Monday, 5 May 2014

Anti-Englishness, or 'what about teh menz?'

As a feminist keeping a weather eye on the independence debate it's very interesting to see some derailing tactics often deployed against women raising their ugly heads against Yes voters as they try to get their points across with little help from the mainstream media - except for the Sunday Herald, we love you!

One can read the 'cybernats' attacks as analogous to dismissal of feminists as loud/angry/unfeminine: 'How dare you disrupt the polite conversation being had between the nice, powerful men? Please do be quiet, your self-expression and attempts at equality/democracy are unseemly.'

But another more interesting analogy is one that I'd like to make here; whenever I hear an argument about anti-Englishness I think about those uneducated knee-jerk misogynists and dedicated trolls who derail feminist arguments with cries of 'what about teh menz?'

For anyone unfamiliar with the 'what about teh menz' argument, people who hold this viewpoint argue that feminist discussions should be redirected to talk about the problems faced by men. So, if you're having a conversation about unequal pay, for example, a 'what about teh menz' man will enter the conversation to claim that entry level jobs (such as waiting tables or being a secretary) are easier for women to get. What about the problems men face?! These people seem incapable of understanding that a conversation among women about feminist issues might not be the best place to unpack the pros and cons of masculinity. It is the job of the patient feminist to explain gender relations to this interloper, backed up with reports, facts and figures. Or she can tell him to get lost, do his own research and stop whining once he realizes he's being a massive tool.

In the regularly resurrected straw man of anti-Englishness the Bitter Together campaign have found their 'what about teh menz'. Let me explain how I see these arguments as analogous.

In the UK being English is a more privileged position than being Scottish. Or Welsh. Or Irish. We can probably zero in further and argue that being Thames Estuary English and the accent that comes with it is the most privileged background for a citizen of the UK to occupy, geographically. Thames Estuary English people are the implicit audience of BBC broadcasts (as opposed to those of us who get 'the news where you are' - not where the BBC is in London, presumably), and many broadcasts are delivered to them in their own accents. This is the default state in the UK, the assumed citizen, as men occupy the default gender under patriarchy.

One might ask whether the privilege of being a Thames Estuary English person applies in Scotland. Well, there is significant evidence for this. Alasdair Gray was lambasted for his comments about the 'colonisation' of positions by English people and I think that his point holds some truth (even if some people feel that an artist using a metaphor to discuss a heated political issue is wildly inflammatory). Listen to episode 65 of the Scottish Independence podcast featuring George Gunn, he makes a similar point. It isn't surprising that English privilege is still alive and well in Scotland; the Scottish cringe is well-documented and it's easy to imagine an English candidate coming across as more worldly-wise, more confident. It's probably easy to feel more confident when you've grown up nearer the centres of power, when your culture hasn't been sidelined as parochial. It's also worth remembering the ridiculously low life expectancy in parts of Glasgow, even compared with areas of similar deprivation in England.

And then we hear Better Together complaining about anti-Englishness from the Yes camp. I am yet to come across any of this sentiment, despite my many hours of following the #indyref hashtag on Twitter or the many new people I've met on Facebook and irl through the campaign. That's not to say such sentiments don't exist, they absolutely do, but these feelings are more often than not confined to the football pitch. James Foley and Pete Ramand point out in their book Yes: the Case for Radical Independence that English-born people are the largest 'minority' group living in Scotland but yet there is very little evidence of physical violence against them when compared to the number of racist attacks against people of other nations.

For Better Together to imply that Yes campaigners are bullying English people or stoking hate against them is as childish and dangerous an argument as those men who argue that their problems and needs should be at the foreground of feminist debate. In both cases the privileged party has to realize that, for once, it isn't all about them. Just as feminists need space to discuss the issues most pertinent to women, Yes campaigners - and Scots in general - need to use the space opened by this referendum to discuss our problems and how they might be solved, whether or not we get a Yes vote in September. Anti-Englishness should and must be called out if we come across it, but when it is being used as a pawn in Better Together's campaign strategy (assuming they have one) it should be dismissed as the dangerous nonsense it is - and as an attempt to silence a group whose needs have been too often marginalised in the past.

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