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

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Keir Starmer: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting Brexit wrong”

The former director of public prosecutions is now heading up Labour’s response to Brexit. But can he succeed in holding the Tories’ feet to the fire?

Early in his new role as shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer was accused of being a “second-rate lawyer”. The gibe, in a Commons debate, came from none other than Iain Duncan Smith. Starmer was director of public prosecutions for five years and later stood for parliament in 2015. No novice, then. Within a few days, Duncan Smith stood again in the House, this time to offer his apologies.

A fortnight later, I met Starmer at his quiet office in Westminster. He was sitting at a table piled with papers, in an office that, a discreet family photo aside, was unadorned. He had just got back from a whirlwind trip to Brussels, with many more such visits planned in the weeks ahead.

Starmer returned to the shadow cabinet after Jeremy Corbyn’s second leadership election victory last month. “The series of agreements we will have to reach in the next few years is probably the most important and complex we’ve had to reach since the Second World War,” he told me.

Starmer, who is 54, took his time entering politics. Born in 1962, he grew up in a Labour-supporting household in Surrey – his father was a toolmaker and his mother a nurse – and was named after Keir Hardie. After studying law at Leeds University, he practised as a human rights barrister and became a QC in 2002. In 2008, after varied legal work that included defending environmental campaigners in the McLibel case, he became the head of the Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales as well as director of public prosecutions, positions he held until 2013.

When in 2015 Starmer ran for a seat in parliament to represent Holborn and St Pancras in London, it was assumed he would soon be putting his expertise to use in government. Instead, after Labour’s election defeat under Ed Miliband, he served as one of Corbyn’s junior shadow ministers, but resigned after the EU referendum in June.

Now, he is back on the opposition front bench and his forensic scrutiny of government policy is already unsettling the Conservatives. Philippe Sands, the law professor who worked with him on Croatia’s genocide lawsuit against Serbia, says he couldn’t think of anyone better to take on the Brexiteers in parliament. “It’s apparent that the government is rather scared of him,” Sands said. This is because Starmer is much more capable of teasing out the legal consequences of Brexit than the average Brexit-supporting Tory MP. Sands added: “It would be fun to watch if the stakes weren’t so very high.”

Starmer is a serious man and refused to be drawn on the character of his opponents. Instead, speaking slowly, as if weighing every word, he spelled out to me the damage they could cause. “The worst scenario is the government being unable to reach any meaningful agreement with the EU and [the UK] crashing out in March 2019 on no terms, with no transitional arrangement.” The result could be an economic downturn and job losses: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting this wrong.”

If Starmer seems pessimistic, it is because he believes time is short and progress has been slow. Since the referendum, disgruntled MPs have focused their attention on the final Brexit settlement. Yet if, as he argues, the starting position for our negotiations with the EU is wrong, the damage will have been done. MPs faced with a bad deal must either approve it or “risk the UK exiting the EU without a deal at all”.

It is this conviction that is driving his frantic schedule now. Starmer’s first month in the job is packed with meetings - with the representatives of the devolved nations, business leaders and his European counterparts.

He has also become a familiar face at the dispatch box. Having secured a commitment from David Davis, the minister for Brexit, that there will be transparent debate – “the words matter” – he is now demanding that plans to be published in January 2017 at the earliest, and that MPs will have a vote at this stage.

In his eyes, it will be hard for the Prime Minister, Theresa May, to resist, because devolved parliaments and the European parliament will almost certainly be having a say: “The idea there will be a vote in the devolved administrations but not in Westminster only needs to be stated to see it’s unacceptable.”

In Europe, Starmer said, the view is already that Britain is heading for the cliff edge. It was May’s pledge, that after Brexit the UK would not “return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”, which raised alarm. And among voters, there is “increasing anxiety” about the direction in which the UK is moving, he said. Even Tory voters are writing to him.

In the Labour Party, which is putting itself back together again after the summer’s failed coup, immigration remains the most vexed issue. Starmer told me that Labour had “earned a reputation for not listening” on the issue. Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show shortly after becoming shadow Brexit secretary, he said immigration was too high and ought to be reduced. But later that same day, Diane Abbott, a shadow cabinet colleague, contradicted him, publicly criticising immigration targets.

Starmer believes there is a bigger picture to consider when it comes to Britain’s Brexit negotiations. Take national security, where he warns that there are “significant risks” if communications break down between the UK and the EU. “Part of the negotiations must be ensuring we have the same level of co-operation on criminal justice, counterterrorism, data-sharing,” he said.

Crucially, in a Labour Party where many experienced politicians are backbench dissenters, he wants to reach out to MPs outside the shadow cabinet. “We have to work as Team Labour,” he stressed.

It’s a convincing rallying cry. But for some MPs, he represents more than that: a lone moderate in what can be seen as a far-left leadership cabal. Does he have any ambitions to lead Labour? “Having had two leadership elections in the space of 12 months, the last thing we need at the moment is discussion of the leadership of the Labour Party.” He has agreed to serve in the shadow cabinet, and is determined to stay there.

Starmer has found his purpose in opposition. “If we think things aren’t going right, we’ve got to call it out early and loudly. The worst situation is that we arrive at March 2019 with the wrong outcome. By then, it will be too late.”

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage