CAPITAL LETTERS, affectedly boisterous sex, little girl voice: internet feminists all write the same. This is a problem

The perils of Groupthink - Martha Gill's "Irrational Animals" column.

I’d call myself a feminist, so I’m happy to note that feminist commentary, at least online, is becoming fairly easy to spot. You don’t need to read the arguments, you can just scan for SUDDEN OUTBURSTS OF CAPITAL LETTERS, AS IF CROSS, BUT IN A CUTE WAY, LIKE A CHILD. This is often accompanied by anthropomorphising the commentary (this column often finds itself, as if by magic, rooting through the fridge at 3am), affectedly boisterous descriptions of sex (I’ve been known to shout, “Is that the best you've got?” when in the throes), talking to groups as if all of them were right there in the room (oh, men, why are you like this?) and fun references to gin and/or cake.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with showing your writing influences - but when you write as a tribe that's a sign that you think as a tribe, and when you think as a tribe common sense starts to go out the window.

A couple of months ago a University in Colorado published some guidelines on how to minimise your risk of rape. The list was short and practical, and when it went up there was an immediate outcry across several social media sites, during which it was asked repeatedly why the message wasn’t “don’t rape” or “rapists are the ones to blame”, rather than “don’t get raped”. The response was so dramatic that the list was removed almost as soon as it went up, amid apology.

An almost identical episode happened last year over West Mercia Police's "Safe Night Out" campaign, which involved posters advising women how to avoid rape. A number of feminist websites, including the F-Word, picked up on it, and a prolonged and angry Twitter barrage followed. In the end West Mercia Police too, took down the posters and apologised.

The point the online commenters had been keen to make is that nothing excuses rape, and of course they're right.  But excusing rape is a very different thing from lowering the risks of rape. A number of things can lower the risks of rape – and these are things worth knowing about. The Safe Night Out campaign was never presented as a debate-framer, it was just some anti-crime info. Do we really need to couple every piece of “avoid being a victim of crime” advice with the rider “also, don’t commit crimes, crimes are illegal, and if anyone’s to blame for crimes, it’s definitely the criminal”? It's odd, not to say worrying, that these two concepts have become so muddled together in the case of rape that safety advice is being compromised. How did this happen?

My guess is that it's something to do with people moving as a group. Economists talk about the phenomenon of “groupthink” – the kind of thinking that happens when peer pressure cancels out a realistic appraisal of other viewpoints. Groupthink is never a good thing. One of the most notorious examples of its results is the US military’s failure to prepare for the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Americans intercepted Japanese messages which stated explicitly that Japan was arming itself to launch an attack. But such was the power of shared illusions and rationalisations that the group consensus became, despite having the Japanese messages in front of them, that Japan would not attack. Officers, afraid of facing social scrutiny, did not raise objections.

In this case it seems that the feminist response to advice about rape has been so rehearsed that it always produces the same response. (Ironically, the "knee-jerk" is probably one of the more effective manouvers with which to fend off an approaching attacker. Well, we'll never know now).

Perhaps its true that journalism can only have an effect on the world when everyone shouts the same thing at once. But if we’re going to move as an team we have to think about how we are steering. That generally requires a system of checks and balances – and that means making room for a few dissenting voices.

"Oh, men, why are you like this?" Photograph: Getty Images

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Back To Reality

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.