beings for communication and imagination, and that’s what children need most.
So what does that mean for Samantha hanging out with the kids while she is in family mode? Dr Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, professor of psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia questions the idea that Samantha can adjust so easily, given her overtly sexualised features.
“It’s like the Barbie doll image, telling girls how they should look. If the culture gives you this image, what are you going do?” Hirsh-Pasek says. “What a shame that, as they grow up, this is what they learn about their dad.”
Nevertheless, she thinks the state would struggle to intervene: “There are privacy issues there. I think our job is to educate the public about why it’s problematic.”
Children start to form idea about gender and relationships from an early age, and from watching their parents, according to Dr Kathleen Richardson, professor of ethics and culture of robots and AI at De Montfort University, and founder of the Campaign Against Sex Robots.
“Children will imitate machines if brought up by them,” she said at the For the Sake of the Future conference in London. “A son is going to learn that it’s okay for daddy to have both a wife and a doll, and the doll doesn’t say anything; it’s his way to have power and control over the family.
“A daughter is going to grow up and think maybe this happened because Mummy wasn’t beautiful enough – am I?
“They’ll learn that women only have certain uses. Then they start to use that as a template for how they interact intimately with others – this is profoundly damaging.”
Yet it is hard to imagine many parents, however unusual their private life is, letting their child anywhere near a robot clearly made for sex, especially one that might randomly start saying explicit things.
More convincing, perhaps, is the idea that sex robot manufacturers want to break out of the original market of lonely or disabled men – men who “can’t get a woman” – and the stigma attached to that. Instead, they are using their wives and marriages to normalise the sex robots they have a financial interest in selling.
We don’t actually see Wright’s children on his This Morning interview. Perhaps they don’t find Samantha scintillating company after all. In the meantime, those hearing about the family-friendly sex robot should get wise to spotting a man when he’s in marketing mode.
QotD: “Not biologically essentialist = having language to describe the political status of people with vaginas”
For the millionth time, biologically essentialist = thinking people with vaginas are born to be feminine / empathetic / maternal / subservient / decorative etc. Not biologically essentialist = having language to describe the political status of people with vaginas
Britain’s most powerful union leader has joined a group of feminist campaigners to sign a controversial letter that accuses some transgender rights activists of violent and intimidating behaviour.
The Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, was one of about 140 people, including Julie Bindel and Ruth Serwotka, who signed a letter in the Morning Star warning that a handful of recent episodes risked drawing “the whole of our progressive movement into disrepute”.
The letter highlights a series of recent incidents, including the conviction of Tara Wood, 26, in April for the assault of Maria MacLachlan “a 60-year-old woman who had gathered with others in order to attend a meeting” to discuss “the potential impact on women and girls” of changes to the Gender Recognition Act.
It also described a confrontation on a Bectu union picket line in March, saying that “trans activists, with no connection to the industrial dispute itself, mobbed and verbally attacked a female trade union member on the basis of having recognised her as an attendee at a similar meeting”.
McCluskey initially said he had signed the letter “to improve the climate of debate around proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act” but immediately faced criticism for signing a document that appeared to make little reference to transgender rights.
Laura Murray, the head of external relations in the office of Jeremy Corbyn, tweeted: “I’m apparently ‘disgusting’ and ‘not a feminist or a socialist’ because I stand against transphobia. But according to today’s letter in the Morning Star, all abusive behaviour in this debate comes from trans activists! Jesus wept.”
The union leader clarified his position, tweeting that “I oppose all hate crime including against trans people” and said that Unite, whose policy conference is going on a Brighton, had agreed a more conciliatory “executive statement”.
That asserted: “We oppose division between our Women’s movement and our Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans movement, our campaigns to tackle discrimination are inclusive and member led.”
Ministers this week launched a long expected consultation on potential changes to the Gender Recognition Act 2004 that would make it easier for transgender people to achieve legal recognition of an acquired gender – a prospect that has caused intense debate since it was first mooted in 2016.
The act already allows people to change their gender without first having had surgical treatment, but since it came into force, 4,910 people have legally changed their gender, partly because it requires people to provide medical reports and other documentation to prove they have been living in their acquired gender for two years.
Many feminists have questioned the implications of making it easier for people to reassign their gender, questioning for example whether it is appropriate to share women only spaces with male bodied people who identify as women.
The Morning Star letter says its signatories do not share a particular position regarding the act, but concludes that “whatever your view … you will agree it is unacceptable for women to be made scared to engage in political life”.