No such thing as “gender neutral” language – Creating safe spaces in Skepticism

Roman Woman in Pompeii

Roman Woman in Pompeii

I was challenged the other day for stipulating that there should be no “ad hominem or ad feminam attacks” in the Skeptics in the Pub UK and Ireland Facebook Forum.

The challenge was a linguistic one, on the entirely accurate basis that:

There is no such thing as ‘Ad feminam’, and its use displays a mis-understanding of basic Latin. ‘Ad hominem’, although grammatically masculine, is actually gender-neutral.

Here is my response.

Skepticism has earned a reputation for being an “unsafe space” for women. I am not going to go into the rights and wrongs of how it earned that reputation here.

The best way to stop Skepticism being an unsafe space is by setting the lead and making it a safe space, and one way to do that is by sending out strong signals and backing them up.

There are many ways of sending out those signals. In Edinburgh Skeptics, for example, we make sure that women members of the committee or women volunteers are active and visible at every event. (This is easy right now because there’s currently only one male committee member, but the numbers ebb and flow). [This paragraph has been edited for clarity].

Another way to do it is with language. Language frames our thinking (a few of us have additional tools such as mathematics and other modelling tools, most of us only have language). So language that silently writes out half of humanity should be resisted by Skeptics whether we are feminists or not if only so we can think accurately about the situations we are in.

You fell for the equivalent trap to “mankind” means all of “humankind” – technically it may do, but it was almost always men who said so. (I read a book in the 70s that explained that babies were weaned too young, and “when the child grew up he became fixated with breasts” as a result…). Gender neutral language can be bad for your thought.

We do not live in ancient Rome; “ad hominem” may have been gender neutral there and then, but here and now it writes out women.

I chose to add in “ad feminam” because it explicitly says “we will not let women be attacked for being women”.

Given that women who speak out online are regularly the subject of rape-threats and death-threats, and given that skepticism has earned a reputation for being full of straight, white cis-men who are members of the academy and who will stay up late arguing because there is Someone Wrong on the Internet, I wanted to signal very explicitly that – in this forum at least – attacking a woman for being a woman is not ok, and I wanted to put men and women on equal terms.

So, I stand by my linguistic error: it helps us think more clearly as Skeptics and it makes it possible to have safer, more inclusive and more diverse spaces for Skepticism.

Plus, as I said in my first post, [I had replied earlier more light-heartedly] it amuses me. Not only, but also. (I am SO over the binary).

Wi’ heart an’ heid – the fire at the Glasgow School of Art

Glasgow School Art ‏@GSofA Photo: The Mackintosh Museum, Winged Victory surveys the intact gallery. pic.twitter.com/KsKTVdATeW

Glasgow School Art ‏@GSofA Photo: The Mackintosh Museum, Winged Victory surveys the intact gallery. pic.twitter.com/KsKTVdATeW

I’ve tried to articulate the difference between Edinburgh and Glasgow for some time now, and the fire in the Glasgow School of Art has brought me closer.

Edinburgh knocks me out with its beauty. When I look at Edinburgh, I see one of those cities like Venice or Florence which is uniquely itself, whereas Glasgow keeps reminding me of other late Victorian Imperial cities like Manchester, Leeds and even parts of Sydney and North Oxford.

Glasgow’s uniqueness is in its people. I lived there for six brief months in 1999 and I miss them and their city in a way that I miss no other city I’ve lived in.

Edinburgh is the wellspring of the Scottish Enlightenment. For all its beauty and architectural follies it was always a city of austere logic. Family legend has it that a forebear was hanged in Edinburgh for stealing a sheep on a Sunday: the capital crime wasn’t the theft, it was breaking the Sabbath. These days Edinburgh isn’t ruled by the kirk, but it is still beautiful and still cerebral attracting some of the world’s brightest and best to an international, intellectual nexus.

However, Glasgow it seems to me mixes passion with its intelligence. Where else, would a fire brigade use the word “cherished” of artworks?

We are of course very conscious the Macintosh is a world renowned building that is a key feature of this great city, and that the artworks it stores are not only valuable but also cherished.
The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service

Cherished? That is not a word used by a Press Officer, or if it is, it’s a Press Officer who has not had their soul sucked out of them.

Then there is this from the GSA itself:

Audacity…? Another word to conjure with.

And here is their audacity:

… the fire services… succeeded in protecting the vast majority of the building, apparently by forming a human wall of fire-fighters up the west end of the main staircase and containing the fire.
Muriel Gray

It’s that eloquent passion I miss, living here on the East coast and working in cool, clever, cerebral Edinburgh.

Dressing down

I had an argument today with a friend of friend about Sarah Millican’s dress.

Some background for you, in case you’ve missed the story.

Sarah Millican is a comedian who was nominated for a Bafta, had a wonderful evening and was eviscerated on Twitter for the temerity of having breasts. She was devastated but responded magnificently and very good for her. Millican was betrayed by her dress which she says looked lovely in the shop but which really didn’t look great in the photographs. This happens, the camera is a bastard at times. As she pointed out she’s a comedian not a model and has never learned to walk or pose in front of cameras.

What was egregious about the response to Millican’s dress was not that it was commented on, but that it was commented on in public.  There is a whole sub-specialty of fashion journalism dedicated to being bitchy about women on the red carpet. And then there is twitter. Oh lord.

I commented in a closed thread on Facebook about other choices Millican could have made and was roundly bollocked for doing so.  But I am English, and was brought up not to be rude to people to their face. Other people think we are a culture of hypocrites because we will comment discretely behind your back. The internet makes this hard, of course. Hence twitter storms.

However, I really felt for Millican. I have more or less the same figure and I never know where to put my tits in a photograph. I end up being so self-conscious when I know there’s a camera around that I always have the shifty look of someone who’s just wet themselves. The only photographs of myself that I like are ones where I didn’t know I was being photographed, or where I’ve given up responding to the camera at all.  So in this thread of doom I was reflecting on my own experience: I too face the difficulty Millican describes of finding clothes that I like and fit.

Two months ago I had my photograph taken for a national paper, one of the ones with a circulation in millions not tens of thousands, and it’s not an experience I enjoyed. I was more resigned than nervous; nervous is for situations where you have some agency. I settled for looking groomed rather than attractive and thought about what to wear for weeks beforehand. I had my hair and nails done,  I wore a highish necked dress and a waterfall cardigan that cut vertically across my boobs. The photographer hated the fact I wore black. If I had known, I’d have worn a different colour. I like to be helpful and he seemed to know his job. the piece has not yet been published, but I will probably ask someone else to read the comments thread for me. The ironic thing is that the story isn’t even about me.  Oh well.

I am so sad that Millican’s bubble was burst after the Baftas. She is a talented person, and deserves so much better.

When did email break?

I am trying to work out when email broke. I think it was about 18 months ago, maybe a year ago. No-one replies to emails any more.

I think it’s because we read them on our smart phones, but we’ll only reply to the easy ones when we’re on the move. Anything more complex we’ll leave till later and, as I learned when negotiating with my mother, later never comes.

Two or three years ago, five or fifteen years ago, emails worked. You would send an email and someone would respond within a few hours, a day at most. You would reply or send another and they would respond to that one. Email was faster and more flexible than letters, more private than faxes (unless you made the tee-hee-hee “classic” “newbie” mistake). It was great.

Recently I have been working on the schedule for Skeptics on the Fringe, and it’s been frustrating. It feels inappropriately public to make the first contact via Twitter and too in-your-face to make the first contact by phone. However, approaches by email are caught by spam filters or suffer from the double-bounce drop (if your email’s too complicated to be returned on the first bounce, it will be dropped).

I worked in times BC (Before Computers). Then I would have used the phone far more when I was confirming the schedule with the speakers, written letters quite a bit and maybe exchanged some faxes, instead of what I did today which was to use a mixture of email, twitter, FB messenger, texts, phonecalls and skype.

I am not certain which day would have been more productive, but I think I’d have been more productive BC.

We all used the phone more as a business tool, but these days I am shy of phoning people without arranging a time first, and when I do arrange a time to speak to someone call it “skyping”.  Today I got my rapid answers via Twitter, Chat, Skype, and Facebook messenger.

