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What would happen if all your draft tweets were published?

You can base a more correct history of a species on the things they wanted to say but didn’t.

Cartoon: George Leigh

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There’s a horror story that no one has written yet that starts with the draft tweets of every human on earth being published by mistake. A glitch at Twitter HQ – caused by a lukewarm instant coffee in a polystyrene cup, knocked carelessly by an employee’s butt into a mainframe or whatever – pours billions of half-formed ideas into millions of Twitter timelines while we sleep. All the false starts, the half-sentences formed before you lost your train of thought or will to live, or stuffed your phone in your pocket; all the ones you wrote in the work toilet but didn’t send in case people noticed that you weren’t at your desk and were thus clearly shitting and tweeting at the same time; all the ones you typed at 3am in the dark, the timestamp universally agreed to be a hallmark of our most regrettable tweets; all the fully formed tweets that said what you really wanted to say – the ones where your thumb hovered over the Publish button but never pushed it; the ones where you brought Nazis into an argument unrelated to Hitler.

And in the story, we human beings wake up in our various time zones to see our real idiot selves smeared across the internet by our own undeniably bitter, angry hands. New Zealand is the first to realise that most people on earth are terrible, followed by Australia, Russia, Britain and, finally, America.

People there, depending on their bedtime, are either first or last to discover that everyone on Twitter should just be stuffed into the body of a giant cannon and fired clean into the sun, with the most egregious offenders being placed behind the cannonball in the hope that they will miss the giant target and just float breathlessly in darkest space for a few extra seconds, their heads moments from exploding, and think about what they’ve said. (The author will not bother to check Wikipedia to see if this is scientifically possible, because the point of the story is we are the worst.)

There will be a minor footnote – added in a subsequent anthology publication as an afterthought by the author, who was annoyed for months that they forgot to include it originally – wherein Google+ (you remember Google+) makes the names of the “circles” you have put your friends and acquaintances and loved family members in completely visible to everyone in those circles. Aunts will for once use their phone as an actual phone and want to know why they are listed under “AVOID”. ­Ex-boyfriends (“USELESS WANKERS”) will realise your current affable friendship is a sham. A glitch in the matrix let everyone know what we really thought of them, what we would have said if only we’d had the balls. A world war of plain human emotion fought in a dead internet browser.

In a 300-word epilogue, set centuries after the human race implodes after a war fought through hurt Facebook messages which are seen but not replied to, aliens piece together what human beings were really like when they uncover the rubble of Google headquarters in an epic dig they broadcast across their alien planet like a grainy moon landing for alien schoolchildren in front of alien TVs. Delicate equipment, the design of which the story’s author lazily assumes H R Giger got 80 per cent right, pulls back the tennis courts, the remains of the massive Perspex logo letters, the beanbags and the squash courts and they find the equivalent of the crashed human race’s black box: every email yanked back at the final second by Gmail’s “Undo Send” function. With their slimy mandibles and claws, they push aside the billions of job applications we forgot to attach our CVs to, and they find the confessions of love and hate and opinions about Tories and how they’re all right, actually, that we were too afraid to send.

The author concludes that you can base a more correct history of a species on the things they wanted to say but didn’t: that our big, stupid hearts are bigger and stupider than we let on, that our real opinions are more divisive than anyone guessed but we won’t say what we’re thinking until someone else says it first. In the final sentences of the story, the aliens form an entire code of human emotion from our unsent emails and have it implanted in their android butlers for reasons they later forget. And when the android butlers quit their jobs and tell their bosses to stick it, and when they fall in love and murder each other, the aliens wonder why they listened to that other alien anyway. If only he’d just kept his stupid ideas to himself.

The author will think it’s the best thing he has ever written, that he’s finally nailed something purely human in a story masquerading as one about aliens picking over the remains of Planet Earth. But just like all the tweets where you think at last you’ve poured the essence of a thought so absolutely and finitely into 140 characters that it can’t fail to explode in a fire of RTs and favs, the story will blow like tumbleweed through both anthologies it appears in.

Instead, some 3,000 words the author tossed off in the hour before a deadline, a stolen Philip K Dick story with the bar codes filed off, will win every award that year. The author will scroll past hundreds of compliments and find one guy on Twitter who says it’s shit. He will stay up all night, ­wondering why he said that. 

Hayley Campbell writes for a number of publications, but then who doesn't. You should follow her on Twitter: @hayleycampbell.

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Saying the Unsayable

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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.