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30 December 2011

It’s time to give up Twitterstorms

In this guest post, James Ball argues that perpetual outrage is obscuring the truly important issues

Yesterday, I wrote about the challenges facing feminism in the year ahead — and noted, in passing, that I didn’t see anything wrong with complaining about smaller issues as well as the huge problems. I may have used the words: I CAN CARE ABOUT MORE THAN ONE THING AT ONCE, YOU KNOW.

It’s fair to say that James Ball, a fellow journalist of liberal leanings, takes the opposing view — and he offered to rebut my argument. I took him up on this, although not on his suggested headline: “Never Mind the Bollocks: Or Why Helen is Wrong About Everything”. Do you agree with him, or with me? Have your say in the comments below, or on Twitter, where we are @jamesrbuk and @helenlewis. Over to James:

Life is turning into a regular sequence of outrages. There’s no shortage of sources: those with right-wing inclinations will find an abundance in the pages of the Daily Mail, while the left-wing twittersphere offers a daily smorgasbord of things to get cross about.

Perhaps these daily two-minute hates provide healthy catharsis – but my suspicion is it’s going too far. The rages are quickly reported, leading to inches of column space across the papers, and in Jeremy Clarkson’s case, tens of thousands of complaints to Ofcom.

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This week’s travesty of choice was the BBC’s admittedly dubious decision to include a Panda among its “Faces of the year – women” page on its website. The predictable Twitterstorm started at faint amusement, progressed to irritation, and culminated in full fury, with follow-up blogposts on the significance of the scandal we must now apparently refer to as “Pandagate”.

Not to sound intolerant, but this is an absolute pile of tosh. Yesterday, Helen Lewis-Hasteley wrote a lengthy blogpost on the challenges facing feminism in 2012, which broadly-speaking hit the nail on the head: the challenges facing women (in the Western world at least) are smaller than once they were – we have anti-discrimination laws, women in certain age groups now out-earn their male counterparts, and women won the vote long ago.

When today’s battles are smaller, how do you prove they are still relevant? The answer isn’t to fixate on noticeable-but-irrelevent issues like Pandagate.

Note this isn’t the same as saying we can only care about one issue at once. The ‘logic’ of this strawman argument follows roughly as such: that between instability in North Korea, a collapsing eurozone, climate change, and the rise of new superpowers, we have no time to worry about smaller problems.

Yes, it’s true we’re facing the prospect of a UK populated solely by irradiated survivors foraging for scrap to pay down the Eurozone’s bankruptcy, learning Mandarin in the few spare moments each day in order to communicate with the world’s new corporate owners. But the presence of dire issues – which deserve more attention than they get – is no reason not to pay attention to other important issues.

Feminism still has no shortage of serious problems to tackle: women are chronically under-represented in boardrooms, the media, and elsewhere in public life. The overall pay gap is closing at a glacial pace. Rape conviction rates remain low, and deficit reduction measures seem to be hitting women considerably harder than men.

All serious issues worthy of immediate attention, especially given several are capable of being tackled with relative ease – after last month’s treaty negotiation there seems alarmingly little anyone in the UK can do about the Eurozone crisis, so why not spend some time looking at women in boardrooms?

Feminism, then, still faces significant challenges, but also faces the battle of convincing an often sceptical public this is the case. Paying attention to trivial issues is a gift to those who would like to dismiss women’s issues. When the country’s feminist voices are fixated on pandas, or Clarkson, or a Daily Mail article designed to wind people up (good morning Richard Littlejohn), feminism looks like a trivial subject.

The most common argument is that these piddling issues are a symptom of wider societal problems. This is undoubtedly true. But very few malaises are remedied by tackling the symptoms: trying to fix society’s attitude towards women by complaining about pandas is roughly akin to trying to fix a Japanese knotweed infestation by picking at leaves, one-by-one.

It’s a trap a huge number of the diverse groups loosely referred to as ‘the left’ fall in to. Gay rights groups who rise to Daily Mail bait on each occasion are likely not furthering their cause, nor are community or religious groups who do the same.

But perhaps the biggest dereliction of duty in favour of trivia in recent weeks comes from the trade unions. As public sector unions battled pension reforms – without a doubt the biggest issue facing their membership in decades, Jeremy Clarkson made a stupid and tasteless joke on the One Show.

Unison took the bait, and released a statement saying the union was exploring legal action. Coverage of one TV presenter’s career prospects rapidly overshadowed (by a huge factor) cuts to pension provision for millions of UK workers.

This year had no shortage of bait to rise to, causes to champion, and Twitterstorms to join. The recipe for success in 2012 will be about picking which ones to join: not picking a single issue to care about, but deciding what’s important and what isn’t, and letting the latter fly by.

Or, as I plan to do, getting into the garden and digging a handy nuclear bunker, looking for tinned-food recipes, and brushing up on my Mandarin. Just in case.

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