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Maureen Lipman: we all need a shoulder to whine on

The beautiful enigma of empathy and our capacity for creativity are what define us.

A word in your ear: we have an instinctive need to listen
and share but also to seek compassion.
Photo: Phil Willis/Millennium Images

What makes us human? The beautiful enigma of empathy is the first human quality that comes to mind. We grit our teeth when we’re told to “walk a mile in my shoes”, “put yourself in his place”, “eat your chard – they’re starving in Africa”, but the prompt is always necessary. Empathy is a rare quality, as we discover when life makes us look for a shoulder to whine on. And unlike generalised kindness, which most people possess, it involves a subtle shift of priorities that only comes, like perfect pitch, as a gift.

Most actors and writers have it in spades, possibly because they need immediate access to the emotions of others. Maybe the membrane between the characters we play and write and our own selves is sometimes so wafer-thin that identification bleeds in. Empathising can become obsessive and those politicians and philanthropists who devote their lives to it often seem unable to feel it for their own families. “I don’t feel terribly grandfatherly towards my grandchildren,” said a friend. “Well, learn to,” I replied tartly, “because they’re the ones who’ll decide which home you’re going into.”

But are we alone as a species in feeling empathy? I watch David Attenborough programmes with the reverence I’d give to God. The elephants that return to the scene of the poacher’s crime each year to grieve for their murdered; the nursing cat, high
on hormones, suckling orphaned ducklings; the Labrador that waits daily by the bay to swim with a lonely dolphin. Are they not displaying instinctive, shared compassion?

No, I need to look further to find the quality that marks us out and makes us human. Could it be the awareness of our own mortality? A moment stands out in my own life, during my husband’s decline from multiple myeloma. It’s a crisp April day and I’m wheeling him through a north London park after laboriously springing him from the hospice. Bundled up in an oversized overcoat, an unlikely tweed cap on the vulnerable head where soft black hair once sprang, he surveys the silver birches fringed by blue crocuses, the flying Frisbees and the shuffling spaniels, and turns radiantly to me: “Look at it all. It’s all just . . . wonderful, darling . . . isn’t it?’’ I feel, empathise with the nostalgia, pain and joy behind his words . . . and his jolting realisation that his time is up.

With this memory comes the reminder that he left a legacy. Not just a family, who will leave their own, but more than 250 plays for television and screen, written, perhaps unconsciously, against the ticking of the clock. With, as Andrew Marvell said, “Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near”.

That brings me to our next, and possibly most important quality: creativity. Touring a play around England recently, I filled my days exploring the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, the Millennium in Sheffield, the Holburne in Bath, marvelling again at the human need to paint, pot, sculpt, stitch, decorate, pin to a wall, use in war, use in worship, steal, acquire, display. Back in town, the Colombian exhibition at the British Museum is a catwalk, fashioned from pure gold, dating back to the Incas. To them, a trove of everyday decorative artefacts; to ambitious Spanish warlords, a coveted stash, worth killing for, to bankroll Europe.

One doesn’t need to be a creative genius, of course, to create. The letters written from a trench, a boarding school or a far-flung land, the crocheted baby bonnet, the antimacassar destined to sit invisibly beneath an aspidistra all its life – all these sprang from the same spark of creativity. So, too, did the crystal radio, the scratchy voice of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle on a disc collated by an owlish BBC boffin, and the delicately coloured-in birdwatching book. I have a treasured Florence Greenberg recipe book, pages stained with onion tears, which transports me back to the thousand gracelessly received meals my mother cooked for us. I have the 19 scrapbooks she kept of my career: every show I acted in, from Doctor Faustus at Newland High School to Oklahoma at the National; every small triumph and every puffed-up interview I ever gave.

There is such a strong need within us to say: I made this. I was here. This is my mark. Think of me.

The dictionary says creation is “to bring into being or form out of nothing. To bring into being by force of imagination.” I don’t entirely discount the bowerbird’s need to build an elaborate shrine of beads, glass and twigs, but that, like Jane Russell’s pneumatic bra, is for procreation, not posterity.

Yes, I think what most defines us as human and distinguishes us from other species is our creativity. And that’s what ultimately makes us divine – darling!

PS: I haven’t even started on the human sense of humour because, to me, it’s there in all of the above. In a theatre, laughter indicates an audience’s understanding (empathy); humour flashes unexpectedly like sun through our awareness of mortality; it powers some of the most serious creativity – and to explore it in full, I’d need 700 more words and as many jokes.

The “What Makes Us Human?” series is published in association with Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine show

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We need to talk about the online radicalisation of young, white women

Alt-right women are less visible than their tiki torch-carrying male counterparts - but they still exist. 

In November 2016, the writer and TED speaker Siyanda Mohutsiwa tweeted a ground-breaking observation. “When we talk about online radicalisation we always talk about Muslims. But the radicalisation of white men online is at astronomical levels,” she wrote, inspiring a series of mainstream articles on the topic (“We need to talk about the online radicalisation of young, white men,” wrote Abi Wilkinson in The Guardian). It is now commonly accepted that online radicalisation is not limited to the work of Isis, which uses social media to spread propaganda and recruit new members. Young, white men frequently form alt-right and neo-Nazi beliefs online.

But this narrative, too, is missing something. When it comes to online radicalisation into extreme right-wing, white supremacist, or racist views, women are far from immune.

“It’s a really slow process to be brainwashed really,” says Alexandra*, a 22-year-old former-racist who adopted extreme views during the United States presidential election of 2016. In particular, she believed white people to be more intelligent than people of colour. “It definitely felt like being indoctrinated into a cult.”

Alexandra was “indoctrinated” on 4Chan, the imageboard site where openly racist views flourish, especially on boards such as /pol/. It is a common misconception that 4Chan is only used by loser, basement-dwelling men. In actuality, 4Chan’s official figures acknowledge 30 percent of its users are female. More women may frequent 4Chan and /pol/ than it first appears, as many do not announce their gender on the site because of its “Tits or GTFO” culture. Even when women do reveal themselves, they are often believed to be men who are lying for attention.

“There are actually a lot of females on 4chan, they just don't really say. Most of the time it just isn't relevant,” says Alexandra. Her experiences on the site are similar to male users who are radicalised by /pol/’s far-right rhetoric. “They sowed the seeds of doubt with memes,” she laughs apprehensively. “Dumb memes and stuff and jokes…

“[Then] I was shown really bullshit studies that stated that some races were inferior to others like… I know now that that’s bogus science, it was bad statistics, but I never bothered to actually look into the truth myself, I just believed what was told to me.”

To be clear, online alt-right radicalisation still skews majority male (and men make up most of the extreme far-right, though women have always played a role in white supremacist movements). The alt-right frequently recruits from misogynistic forums where they prey on sexually-frustrated males and feed them increasingly extreme beliefs. But Alexandra’s story reveals that more women are part of radical right-wing online spaces than might first be apparent.

“You’d think that it would never happen to you, that you would never hold such horrible views," says Alexandra. "But it just happened really slowly and I didn't even notice it until too late."

***

We are less inclined to talk about radical alt-right and neo-Nazi women because they are less inclined to carry out radical acts. Photographs that emerged from the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville this weekend revealed that it was mostly polo shirt-wearing young, white men picking up tiki torches, shouting racial slurs, and fighting with counter-protestors. The white supremacist and alt-right terror attacks of the last year have also been committed by men, not women. But just because women aren’t as visible doesn’t mean they are not culpable.  

“Even when people are alt-right or sympathisers with Isis, it’s a tiny percentage of people who are willing or eager to die for those reasons and those people typically have significant personal problems and mental health issues, or suicidal motives,” explains Adam Lankford, author of The Myth of Martyrdom: What Really Drives Suicide Bombers, Rampage Shooters, and Other Self-Destructive Killers.

“Both men and women can play a huge role in terms of shaping the radicalised rhetoric that then influences those rare people who commit a crime.”

Prominent alt-right women often publicly admit that their role is more behind-the-scenes. Ayla Stewart runs the blog Wife With a Purpose, where she writes about “white culture” and traditional values. She was scheduled to speak at the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally before dropping out due to safety concerns. In a blog post entitled “#Charlottesville May Have Redefined Women’s Roles in the Alt Right”, she writes:

“I’ve decided that the growth of the movement has necessitated that I pick and choose my involvement as a woman more carefully and that I’m more mindful to chose [sic] women’s roles only.”

These roles include public speaking (only when her husband is present), gaining medical skills, and “listening to our men” in order to provide moral support. Stewart declined to be interviewed for this piece.

It is clear, therefore, that alt-right women do not have to carry out violence to be radical or radicalised. In some cases, they are complicit in the violence that does occur. Lankford gives the example of the Camp Chapman attack, committed by a male Jordanian suicide bomber against a CIA base in Afghanistan.

“What the research suggests in that case was the guy who ultimately committed the suicide bombing may have been less radical than his wife,” he explains. “His wife was actually pushing him to be more radical and shaming him for his lack of courage.” 

***

Just because women are less likely to be violent doesn’t mean they are incapable of it.

Angela King is a former neo-Nazi who went to prison for her part in the armed robbery and assault of a Jewish shop owner. She now runs Life After Hate, a non-profit that aims to help former right-wing extremists. While part of a skinhead gang, it was her job to recruit other women to the cause.

“I was well known for the violence I was willing to inflict on others… often times the men would come up to me and say we don’t want to physically hurt a woman so can you take care of this,” King explains. “When I brought other women in I looked for the same qualities in them that I thought I had in myself.”

King's 1999 mugshot

 

These traits, King explains, were anger and a previous history of violence. She was 15 when she became involved with neo-Nazis, and explains that struggles with her sexuality and bullying had made her into a violent teenager.

“I was bullied verbally for years. I didn't fit in, I was socially awkward,” she says. One incident in particular stands out. Aged 12, King was physically bullied for the first time.