Would the letters have got a better response than the emails will now? I think so. People opened their post and put it in an In Tray and worked their way through it. Ideally you would deal with each piece of paper only once using one of the Three Ds (Do, Delegate or Dump). I am now trying to remember when I last saw an actual In Tray on an actual desk that isn’t in a post room. People mean to do that with emails, but the new wave of crap coming in drowns the previous wave of crap to be dealt with.

I am quite tempted to start writing letters again, just for kicks and giggles. Novelty works. In those early years of my working life, a fax was a good way to get someone’s attention because it was an urgent and important thing and the receptionist would bring it round immediately. But no-one has fax machines any more, there’s no “reply” link on a letter, no click through to our website, and stamps are 60p each.

So was BC was a pre-lapsarian age of artisan communications? When I started writing this post I thought “don’t be silly” but the more I re-wrote it, the less certain I became. With my rose-tinted specs on it seems like a golden age but Time Management™ courses and complicated products which were basically diaries in ring binders were heavily marketed suggest that someone made a lot of money out of other people being inefficient.

Instead, I shall think longingly of the true golden age, of the years between 1994 and 2012 when people read and replied to emails.

Incidentally, I assume you know, you babes who are reading this, that the cc on an email stands for “carbon copy”. Tell me you also know that a “carbon copy” was created by placing a sheet of black “carbon paper” between the heavier piece of paper of your top copy and the lighter piece of paper of your carbon copy; the impression by metal typewriter keys would then knock the carbon onto the carbon copy. This was one of the reasons why accurate typing mattered. The first carbon copy was legible, the second less so, the third a grey fuzzy blur.

Image

Britannia ruled the waves

How many people does it take to arrange a picnic on a beach?

300, apparently, if the beach is in the Western Isles of Scotland, if the people having the picnic were the Royal Family, and if they got there using the Royal Yacht Britannia.

I was brought up by royalists; my great grandmother wouldn’t let taxis take her down the Cromwell Road. But logic and atheism pull me towards republicanism these days, more-so now than ever after visiting HMY Britannia yesterday. I should have taken photographs, sorry about that.

Bedrooms and bunk beds

The strongest images I took away were of the stark comparisons between the bedrooms of the Queen and Prince Philip, looking like rooms in a rather old fashioned country house hotel, but palatial compared with the grey below-decks quarters of the “yoties”, folding bunks stacked three high in dormitories sleeping dozen or so men who had no more than a locker each for their possessions…. well it made me feel very republican, so it did.  And apparently they slept in hammocks up until 1973.

The Queen's bedroom on HMY Britannia - © Copyright Alan Findlay and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

The Queen’s bedroom on HMY Britannia – © Copyright Alan Findlay and licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons Licence.

That said, yachtsmen volunteered. they were members of the navy or the marines, and some served for up to 20 years on Britannia, one for 34 years, so no-one was coerced. But even so.

There were rules to ease social awkwardness

The crew were to be as unobtrusive as possible, and if a Yachtsman did encounter a member of the Royal Family, he had to stand still and look straight ahead until they had passed. – Britannia: Life below decks

This was common in aristocratic households where servants were required to turn to face the wall if they were seen by a member of the Family. It serves to enforce the hierarchy of course, but it also saves all that awkward social interaction too, preserving the illusion of privacy.

Quite extraordinary.

The argument was that Britannia acted as a floating embassy.

State rooms in the Royal Yacht Britannia © Copyright Alan Findlay and licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons Licence.

State rooms in the Royal Yacht Britannia © Copyright Alan Findlay and licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons Licence.

But it only needed the state rooms for that, not the Royal Family’s bed rooms, sitting rooms, sun lounge and private sun deck.

Whose money?

Britannia was paid for out of the defence budget, and when members of the Royal Family were aboard it was accompanied by ships of the line. While Blair’s act in pulling the financial plug can be read as spiteful, it was rational and it wasn’t petty. Britannia cost £11m a year to run, and a new ship would have been hundreds of millions to build. I’ve no objection to the Royal Family paying for their own floating palace, I do object to them free-loading with the defense budget though.

What’s she for, exactly?

We are always told soothingly that the Queen is a constitutional monarch and has no real power, all she does is sign bills into law. In which case why does she need such fancy bedrooms, palaces and such? What is in those Red Boxes we are told she works so hard on every day? What the hell are we paying her for?

