The Word Rabbit

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This article was written on 10 May 2016, and is filled under Uncategorised.

To Pike, with apologies

Dear Pike

I love your passion. Honestly. And I know that sounds patronising, but I feel really nostalgic for the way you see the problems of the world and want to set about fixing them. Eyes like that don’t see barriers to human progress, they only see obstacles to overcome. And there’s plenty of support for your position. You’re absolutely right when you point out that abolitionists must have despaired of ever prevailing and that Martin Luther King must have had moments of wondering when the Civil Rights movement was ever going to prevail, not least when the protest on the bridge in Selma was broken up. But they did win in the end, after a long and bitter fight, with blood of innocents mixed with that of the guilty.

However. And there’s always a however. You have to know when your moment to push is. We’ve recently been arguing about male circumcision, which my shaky understanding of American society tells me, is still carried out by some doctors, and is, of course, a worldwide practice in the Jewish and Islamic faiths. And you know what? I don’t like it, either. I believe passionately in each of us having power over our own bodies and that the people who take us from infancy into adulthood take on the huge responsibilities that come with guardianship, one on which is to take our consent seriously. Nor do I like halal or kosher slaughter, believing them to be barbaric, and nor do I care for sharia or Beth Din courts which are operating at some level in my country.

To take this issue on, however, risks starting a bitter cultural war when those communities are often feeling persecuted already. To them, circumcision is as much a part of being a Jew or a Muslim as observing religious festivals or prayer. Taking it from them would feel like an attack on that and, worse yet, the parents could argue that such was the seriousness with which they took their guardianship, they wanted to make sure that the child got into heaven. I don’t agree with this, but I’m not a Muslim or a Jew and I’m not rash or patronising enough to say that their experiences don’t matter. The other effect of making circumcision illegal is that the practice would be driven underground, similar to the way that people are concerned that making abortion illegal would drive it underground. In parts of Africa, where there are religious ceremonies around circumcision that are performed by people who are not qualified to do so, post-operative infection can leave people maimed for life and I really don’t want that to happen.

Somewhere in the future, when people are less interested in religion or want to experience it in different ways, the time will be right for activism on this subject. Right now, we’re a long way from that and, to Jews and Muslims, waging war against circumcision looks an awful lot like a war on their culture, even though I’m aware that absolutely isn’t the motivation for many campaigners. To risk this now is to risk the harmony of already fractured societies where many communities are starting to make tentative steps towards each other. Your moral stance might be just, but I don’t think that your timing is. And for all that we’ve been combative with each other on Twitter, I’m saying that from a place of respect.

We are, of course, separated by a fairly vast ideological gulf. I think that masculinity, as I have experienced it, has been truly toxic. To explain why I see it in these terms involves understanding more about how old I am (that age thing again) and the cultural context in which I grew up. I was born in 1973 and grew up in an area of England whose economy relied in its mines. When the government started to close those there was a strike and then the mines closed anyway. For all that I was a snotty middle class kid with some fairly silly opinions, it was a hard area. Men never talked about their feelings, ever, but suffered in silence and occasionally got into a fight outside a pub. They were strong, surly and iron-willed. Unpacking the legacy of this has taken me twenty years or more and I realise that it must seem like a dark age to children growing up today.

Trying to be the kind of man I’d seen growing up cost me dearly. I dealt with a rape attempt when I was much younger by not telling anyone and then walked into an abusive three year relationship in which all of my pain and hurt, the kind of pain and hurt that comes with being human, was bottled up and left unexpressed. As I grew older, the main emotion I remember feeling was a kind of deep-seated anger at the world and at everyone in it. Some part of me was maimed on a deep and profound level and, with retrospect, it was almost inevitable that I was heading for a crisis. I duly had a breakdown just over four years ago. I told you that I owed my life to strong women and the Quakers and this is absolutely true. My mother in law at the time stepped in and cared for me when I was suicidal and the Quakers, may of whom are pacifists, gave me time and space to express my doubts and fears about the work I was doing for the Army which led to me resigning and starting the long, slow process of recovery. Part of that has been meeting people and talking to them and realising that the assumptions I had grown up with, that men behaved in a certain way and that anything else was forbidden, was a huge part of that. I cried uncontrollably for the first time in years and sought out therapy. My therapist was the second strong woman to whom I owe my life and who gave me the time and space I desperately needed, and the language, to start articulating how I felt. It hasn’t been easy. In fact, that’s the wrong tense. It isn’t easy. But not to do these things would be to fall back into old and toxic ways.