“I was humiliated in a way that even today I still am humiliated by this experience,” she says. One day, King made the mistake of sitting at a desk that “belonged” to a bully. “She started a fight with me in front of the entire class… I’ve always struggled with weight so I was a little bit pudgy, I had my little training bra on, and during the fight she ripped my shirt open in front of the entire class.

“At that age, having absolutely no self-confidence, I made the decision that if I became the bully, and took her place, I could never be humiliated like that again.”

Angela King, aged 18

King’s story is important because when it comes to online radicalisation, the cliché is that bullied, “loser” men are drawn to these alt-right and neo-Nazi communities. The most prominent women in the far-right (such as Stewart, and Lauren Southern, a YouTuber) are traditionally attractive and successful, with long blonde hair and flashing smiles. In actuality, women that are drawn to the movement online might be struggling, like King, to be socially accepted. This in no way justifies or excuses extreme behaviour, but can go some way to explaining how and why certain young women are radicalised. 

“At the age of 15 I had been bullied, raped. I had started down a negative path you know, experimenting with drugs, drinking, theft. And I was dealing with what I would call an acute identity crisis and essentially I was a very, very angry young woman who was socially awkward who did not feel like I had a place in the world, that I fit in anywhere. And I had no self-confidence or self-esteem. I hated everything about myself.”

King explains that Life After Hate’s research reveals that there are often non-ideological based precursors that lead people to far right groups. “Individuals don’t go to hate groups because they already hate everyone, they go seeking something. They go to fill some type of void in their lives that they’re not getting.”

None of this, of course, excuses the actions and beliefs of far-right extremists, but it does go some way to explaining how “normal” young people can be radicalised online. I ask Alexandra, the former 4Chan racist, if anything else was going on in her life when she was drawn towards extreme beliefs.

“Yes, I was lonely,” she admits.                                                       

***

That lonely men and women can both be radicalised in the insidious corners of the internet shouldn’t be surprising. For years, Isis has recruited vulnerable young women online, with children as young as 15 becoming "jihadi brides". We have now acknowledged that the cliché of virginal, spotty men being driven to far-right hate excludes the college-educated, clean-cut white men who made up much of the Unite the Right rally last weekend. We now must realise that right-wing women, too, are radicalised online, and they, too, are culpable for radical acts.  

It is often assumed that extremist women are radicalised by their husbands or fathers, which is aided by statements by far-right women themselves. The YouTuber, Southern, for example, once said:  

“Anytime they [the left] talk about the alt-right, they make it sound like it’s just about a bunch of guys in basements. They don’t mention that these guys have wives – supportive wives, who go to these meet-ups and these conferences – who are there – so I think it’s great for right-wing women to show themselves. We are here. You’re wrong.”

Although there is truth in this statement, women don’t have to have far-right husbands, brothers, or fathers in order to be drawn to white supremacist or alt-right movements. Although it doesn’t seem the alt-right are actively preying on young white women the same way they prey on young white men, many women are involved in online spaces that we wrongly assume are male-only. There are other spaces, such as Reddit's r/Hawtschwitz, where neo-Nazi women upload nude and naked selfies, carving a specific space for themselves in the online far-right. 

When we speak of women radicalised by husbands and fathers, we misallocate blame. Alexandra deeply regrets her choices, but she accepts they were her own. “I’m not going to deny that what I did was bad because I have to take responsibility for my actions,” she says.

Alexandra, who was “historically left-wing”, was first drawn to 4Chan when she became frustrated with the “self-righteousness” of the website Tumblr, favoured by liberal teens. Although she frequented the site's board for talking about anime, /a/, not /pol/, she found neo-Nazi and white supremacist beliefs were spread there too. 

“I was just like really fed up with the far left,” she says, “There was a lot of stuff I didn't like, like blaming males for everything.” From this, Alexandra became anti-feminist and this is how she was incrementally exposed to anti-Semitic and racist beliefs. This parallels the story of many radicalised males on 4Chan, who turn to the site from hatred of feminists or indeed, all women. 

 “What I was doing was racist, like I – deep down I didn't really fully believe it in my heart, but the seeds of doubt were sowed again and it was a way to fit in. Like, if you don't regurgitate their opinions exactly they’ll just bully you and run you off.”

King’s life changed in prison, where Jamaican inmates befriended her and she was forced to reassess her worldview. Alexandra now considers herself “basically” free from prejudices, but says trying to rid herself of extreme beliefs is like “detoxing from drugs”. She began questioning 4Chan when she first realised that they genuinely wanted Donald Trump to become president. “I thought that supporting Trump was just a dumb meme on the internet,” she says.

Nowadays, King dedicates her life to helping young people escape from far-right extremism. "Those of us who were involved a few decades ago we did not have this type of technology, cell phones were not the slim white phones we have today, they were giant boxes," she says. "With the younger individuals who contact us who grew up with this technology, we're definitely seeing people who initially stumbled across the violent far-right online and the same holds for men and women.

"Instead of having to be out in public in a giant rally or Klan meeting, individuals find hate online."

* Name has been changed

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.