Maybe it’s because she does exercise real power. And this raises the real question: by what right does she exercise that power? Who elected her?


Paula and Peaches, Peaches and Paula

 

Paula Yates always irritated me.

She was just enough older than me for that to be annoying in its own right, and then there was the way that she always mentioned she was a size 6. Every. Single. Time. She. Wrote. An. Article.  And then she gave her daughters those ridiculous names: Fifi Trixibelle, Peaches Honeyblossom, Little Pixie and Heavenly Hiraani, which almost seemed a form of child abuse in its own right.

Then it turned out she was Hughie Green’s daughter,  which creeped me out rather. And then the poor bitch died aged 41.

I may not be a size 6, but I am not dead. And so I felt sorry for her.

And now Peaches Honeyblossom has died aged 24, poor girl.

“I remember the day my mother died, and it’s still hard to talk about it,” Peaches told Elle in 2012.

“I just blocked it out. I went to school the next day because my father’s mentality was ‘keep calm and carry on’,” she said.

“So we all went to school and tried to act as if nothing had happened. But it had happened. I didn’t grieve. I didn’t cry at her funeral. I couldn’t express anything because I was just numb to it all. I didn’t start grieving for my mother properly until I was maybe 16.”

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-26931337

Katherine Whitehorn wrote that Exodus 20:5 is an observation, not a curse. It says:

I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation

And here we see it playing out once again.

Larkin of course summed it up perfectly, though one summer about ten years ago I flipped his famous poem around. His original is here. Here’s my version. Both seem sadly appropriate now.

They fuck you up, your darling kids.
They may not mean to, but it’s true
that by the time they’re on the skids
you find there’s sod all you can do.

And so it goes from bad to worse
they have the faults their parents had.
Nothing’s learned and that’s the curse
of little shades of mum and dad.

Man hands on misery to man,
and every effort comes to grief.
You do the very best you can
and then they kick you in the teeth.

Peaches Geldof's last Instagram

Peaches Geldof’s last Instagram

Poor women. Both of them. They should have died hereafter.

A series of small epiphanies

Nell

Nell

For a while I’ve been planning  a talk about what it’s like to be  what Skeptics call “a Woo” and about my journey from there to being one of the folks running Skeptics on the Fringe.

“Woo” is a term I dislike for a bunch of reasons, mainly because labelling people makes it too easy to stop thinking about them as people and stereotype them. No-one should do that to anyone, but we are Skeptics, dammit: we should think, especially when we are complaining that the defining group of this other group is that they don’t think.  Irony, much?

I had a couple of hours of driving to do tonight, appropriately enough  visiting Ash Pryce founder of Edinburgh Skeptics and then Keir Liddle founder of Skeptics on the Fringe.  I used the time to sketch out the structure of the talk and identify the key points I want to make.  It’s now sitting as bullet points on my laptop.

I hate bullet-points because PowerPoint doesn’t kill presentations, bulletpoints kill presentations. I prefer slides – if they are used at all – to be images rather than words.  The bullet-points will become my speakers notes. I could even use this as an opportunity to learn Prezi.

So I need to get some images together.  This glamour-girl from the 1920s in my grandmother.  Come to the talk when I eventually give it and you’ll see why she’s there. Somewhere I have a supercute pic of my dad with me slung under his arm when I was about two years old, and if I can find that I want it in the slides, failing that there’s one of him in what looks like a bishop’s mitre.  I think I still have my O’level certificate somewhere.  And I want to include some book covers, some podcast logos, stuff like that.  As it says here, the talk is about a series of small epiphanies.

It’s going to take a chunk of time to put together yet, but I hope it will explain why intelligent and rational people are still attracted to Alternative Medicine, reincarnation and similar things, that it will interest scientists and atheists lucky enough to have been raised that way, that it will reassure skeptical activists that skeptical outreach really is worth it, and explain why Phil Plait was right when he said Don’t be a Dick.


I’ll be keen to do this talk at Skeptics in the Pub and other appropriate events once I’ve finished the slides. Contact me via contact@edskeptics.co.uk if you’d like to discuss dates.