On misogyny and female columnists

Nick Cohen's intervention is welcome but let's not kid ourselves that he "nailed" it first.

Yesterday, Nick Cohen wrote a piece criticising the Telegraph's Daniel Knowles.

Cohen accused Knowles of misogyny in a piece he'd written about Laurie Penny, and then neatly segued into an overarching condemnation of the way female columnists are treated in comparison to their male counterparts.

Nick Cohen was right when he accused journalists of finding "a special thrill in attacking women who write forcefully about politics", but I don't agree that Daniel Knowles was particularly misogynistic. No matter though; because this piece isn't about either of them. This piece is about us.

Almost as soon as the piece was published, "Nick Cohen" started trending on Twitter. Clicking on the topic revealed scores of men and women sharing and praising his article; congratulating him for "nailing" the subject.

Did he really? Funny; because I seem to remember contributing to a piece on the New Statesman a few weeks ago on this very subject. I remember Laurie Penny herself doing a better job of "nailing" it with her own piece a few days later. And, if I'm not mistaken, the Guardian asked four women to join a panel discussion about online misogyny that very same week.

Maybe I imagined all that: maybe it didn't happen. After all, it didn't trend on Twitter when women pointed it out; and if I remember rightly, a great deal of respondents told us to stop being so weak. Brendan O'Neill -- God love him -- even dedicated an entire column to it.

How strange, then, that Cohen's piece should be the subject of such adulation. How unfathomable it is that his opinion should be lauded more than those for whom misogyny is a lived experience. It seems, as one Twitter user put it to me, that when "feminist women call sexism they are portrayed as killjoys; when feminist men do it, they are portrayed as white knights riding to the aid of defenceless women."

The thing about living in a structurally sexist society -- yes, a patriarchy if you're not afraid of that old hoary term -- is that sometimes sexism happens without anyone even registering. It's not all Zoo magazine and "calm down dear" -- in fact it rarely is. Most of the time, it's just arduous, exhausting daily life. Most of the time it's men getting congratulated for saying the same things women have written about, debated, and received abuse for.

In 2009, an activist blogger called Chris Crass wrote about his experience of being told he was guilty of sexism. His female friend told him:

You cut me off when I'm talking. You pay more attention to what men say. The other day when I was sitting at the coffee shop with you and Mike, it was like the two of you were having a conversation and I was just there to watch. I tried to jump in and say something, but you both just looked at me and then went back to your conversation.

Crass went on to describe sexism in the activist group he was part of. He relays the moment where the women of the group try to explain the sexism they've experienced, and says "the discussion quickly turned into women defending themselves, defending their understandings of their own experiences".'

His account is ratified by reams of sociological research. In 1998, sociologist Senta Trömel-Plötz wrote, "Men, the speakers of the dominant style, have more rights and privileges. They exhibit their privileges and produce them in every conversational situation."

Don't get me wrong: there are feminist reasons to praise Nick Cohen's article. After all, we'll never smash the patriarchy until men start brandishing metaphorical hammers as well. But the congratulations he received weren't simply a result of him dipping his toe in the feminist water. It was relief: because now a man has condemned misogyny online, we women can be confident it's actually real.

With all due respect to Nick Cohen, I don't need him to tell me sexism is a problem. The twentysomething years I have inhabited this planet have taught me that. But I'm glad he threw his hat in the ring, because what he said was important. It's also, unintentionally, a reminder of how far feminism has to go.

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Over a Martini with my mother, I decide I'd rather not talk Brexit

A drink with her reduces me to a nine-year-old boy recounting his cricketing triumphs.

To the Royal Academy with my mother. As well as being a very competent (ex-professional, on Broadway) singer, she is a talented artist, and has a good critical eye, albeit one more tolerant of the brighter shades of the spectrum than mine. I love the RA’s summer exhibition: it offers one the chance to be effortlessly superior about three times a minute.

“Goddammit,” she says, in her finest New York accent, after standing in front of a particularly wretched daub. The tone is one of some vexation: not quite locking-yourself-out-of-the-house vexed, but remembering-you’ve-left-your-wallet-behind-a-hundred-yards-from-the-house vexed. This helps us sort out at least one of the problems she has been facing since widowhood: she is going to get cracking with the painting again, and I am going to supply the titles.

I am not sure I have the satirical chops or shamelessness to come up with anything as dreadful as Dancing With the Dead in My Dreams (artwork number 688, something that would have shown a disturbing kind of promise if executed by an eight-year-old), or The End From: One Day This Glass Will Break (number 521; not too bad, actually), but we work out that if she does reasonably OK prints and charges £500 a pop for each plus £1,000 for the original – this being at the lower end of the price scale – then she’ll be able to come out well up on the deal. (The other solution to her loneliness: get a cat, and perhaps we are nudged in this direction by an amusing video installation of a cat drinking milk from a saucer which attracts an indulgent, medium-sized crowd.)

We wonder where to go for lunch. As a sizeable quantity of the art there seems to hark back to the 1960s in general, and the style of the film Yellow Submarine in particular, I suggest Langan’s Brasserie, which neither of us has been to for years. We order our customary Martinis. Well, she does, while I go through a silly monologue that runs: “I don’t think I’ll have a Martini, I have to write my column this afternoon, oh sod it, I’ll have a Martini.”

“So,” she says as they arrive, “how has life been treating you?”

Good question. How, indeed, has life been treating me? Most oddly, I have to say. These are strange times we live in, a bit strange even for me, and if we wake up on 24 June to find ourselves no longer in Europe and with Nigel Farage’s toadlike mug gurning at us from every newspaper in the land, then I’m off to Scotland, or the US, or at least strongly thinking about it. Not even Hunter S Thompson’s mantra – “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro” – will be enough to arm myself with, I fear.

The heart has been taking something of a pummelling, as close readers of this column may have gathered, but there is nothing like finding out that the person you fear you might be losing it to is probably going to vote Brexit to clear up that potential mess in a hurry. The heart may be stupid, but there are some things that will shake even that organ from its reverie. However, operating on a need-to-know basis, I feel my mother can do without this information, and I find myself talking about the cricket match I played on Sunday, the first half of which was spent standing watching our team get clouted out of the park, in rain not quite strong enough to take us off the field, but certainly strong enough to make us wet.

“Show me the way to go home,” I sang quietly to myself, “I’m tired and I want to go to bed,” etc. The second half of it, though, was spent first watching an astonishing, even by our standards, batting collapse, then going in at number seven . . . and making the top score for our team. OK, that score was 12, but still, it was the top score for our team, dammit.

The inner glow and sense of bien-être that this imparted on Sunday persists three days later as I write. And as I tell my mother the story – she has now lived long enough in this country, and absorbed enough of the game by osmosis, to know that 17 for five is a pretty piss-poor score – I realise I might as well be nine years old, and telling her of my successes on the pitch. Only, when I was nine, I had no such successes under my belt.

With age comes fearlessness: I don’t worry about the hard ball coming at me. Why should I? I’ve got a bloody bat, gloves, pads, the lot. The only things that scare me now are, as usual, dying alone, that jackanapes Farage, and bad art. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain