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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The government has admitted it can curb drugs without criminalising users

Under the Psychoactive Substances Act it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess for their own consumption recreational drugs too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

From Thursday, it may be illegal for churches to use incense. They should be safe from prosecution though, because, as the policing minister was forced to clarify, the mind-altering effects of holy smells aren’t the intended target of the Psychoactive Substances Act, which comes into force this week.

Incense-wafters aren’t the only ones wondering whether they will be criminalised by the Act. Its loose definition of psychoactive substances has been ridiculed for apparently banning, among other things, flowers, perfume and vaping.

Anyone writing about drugs can save time by creating a shortcut to insert the words “the government has ignored its advisors” and this Act was no exception. The advisory council repeatedly warned the government that its definition would both ban things that it didn’t mean to prohibit and could, at the same time, be unenforcable. You can guess how much difference these interventions made.

But, bad though the definition is – not a small problem when the entire law rests on it – the Act is actually much better than is usually admitted.

Under the law, it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess, for their own consumption, recreational drugs that are considered too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

That sounds like a mess, and it is. But it’s a mess that many reformers have long advocated for other drugs. Portugal decriminalised drug possession in 2001 while keeping supply illegal, and its approach is well-regarded by reformers, including the Liberal Democrats, who pledged to adopt this model in their last manifesto.

This fudge is the best option out of what was politically possible for dealing with what, until this week, were called legal highs.

Before the Act, high-street shops were free to display new drugs in their windows. With 335 head shops in the UK, the drugs were visible in everyday places – giving the impression that they couldn’t be that dangerous. As far as the data can be trusted, it’s likely that dozens of people are now dying each year after taking the drugs.

Since legal highs were being openly sold and people were thought to be dying from them, it was obvious that the government would have to act. Until it did, every death would be blamed on its inaction, even if the death rate for users of some newly banned drugs may be lower than it is for those who take part in still-legal activities like football. The only question was what the government would do.

The most exciting option would have been for it to incentivise manufacturers to come up with mind-altering drugs that are safe to take. New Zealand is allowing drug makers to run trials of psychoactive drugs, which could eventually – if proved safe enough – be sold legally. One day, this might change the world of drug-taking, but this kind of excitement was never going to appeal to Theresa May’s Home Office.

What was far more plausible was that the government would decide to treat new drugs like old ones. Just as anyone caught with cocaine or ecstasy faces a criminal record, so users of new drugs could have been hit with the same. This was how legal highs have been treated up until now when one was considered serious enough to require a ban.

But instead, the government has recognised that its aim – getting new drugs out of high-street shop windows so they don’t seem so normal – didn’t depend on criminalising users. A similar law in Ireland achieved precisely this. To its credit, the government realised it would be disproportionate to make it a criminal offence to possess the now-illegal highs.

The reality of the law will look chaotic. Users will still be able to buy new drugs online – which could open them to prosecution for import – and the law will do nothing to make drugs any safer. Some users might now be exposed to dealers who also want to sell them more dangerous other drugs. There will be few prosecutions and some head shop owners might try to pick holes in the law: the government seems to have recognised that it needed a better definition to have any chance of making the law stick.

But, most importantly for those of us who think the UK’s drug laws should be better at reducing the damage drugs cause, the government, for the first time, has decided that a class of recreational drugs are too dangerous to be sold but that it shouldn’t be a crime to possess them. The pressure on the government to act on legal highs has been relieved, without ordinary users being criminalised. For all the problems with the new law, it’s a step in the right direction.

Leo Barasi is a former Head of Communications at the UK Drug Policy Commission. He writes in a personal capacity