Convicted: Max Clifford arrives at Southwark Crown Court ahead of his sentencing, 2 May. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Failing the teachers, misjudging Max Clifford and Thomas Piketty’s bestselling shelf-filler

Peter Wilby’s First Thoughts column.

Ann Maguire, the teacher stabbed to death by a pupil at a Catholic secondary school in Leeds, was dedicated, devout, patient, caring and inspiring, “the mother of the school”, always striving for “excellence”. Those are just a few of the descriptions used by newspapers. And I do not question for one moment that Maguire deserved them.

That is not how newspapers and politicians, particularly those of a right-wing persuasion, normally write about state school teachers. More often, we are told that, enslaved to left-wing ideology, teachers instruct children in atheism and immorality, tolerate low standards and don’t work hard enough. We shall hear many suggestions about who or what was to “blame” for Maguire’s tragic death. (My answer would be the boy who used the knife but nobody wants to leave it at that.) Permissive liberal values, welfare benefits, violent video games, social media and the abolition of corporal punishment will, most likely, be among the alleged culprits.

Nobody will mention the routine denigration of teachers by politicians and the media. Yet that must bear some responsibility for the growing instances of both pupils and parents refusing to accept teachers’ authority and sometimes resorting to violence to make their point.

 

Double shock

Unearthing journalists’ faulty predictions and poor judgements is always enjoyable. To my delight, I once discovered that the Sun, in a fawning interview in 1973, described Gary Glitter (later imprisoned for sexual offences against children) as “the rock’n’roll daddy who makes little girls ask to see more of his hairy chest”. So before anybody else finds out, I will reveal that, during my editorship, the NS ran an article under the headline “Max Clifford is a nice chap shock”. We reported that Clifford, who has just been convicted of sexually abusing four girls, was a man of “private modesty . . . committed to public service” whose “personal life has been a paragon of virtue”. Since this was in 2000, we don’t even have the excuse that it was the 1970s.

 

Automatic for the people

Since I love travelling on trains, I should be delighted that the bill for the HS2 rail link sailed through its Commons second reading. But I keep hearing about driverless cars. Google’s prototype has driven 700,000 miles around California and several manufacturers envisage such vehicles being on the market by 2020. Audi has demonstrated a car that drops you off, parks itself and returns when summoned by an app.

People opt for rail because they can read, work, eat, make calls or gaze at scenery while travelling. Driverless cars will reduce those advantages and, I should think, particularly appeal to the expense-account executives at whom HS2 is mainly aimed. Has anybody in the government thought about this?

 

Undermining aristocrats

Visiting relatives in Derbyshire, my wife and I took a detour north of Sheffield to Wentworth Woodhouse, recently opened to the public. It is sometimes called “the Buckingham Palace of the north” but it would perhaps be better to call the Queen’s metropolitan pad the Wentworth Woodhouse of the south. Most of the house, covering 2.5 acres, was built by 18th-century Whigs. It eventually passed to the Fitzwilliams who made fortunes out of the Barnsley coal seam that their estates happened to straddle.

The guides speak venomously of Emanuel Shinwell’s role in the house’s decline. As Labour’s fuel and power minister in the late 1940s, he ordered open cast mining in the Wentworth gardens right up to the walls of the house, undermining its foundations. As the coal was of poor quality and the Fitzwilliams were considered relatively enlightened mine owners, Shinwell was (and is) accused of vandalism and class hatred.

I’m with Shinwell. He showed that he didn’t fear upsetting those who had previously been the nation’s unquestioned rulers. A bit of rough justice was necessary to break centuries-old habits of British deference. I wish Labour’s present leaders had a fraction of Shinwell’s spirit.

 

Greek to me

One effect of the internet is that, with sufficient hype, a book can become a bestseller before anyone has thought about whether they actually want to read it. I think this has happened to Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century. If you picked it up in a bookshop, you would soon realise that it’s a dense economics tome, with graphs, equations featuring Greek letters and 76 pages of notes. On the net, you just click. I fear that, like Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, Piketty’s book will have many more buyers than readers. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Islam issue

Getty
Show Hide image

Should feminists talk about “pregnant people”?

Two writers present the arguments for and against.

NO

“I’m not sure what the public health issue is that would require a focus only on those who become pregnant, as opposed to any of those involved in pregnancy, either becoming pregnant or causing someone else to become pregnant,” Dr Elizabeth Saewyc, a Canadian professor in nursing and adolescent medicine at the University of British Columbia, recently told journalist Jesse Singal when he asked her for clarification on a study she conducted into trans youth and pregnancy.

Her statement is, on the face of it, extraordinary: unlike those who “cause someone else to become pregnant” (males), those who “become pregnant” (females) actually, well, become pregnant, with everything that entails from the risk of varicose veins and pre-eclampsia, to having an abortion or being denied abortion, to miscarriage or giving birth and living with the economic strain and social discrimination that come with motherhood.

As absurd as Saewyc sounded, her position is the logical endpoint of “gender neutral” language about pregnancy. Pressure on reproductive rights groups – especially those in the US – to drop references to “women” and instead address themselves to “people” have been growing over the last few years, and the American body Planned Parenthood now regularly mentions “pregnant people” in its communications. In theory, this is supposed to help transmen and non-binary-identified females who need reproductive health services. In practice, it creates a political void into which the female body, and the way pregnancy specifically affects women, simply disappears.

The obscuring of the female body beneath obscenity and taboo has always been one of the ways patriarchal society controls women. In 2012, Michigan Democratic representative Lisa Brown was prevented from speaking in a debate about abortion after she used the word “vagina”, which Republicans decided “violated the decorum of the house”. Now, that oppressive decorum is maintained in the name of trans inclusion: in 2014, the pro-choice organisation A is For was attacked for “genital policing” and being “exclusionary and harmful” over a fundraiser named Night of a Thousand Vaginas.

Funnily enough, trans inclusion doesn’t require the elimination of the word vagina entirely – only when it’s used in reference to women. A leaflet on safe sex for trans people published by the Human Rights Campaign decrees that “vagina” refers to “the genitals of trans women who have had bottom surgery”; in contrast, unaltered female genitals are designated the “front hole”. And it’s doubtful that any of this careful negation of the female body helps to protect transmen, given the regular occurrence of stories about transmen getting “unexpectedly” pregnant through having penis-in-vagina sex. Such pregnancies are entirely unsurprising to anyone who knows that gender identity is not a contraceptive.

It does, however, protect from scrutiny the entire network of coercion that is cast over the female body: the denial of abortion rights in the Republic of Ireland, for example, affects the same class of people who were subjected to the medical violence of symphysiotomy — a brutal alternative to cesarean, which involves slicing through the cartilage and ligaments of a pelvic joint to widen it and allow a baby to be delivered — the same class of people who were brutalised by Magdalen Laundries (institutions established to house “fallen women” which operated from the late 18th to the 20th centuries), the same class of people who are subject to rape and sexual harassment. That class of people is women. If we give up the right to name ourselves in the service of “inclusion”, we permit the erosion of all our hard-won boundaries.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who focuses on feminism.

YES

No matter who you are and how straightforwardly things go, pregnancy is never an easy process. It might be a joyous one in many ways, but it’s never comfortable having to lie on your back in a brightly lit room with your legs hitched in stirrups and strangers staring at parts of your anatomy some of them hesitate to name. Then there are the blood tests, the scans, the constant scrutiny of diet and behaviour – it may be good practice for coping with a child, but the invasion of privacy that takes place at this time can have a dehumanising effect. And that’s without having your gender denied in the process.

If you’ve never experienced that denial, it might be difficult to relate to — but many women have, at one time or another, received letters addressing them as “Mr” or turned up at meetings only to discover they were expected to be men. It’s a minor irritation until it happens to you every day. Until people refuse to believe you are who you say you are; until it happens in situations where you’re already vulnerable, and you’re made to feel as if your failure to conform to expectations means you don’t really deserve the same help and respect as everyone else.

There is very little support available for non-binary people and trans men who are happily pregnant, trying to become pregnant or trying to cope with unplanned pregnancies. With everything geared around women, accessing services can be a struggle, and encountering prejudice is not uncommon. We may not even have the option of keeping our heads down and trying to “pass” as female for the duration. Sometimes our bodies are visibly different.

It’s easy for those opposed to trans inclusion to quote selectively from materials making language recommendations that are, or appear to be, extreme – but what they miss is that most trans people going through pregnancy are not asking for anything drastic. We simply want reassurance that the people who are supposed to be helping us recognise that we exist. When that’s achievable simply by using a neutral word like people, does it really hurt to do so? I was always advised that manners cost nothing.

Referring to “people” being pregnant does not mean that we can’t also talk about women’s experiences. It doesn’t require the negation of femaleness – it simply means accepting that women’s rights need not be won at the expense of other people’s. We are stronger when we stand together, whether pushing for better sex education or challenging sexual violence (to which trans men are particularly vulnerable).

When men criticise feminism and complain that it’s eroding their rights, this is usually countered with the argument that it’s better for everyone – that it’s about breaking down barriers and giving people more options. Feminism that is focused on a narrow approach to reproductive biology excludes many women who will never share the experience of pregnancy, and not necessarily through choice. When women set themselves against trans men and non-binary people, it produces a perfect divide and conquer scenario that shores up cis male privilege. There’s no need for any of that. We can respect one another, allow for difference and support the growth of a bigger feminist movement that is truly liberating.

Jennie Kermode is the chair of the charity Trans Media Watch.