During my journey, I became aware that feminism could help me take that toxic masculine stuff that I’d been dragging around with me for years and unpack it. I was free to take a look, suddenly, at why believed that boys don’t cry, why I thought that expressing vulnerability and pain and all the other things were wrong. I thought that sexist jokes and laddish behaviour – you said ‘geezer’ and that’s just as good – were the way forward. Feminism taught me to see that I was hiding the pain and anger I felt by inflicting it on others and using them for entertainment. None of this came cheaply and I resisted almost all of it, grudging each step of the way. I never reached a moment of epiphany, but I realised slowly and over time that I’d been acting like an idiot and I’ve tried, as hard as I humanly can, to resist it.

So when I see you hating feminism, I see you hating the tool that set me free and that’s a hard thing to watch. Some feminists, many feminists or whatever phraseology you want to use are harsh, unpleasant or just plain wrong. I know that, because I see it on Twitter every hour of the day. But know what? Most people are harsh, unpleasant and wrong sometimes. Those aren’t fixed states of being. They’re often transitory and often in response to being deeply and profoundly hurt in some way that we don’t have access to. When I come across that harshness, unpleasantness and hurt on Twitter, I don’t get pulled in, because no good will come of it. Some of those people are looking for something to hate, something to kick against, and I don’t want to let that be me. And I can tell you from personal experience that when I was hurting most is when I was the hardest to like. Rather than dealing with my pain, I lashed out at people, said and did things that I knew were stupid, purely because I wanted them to feel some of my shame. For all that people say hateful and intemperate things and for all that I react sometimes, it’s best to pass on your way and keep your own counsel. Their time for epiphany may come, but it won’t be there and then.

That leads me to being a Street Pastor, which was the other way out of my hurt. The Street Pastors, for all that their name implies it, don’t preach. They go out, generally between 10 at night and four in the morning and help people. We have a high-vis jacket, but that’s just so we don’t get run over and don’t look like random loonies and have a medical bag suitable for most situations. Our role is to help drunk people get home, often calling an ambulance if necessary, and to hand out food, clothes and other stuff to the homeless. Most people react in a friendly way, but some are overtly hostile – again, because they’re wounded in some way I can’t see. A few months ago, I had to talk someone out of getting hold of a gun and shooting one of the other Street Pastors who he felt had patronised him. There are other incidents, where we’re threatened with violence and it isn’t unusual to be called a ‘cunt.’ The intent is to shock, but it never works. We’ve all heard worse and as I worked for the Army, I can’t think of any situation I’d find disconcerting. Much as I know that we’ve been trying to dig at each other on Twitter, if nothing else, this suggests that I’m not wholly passive and supine when it comes to people’s problems.

Finally, there’s Movember, the men’s charity. I raise money for them each November, all the more so since they’ve started including mental health charities in their umbrella and, for obvious reasons, that’s close to me heart. Last year, for reasons too tedious to mention, I wore a kilt for the whole month and raised £350, which isn’t too shabby. Why? Because one of their main focuses is prostate cancer and I watched my dad go through the hell of prostate cancer checks a couple of years ago. He turned out to be clear, but just the checks made him very ill and lose loads of weight, which hurt my heart.

All of these things were areas where I think I can make a difference. I think I’m a good Street Pastor, because I’ve been through mental illness and it’s made me sensitive to it and aware of it in ways I might not have been previously. I’ll gladly campaign for Movember and I’d like to get more involved in CALM, as we discussed earlier, but I also have to work out how to earn a living, which isn’t easy right now. What I’d say to you, as I’d say to my younger self, is to work hard for other people when you can, but to be sure of the ground you stand on. That means cutting even the people who seem to hate you some slack, as they’ll be fighting their own battles, and being clear about who your adversaries are, To me, that isn’t feminism. It’s the ties that hold us both, that’s you and me, back. And that’s the idiot, status-seeking, emotion-repressing masculine stuff which stops us from being who we could be. Work to stop male suicide, make men open up more and break all the old stereotypes and that would be a pretty good legacy. But please, please don’t get diverted into making this about feminism. They have their own battles to fight, often against men who have hurt and abused them. We need to get our own house in order and that starts with us.

Finally, I want to say sorry for taking a pop at you. I’m under stress at the moment, some of it related to mental health and other stuff related to my threadbare finances. What you’ve seen is a reversion to old ways, where I try and take my pain out on other people and that’s unfair. I bear you zero malice and I want you to know that, even if we disagree, should you need my help and I was in a position to provide it, I would do so unstintingly. I’ve unfollowed you, as perhaps that’s best for both of us, and wish that you go gently and well.

Regards,

Richard

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