Like B*Witched and the SDP, I am far greater than the sum of my parts

Playing Top Trumps inside your own head.

Susan Calman: she's much greater than the sum of her parts. Photograph: Getty Images

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I love Twitter. I really do. Little fills my heart with joy more than disseminating pictures of cats dressed in funny costumes. I think it’s what the inventor of the internet would’ve wanted. It’s also easy to get used to the concept of “less is more” with Twitter. A mere 140 characters to discuss important political issues? No problem. It’s simple to vacuum-pack your life philosophy into one tweet. What could possibly go wrong? The obsession with reducing complex issues to a bite-sized morsel hasn’t been all fun. Disappointingly, some seem to believe that social media have led to a reduction in the capacity of the public to understand more than one idea at a time. Suddenly simplicity is the key to explanation.

I have personal experience of this particular trend. I’m often asked in interviews what it’s like to be a Scottish, female, comedian, ex-lawyer lesbian. I always answer that I’d find it more difficult to be an English, male, comedian, ex-lawyer lesbian and then I wait for the laugh from the journalist asking the question. Sadly, like summer in Scotland, it never comes. Of course, I’m being flippant, after being asked what is, in essence, a stupid question.

What I’m really being asked to do is play a game of top trumps with my own head, to simplify myself into one banner headline. Sort of what you’d have to do at the world’s least exciting speed-dating evening. But how do you start defining what you are? Is my being Scottish more important than the fact that I’m a feminist? Is being gay more influential within my own psyche than being a comedian? Does the fact that I’m an ex-lawyer with a degree in constitutional law mean that I have more sympathy with politicians? Usually I give a long and involved answer to the journalist who’s dissecting my political make-up with the sharpness of a scalpel made from marshmallow, only to read the final article, where my analysis is summarised with the sentence: “Calman likes cats.”

Whenever it seems that I’m required to create a Venn diagram of my mind, I remember the greats. The Nolans, the Jackson Five, B*Witched, the SDP. All examples of people who, when they worked together, were greater than the sum of their parts. And that’s what I am. A girl band comprising one short woman who can neither dance nor sing. I should enter Eurovision.

But back to the problem. Can I really say I’m more Scottish than gay? Is that even possible? I can’t discuss my queer politics without remembering I grew up in Glasgow in the 1980s where being gay was as easy as being a vegan in an abattoir.

What about being a woman in comedy? I’m often described as a “female” comedian, as if that adjective is required in order to prepare the audience for what might occur. It’s not really required in other jobs. Oh look there’s a “lady teacher” or a “woman accountant”. It’s a subtle way of introducing to an audience the notion that I don’t deserve the full title. Like giving someone beans on toast and then, when presenting them, whispering, “Sorry, they’re own-brand.” My gender obviously influences what I say. I can’t, for example, bemoan how difficult it is to be a white, straight, middle-class man in today’s society. (Apparently it’s really tough – at least, that’s what I keep hearing.)

If I say I’m Scottish first and foremost then I’m accused of being parochial. If I’m gay first (or a premier gay, as I like to call it) then I’m angry and man-hating. If I say that my legal background is most important then I’m dull. And if I say that the comedy is the most important thing, then why would anyone listen to a foul-mouthed clown?

It’s not possible to dissect myself, like an attention-seeking Mr Potato Head, into the sum of my own parts. The obsession with the 140-character Twitter summary of one’s identity just leads to descriptions sounding like a personal ad. “Late 30s gay scots lady, interest in law, GSOH”. The complexity of the human mind can’t be reduced to a one-word description. If we allowed ourselves to breathe, then perhaps we wouldn’t be so disappointed about other people we meet or vote for. We don’t live in the world of Mr Men, where I can wear a badge that says “Little Ms Scottish” or “Little Ms Lady Gay Comic”. I wish I could. But it’d have to be a really big badge.

Susan Calman is a comedian, and more

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Centenary Special Issue

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.