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Why Are We Cool With Lenin?

30 Aug

The other day I met up with my friend and colleague Scott Handcock for lunch at the Cardiff branch of Cosy Club. For the uninitiated, Cosy Club is a vaguely hipsterish chain of restaurants describing themselves as “gents club meets village hall meets cricket club”. If the food wasn’t so nice, it’s the kind of place that would make me break out in hives. Anyway… It was only as we were leaving that I noticed, fixed to the wall, a giant wooden bas relief of Lenin.

Highlighted here (in a pic taken from Cosy Club's website) by the blue arrow.

Highlighted here (in a pic taken from Cosy Club’s website) by the blue arrow.

And this got me thinking. Why are we OK with Lenin? After all, you wouldn’t expect to see images of, say, Hitler or Mussolini taking pride of place in a Harvester. It reminded me of the episode of Peep Show in which Sophie (Olivia Coleman) takes Mark (David Mitchell) shopping for clothes, and he sees a t-shirt emblazoned with the image of Mao Tse Tung. 

 

Now, while this is just a small, throwaway moment from a sitcom, like the great big Lenin profile in Cosy Club it points to the very weird inconsistency we have with despots. Media outlets in the UK and US were apoplectic at the news that a weird craze for all things Hitler-related was sweeping across Thailand, with the toothbrush-moustached mass murderer himself adorning t-shirts and posters, and that’s understandable. Hitler is not a pop culture icon. 

But neither is Lenin. 

In Koba the Dread, his book about Stalin, Martin Amis asks (and without a copy to hand, I’m paraphrasing) why we laugh so much more easily at Stalin et al than at Hitler, why we take the latter more seriously than the former. Of course, as is often the case with Amis, he’s not quite right. From Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator to both versions of The Producers, we’ve always laughed at Hitler, but at the same time we have still treated his crimes with greater seriousness than we have atrocities committed in the USSR – making the Holocaust a staple of the history syllabus, but leaving many students ignorant of Stalin’s purges or the Holodomor.

As Mark says in Peep Show, it’s not a competition, but while it’s true that the industrialised nature of the Holocaust – not to mention its incomprehensibly short time span – make it stand out against all horrors of the 20th Century, the sheer numbers when it comes to those killed by the Soviets are truly staggering, with even the most conservative estimates offering a death toll of 15 million for the Stalin era alone. 

When discussing the (most likely exaggerated) Thai “Hitler craze”, many people put it down to historical ignorance, rather than anything ideological (though, of course, the two may overlap), but if this is true of Thai culture, it is also true of ours. When Cosy Club bought that bas relief of Lenin, did the purchaser have any idea who he was? If they did, perhaps they thought, “Well… It’s only Lenin. I mean… Lenin didn’t do any harm, now did he? All the bad stuff came with Stalin.”

Which – excuse my language – is just bollocks.

Terror and mass murder were a part of communism from the very start, long before Stalin got his claws into it. In his excellent book Black Mass, the writer and philosopher John Gray reminds us that from their earliest speeches, Marx and Engels knew that terror would be an essential part of any revolution. Here they are in an 1850 speech to the London Communist League: 

Above all, during and after the struggle the workers… must oppose bourgeois attempts at pacification and force the democrats to carry out their terroristic phases… Far from opposing so-called excesses – instances of popular vengeance against hated individuals etc – the workers’ party must not only tolerate these actions but give them direction.

 

Nice guys.

Nice guys.

 

That culture of violence and violent retribution didn’t skip a couple of generations after the Russian Revolution; it was there from the start. Even if we’re to ignore the shooting of the Romanovs, the years 1917-1924 (Lenin’s tenure) saw more people interned and executed by the Soviet regime than were killed in the preceding century of Emperors. Lenin’s lovely, cuddly, second-in-command Trotsky, so beloved by artists and writers around the globe during his later exile, and mourned in many quarters as a martyr of the one true faith, played an integral role in establishing the Gulags in which over a million people died of torture, execution, starvation and disease.

Even if one was to argue that it’s a time thing, that no-one would complain about a picture of Napoleon or Genghis Khan, and that Lenin’s crimes are almost a century old while survivors of Hitler’s death camps are still with us, that still doesn’t wash, because the knock-on effects of the Soviet experiment are still being felt, nowhere more so than along the border of Russia and Ukraine. 

So my question remains… Why are we cool with Lenin?

 

References

  • Gulag: A history – Anne Applebaum
  • The Great Terror – Robert Conquest
  • Black Mass: Apocalyptic religion and the death of Utopia – John Gray

Eric Gill and the Bad Man Conundrum

15 Jan

Blog Pic

No, this blog post isn’t the first episode in my bid to write “the next Harry Potter” – it’s about the sculptor Eric Gill. For the uninitiated, Gill was an artist, a stonecutter and a typeface designer, famous now largely for having given his name to a well-known font.

Oh, and he raped his own daughters and had sex with his dog.

Sorry if that was all a bit much to take in in one sentence, and sorry if it was a little shocking, but if you know two things about Eric Gill, one is that he has a font named after him, the other is that he carried out incestuous affairs with both his sister and his own daughters and had an ongoing sexual relationship with his pet dog. Much of this didn’t come to light until long after Gill died in 1940, when his diaries – in which he confesses all – were made public.

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“Psst. Eric Gill bummed a dog. True story.”

These revelations were a cause for concern for those who run the many public buildings that are home to Gill’s work, including a large number of churches (he was a “devout” Catholic) and the BBC’s Broadcasting House in London. Indeed, Cardiff Museum (which is about 10 minutes’ walk from my flat) has in its collection, and proudly on display, a Jacob Epstein sculpture engraved by Gill. His work is everywhere.

The question, for admirers of Gill’s, is whether the facts of his private life should affect how we look at his work. The reason Gill came to mind was because right now the sexual misdeeds of famous figures are front page news on an almost weekly (if not daily) basis. Operation Yewtree seems to have gone from an inquiry into sexual abuse within the UK’s entertainment industry into the wholesale arrest of my generation’s childhood, and while it may be easier to accept the horror stories about Jimmy Savile (who, after all, hid in plain sight – looking, acting and sounding like a child molester throughout his career), there are others for whom I think we all, secretly, want the accusations to prove unfounded.

Say it ain't so. Say it ain't so.

Say it ain’t so. Say it ain’t so.

Many of these cases are still pending, so we don’t yet know how many of those arrested as part of Yewtree are genuinely guilty. The fact is, even if many of them are acquitted, that shadow of suspicion will – rightly or wrongly – hang over them for the rest of their days.

Over in the States, I imagine both R Kelly and Woody Allen thought they were in the clear, with almost two decades of distance between them and their own accusations, but with celebrity child abusers receiving such intense media attention on this side of the Atlantic, perhaps it was only inevitable that bloggers and journalists would revisit those cases. Many remain unconvinced of either man’s innocence, and yet that doesn’t stop them from working. Allen has just enjoyed his greatest critical and commercial success in quite some time with Blue Jasmine, while R Kelly is back in the charts with his latest album, Black Panties.

Because R Kelly passed through parody's looking glass in 2005.

Because R Kelly passed through parody’s looking glass in 2005.

Meanwhile, this year should also see the general release of Roman Polanski’s latest, Venus in Fur, a good 37 years after he fled the United States, accused of the statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl. That accusation, never fully denied by the director, has had little to no impact on his career. Indeed, his film The Pianist scooped him the Oscar for Best Director in 2003.

My question is should we always judge – and maybe even boycott – an artist’s work based on what we know about their private life, and if so, when do we apply this? I’ve enjoyed Polanski films (I thought his 2011 movie, Carnage, based on the Yasmina Reza’s play God of Carnage, was excellent), and Allen films (especially, funnily enough, the ones he isn’t in very much), and I’m sorry, but the Glitter Band’s Rock & Roll Part 2 is an amazing track. Should I pretend these things don’t exist, or that I didn’t enjoy them?

And if so, should we stop listening to Led Zeppelin because Jimmy Page totally abducted a 14-year-old?

And if so, should we boycott all this because Jimmy Page abducted a 14-year-old?

I won’t pretend this issue isn’t without its thorns. Having been told that Allen’s Manhattan was a soaring, beautiful ode to the director’s hometown, I found the plot thread about his character’s relationship with a 17-year-old girl more than a little creepy, enough to spoil the rest of the film. Similarly, there are elements of Wagner’s Ring Cycle that are tainted by the composer’s notorious and rampant antisemitism, and despite having died 50 years before the Nazis came to power in Germany his work wasn’t performed in Israel until a Daniel Barenboim-conducted concert in 2000.

This post isn’t anything like my “final word” on the subject, because the truth is, I don’t know what I think. A part of me thinks we should perhaps divide the artist as a person from their body of work, and judge each one separately, but when so much of an artist’s biography – their emotional experiences, their personality, their political opinions – bleeds into the work itself, is this ever truly possible?

Advice on Coping With “Outrage Fatigue”

31 Dec

Are you feeling listless? Disinterested? Apathetic? Are you incapable of forming a concrete, unshakable conviction at the polar extremes of any debate? Then you may be suffering from Outrage Fatigue.

Apathy

Outrage Fatigue? What’s that?

Outrage Fatigue (known in the medical world as OF – pronounced “Oh Eff”, not… you know… “of”) affects up to 80% of people at any given time, and the evidence suggests it’s on the increase. Its main cause is thought to be “a constant bombardment of images and words via social media streams designed specifically to make you angry about something”, and symptoms include:

  • Feeling distinctly unmoved by even the most horrific of news stories
  • Treating all authority figures – be they politicians, scientists or academics – with nothing but contempt (usually attaching the words “so-called experts”)
  • Lazily appointing a celebrity as the spokesperson for your way of thinking. (See Brand, Russell; Norris, Chuck.)
Neither of these things should have happened.

Neither of these things should have happened.

But how do I know if have Outrage Fatigue?

To experience OF, you must first experience genuine (or even mild) Outrage, over something you’ve seen via a link that’s “doing the rounds” on Facebook or Twitter. This can include shaky, mobile phone footage of some Chinese bloke stamping on a puppy, unverified reports of homophobic incidents from around the world, graphs showing how climate change will destroy the planet, other graphs showing how it won’t, blog posts about how evil bankers have brought about the apocalypse and histrionic, anecdotal stories about Muslim attitudes to Remembrance Day and/or Christmas.

"They're trying to ban Christmas! By... umm... wearing... Santa hats?"

“They’re trying to ban Christmas! By… umm… wearing… Santa hats?”

What are the symptoms of Outrage?

Symptoms of Outrage vary wildly, from tutting and shaking your head and saying, “Typical” before hitting the “share” or “retweet” buttons, to “liking” a page dedicated to resolving the issue raised by said link.

How does Outrage lead to Outrage Fatigue?

The human brain is designed to cope with only so much Outrage at any given time. Scientists believe it may only be possible to feel genuinely angry about three or four things simultaneously, so that the demands placed on it by social media force some issues out, replacing them with others. For instance, until August of 2013 you may have been particularly concerned by the ongoing crisis in Darfur, or the plight of the Falun Gong community in China, but these concerns will have been ousted by your splenetic rage over Miley Cyrus’s “twerking” performance at the VMAs.

Blog Pic

Alternatively, your heartfelt anger at the bankers and the banking system that brought about financial collapse in 2008 will, no doubt, have since dissipated, and is dwarfed by your horror at the continuing success of Mrs Brown’s Boys.

But what can I do?

If you, or anyone you know, is suffering from Outrage Fatigue, we advise the following:

  • Ignore most links shared on Facebook or Twitter. These are often a gateway to Outrage, which is a major – indeed, the only – cause of Outrage Fatigue.
  • When reading an online news story, stop reading at the point when the person responsible for the story, article or opinion piece stopped writing. Do not, under any circumstances, read the comments.
  • If an online news story – or even a YouTube video – makes you angry, ask why it makes you angry. Pause to consider all angles on the story, including the inevitable bias of the person presenting the story itself. Form an opinion based on nuance. Alternatively, if you feel you don’t fully understand the context, don’t rush to form an opinion. There is no law stating that you have to have an opinion about everything.
  • Reducing the number of subjects you feel you have to care about, and focusing more on those that are important to you, will dramatically reduce the likelihood of you suffering from Outrage Fatigue. From now on, any outrage you experience will be both genuine and rare, and may even prompt you to act on it in the real world.

5 Predictions for 2014

23 Dec

And so 2013 comes to a close, ending much like one of those Sundays you have in your early 20s, when you hit the sack as others are sitting down for breakfast and crawl out of bed when it’s dark and almost time for you to crawl back in again. It’s gone quickly, is what I’m saying. Even so, I’ll now attempt to see into the future and tell you 5 things we have waiting for us in 2014.

1) TV

Blog Pic

The biggest show on TV in 2014 will be Gogglebox+, a spin-off from the popular Channel4 show, in which the viewer is given the choice to watch one of up to 100,000 different families watching Gogglebox, including their own. The show will begin as a red button option, before being commissioned as its own interactive web series. Things will reach a postmodern event horizon when, via a multi-screen option, those participating in Gogglebox+ can watch the regular characters from Gogglebox watching them watching Gogglebox+.

2) Pop Music

Pop Music

2014 will be the year when, in a bold, empowering move that demonstrates her maturity and bravery as an artist, a teenage female pop star whose songs are written and produced by men in their 30s will participate in a live donkey show at the VMAs. The ensuing opprobrium will be aimed entirely at the pop star and not at the men who organised and choreographed the routine.

Meanwhile, French producer and songwriter David Guetta will be arrested, in November, accused of taking out a contract on the life of Pharrell Williams. Lawyers for the prosecution claim that Guetta wanted to end “for once and for all” Williams’s tireless campaign to “wrestle RnB back from the clutches of very boring, unimaginative white men”. In December, officers involved in the investigation begin questioning Calvin Harris for his role in the alleged plot.

3) Movies

Blog Pic

Following the announcements that both Batman and Wonder Woman will appear in the sequel to Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, Warner Bros announce that the following characters are also to feature in the movie: The Flash, Martian Manhunter, Green Lantern, Aquaman, Batgirl, Bizarro, Nightwing, Plastic Man, Swamp Thing and John Constantine. Incredibly, despite the project’s prestige, the producers struggle to find a writer willing or able to cram all these characters into a coherent story write the screenplay for this as-yet-untitled film.

4) Celebrities

Jamie Box

Following his appearance on next year’s hit TV show, The Know-Nothings (a documentary following a group of people who quite literally know nothing), next year’s biggest and best-paid celebrity will be fitness instructor Jamie Box from Chester. Box, 22, thinks that the capitol of France is Germany, and that whenever he goes to the cinema the actors in the film he’s watching are performing the film live. In September 2014 he garners his 14,000,000th follower on Twitter and publishes volume 3 of his autobiography before being named as Claudia Winkleman’s replacement on Film 2014.

5) Politics

Russell Brand

Voter apathy increases, after Russell Brand reveals – at a press junket to publicize his slapstick remake of Gandhi – how the previous change in government had little-to-no impact on his 8-figure bank balance. This shock revelation, coupled with the fact that Brand has enjoyed continuous employment for the last 10 years, leads those earning almost 1,000 times less than him and still struggling to find or hold on to a job, to believe voting makes no difference whatsoever. As a result, the only people intending to vote in 2015 will be those who fall outside his fan demographic, i.e. anyone roughly the same age or older than Andrew Sachs. Gearing up for the 2015 election, all of the major parties will announce harsher penalties on the young (loss of housing benefit for the under 40s, a pension age of 97 for anyone born after 1990) and a holiday in the Bahamas and endless repeats of Lovejoy on GOLD for the over 65s.

UKIP leader Nigel Farage will appear on the BBC no fewer than 946 times, including – thanks to the wonder of computerized visual effects – two separate appearances on a single episode of Question Time.

Nigel Farage, Ukip

The Burqa Question Resolved In Under 200 Words

8 Nov

Blog Pic

I made the mistake of watching Question Time last night. I say mistake, because it always is. For one thing, every time I bother to watch it, they’ve got Nigel Farage on, blathering away like the treasurer of some regional cricket club whose had one too many nutty brown ales in the clubhouse. This, despite the fact that his party still doesn’t have a single seat in parliament.

Nigel Farage, Ukip

Last night they were talking about burqas. I can only assume this was thanks to the news that a terror suspect escaped police surveillance by donning a burqa. For some reason, the headlines were all “TERROR SUSPECT DODGED POLICE IN BURQA”, rather than “CROSS-DRESSING TERRORIST DODGES COPPERS”. But I guess that’s because the tabloids want us to take this one seriously.

(Observant readers will have noticed that the picture up top shows women wearing niqabs, rather than burqas. I’ve included it, because most of the time, when people are talking about burqas, they mean burqas and niqabs. Burqas are the full face covering, with a kind of lacy veil over the eyes; niqabs cover everything from the eyes down. Like Batman in reverse. For the purposes of clarity, whenever I say “burqas”, read it as “…and niqabs”.)

Now, whenever the burqa question comes up, there are four reactions. There are those on the right, who want them banned, because “something something Muslims something something refusing to integrate”. Then there are those on the left, who think the burqa is fine because “something something multiculturalism something something racism”, and besides which… it pisses off those on the right. Then there are those somewhere in between who think the burqa is bad because it denigrates women, and their (perfectly valid) argument often gets co-opted by those on the Right, because it sounds more palatable than “We hate people who are DIFFERENT to us”, while the Left’s “anyone who hates the burqa is racist” argument is often exploited by swivel-eyed hardliners who think women should be both unseen and unheard.

Pictured: Those whose opinion on burqas is very really asked for.

Pictured: Those whose opinion on burqas is very really asked for.

With all this hot-air being expelled into the atmosphere it’s easy to lose sight of just how simple the “Burqa Question” is. So here, in under 200 words, is how you resolve it:

  • You don’t ban it because it’s a divisive religious garment. Banning items of clothing is both ridiculous and a little bit draconian. Besides, how do you define a burqa or niqab? Would you have to ban all face coverings? Would that include those who – like me – cover their lower face with a scarf during a cold spell? If not, what’s to stop some Muslim women from just covering their face with a scarf? Legislating against “face coverings” would get absurd.
  • You don’t even ban it because it denigrates women. Yes, there’s something deeply unpleasant about a male-dominated culture dictating what women wear. I fail to see how the resolution for this is another male-dominated culture dictating what women wear.
  • You allow employers, banks, post offices and shops the discretion to demand that face coverings are removed by staff and customers. This seems to be the main sticking point when it comes to burqas. Customers entering banks or post offices are asked to remove any garment that covers the face, and few shop assistants would get away with wearing a balaclava to work, but when it comes to the burqa, we get all sheepish. We shouldn’t.

And that’s it. You don’t need to pass any new laws, we only have to agree that showing one’s face is, in certain contexts, the “done thing”, both for security and out of good manners. Yes, it’s a cultural thing, but then so is the burqa.

Join me next week, when I’ll have worked out how we tackle voter apathy and reinvigorate our democratic process*.

*I won’t really.

When Slacktivism Isn’t Enough – A few thoughts on the destruction of Newport’s chartist mural

4 Oct

Chartist Mural

So Newport Council have only gone and done it. They’ve taken a 35-year-old mural by artist Kenneth Budd, commemorating the city’s 1839 Chartist uprising, and driven a bloody great big JCB right through it. Its 200,000 pieces of coloured tile (the mural took the form of a vast mosaic along an underpass) are now a far less artistic pile of rubble.

To say this move went down like a turd at a pool party would be an understatement. There have been protests and petitions, and both Twitter and Facebook were aflame with outrage – certainly in this neck of the woods.

I must confess, though dimly aware that this was in the pipeline I hadn’t really followed the story until yesterday. I was disappointed Newport Council were planning to do this, but hadn’t involved myself. When the first pictures appeared, yesterday afternoon, of a gaping hole in the middle of the mural, I asked if, perhaps, they’d considered taking it down and putting it up again somewhere else, such as the open-air Museum of Welsh Life in St Fagans. This is what happened when the Vulcan Hotel, one of the most perfectly preserved old pubs in Cardiff, was bulldozed to allow for an additional 3 or 4 parking spaces in one of the city centre’s many car parks.

Vulcan Hotel circled in red. As you can see from the chock full car park surrounding it, they really needed those 3 or 4 spaces.

Vulcan Hotel circled in red. As you can see from the chock full car park surrounding it, they really needed those 3 or 4 spaces.

I was told that when this idea was floated, Newport Council came up with a figure of £600,000. That’s how much it would cost, they said, to take Budd’s mural apart as carefully as they could, because it was fixed to a load-bearing wall. As yesterday’s images testify, this was clearly bullshit. The mural was fixed to a surface 6 or 7 inches from the load-bearing wall. Newport Council must have plucked that six-figure sum from thin air, or fed false information to whoever quoted them that figure.

Pictured: Why Newport Council are full of shit.

Pictured: Why Newport Council are full of shit.

Even allowing for the council’s philistinism, however, a nagging thought persists. Though I don’t doubt that the organisers behind the Facebook page Save Our Chartist Mural put a lot of time and effort into their campaign, was there ever a point when anyone suggested raising the money to save the mural from destruction?

Petition, Twitter page, but no crowd funding page, so I'll assume the answer is "No".

Petition, Twitter page, but no crowd funding page, so I’ll assume the answer is “No”.

Now, OK, with a figure like £600,000 being bandied about by the council I wouldn’t imagine the 2,546 people who “liked” the page could have raised that kind of money themselves – it would have meant an average donation of £236 each. Even if you were to canvass every person living in Newport and get them to cough up the cash that would still mean a sum of over £4 a head. But that doesn’t mean it would have been impossible.

Of all the political parties, you might expect Labour to show at least some interest in the mural, with it symbolising an important event in the history of social activism and democracy in Britain. The party has 216 peers in the House of Lords, and I can guarantee many of them aren’t short of a “bob or two”. Did anyone write to any of them, asking not for their support but their cash? If not, why not?

This isn’t an exercise in finger-pointing, because really, when it comes to bitching about Newport Council demolishing this mural but doing nothing whatsoever to stop them, I’m as guilty – if not more so – than anyone else, and my great idea – to brow-beat wealthy lefties into opening their wallets – only occurred to me once the mural was destroyed. But the impotent dismay with which people have met this latest depressing move by a local council speaks volumes about how ineffectual so-called slacktivism is.

"I really wish I'd stayed at home and written an angry blog post for HuffPo instead."

“I really wish I’d stayed at home and written an angry blog post for HuffPo instead.”

The fact that this was a mural celebrating the Chartist uprising – during which people actually died for their beliefs – only highlights this even further. In slacktivism world the Chartists would have signed a petition and expected their overwhelming sense of indignation to exert some mystical, unseen force on the powers that be. In 2013, we sign a petition and like a Facebook page and square up to a body as mindless, blinkered and uncaring as a local council armed only with sentiment and good intentions. We ask that the things that mean something to us are saved, preserved and protected in perpetuity, without ever suggesting how this might be achieved.

Whether or not you agree with this dismal and depressing “Age of Austerity”, it’s our present reality. Petitions are all well and good, but they carry far less weight than cold, hard cash. As vulgar and ugly as many left-leaning folk may find the idea of private wealth, it makes a far more effective weapon when you’re dealing with penny-pinching, commercially minded councils than a Facebook page with over 2,000 “likes”.

What’s in a Name? (Or ‘Why Chelsea Manning is the new Snickers’)

23 Aug

Chelsea Manning

The prisoner formerly known as Bradley Manning and referred to with the pronouns “he”, “him” and “his” has announced that she now wishes to be called Chelsea (like the borough, hotel and First Daughter) and referred to with “she” and “her”. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It seems hardly a year goes by without a member or former member of the armed forces very publicly announcing their decision to switch gender. Indeed, the only transgender friend I’ve ever had was a former marine and Gulf War veteran, but that’s another story.

As with any current event, Ms Manning’s decision is ruffling feathers; most of them belonging to those who think the media should be more active in referring to her as “Chelsea”, “she” and “her”, rather than “Bradley”, “he”, “him” and “his”.

Random sample from Twitter, using the search "Chelsea Manning media"

Random sample from Twitter, using the search “Chelsea Manning media”

Now, while it’s true that the media outlets who have observed Manning’s wishes tend to operate at the more liberal end of the spectrum, I can still sympathise with those who are sticking to “Bradley”. For one thing, I’m not convinced their reluctance is entirely down to disrespect or transphobia. I read several comments (on Twitter, of course) which ran along the lines of, “If we can get used to Snoop Lion, surely it’s not so hard to refer to her as Chelsea Manning.”

The problem with that argument is that I, for one, can’t get used to Snoop Lion. Nor did I take, very easily, to P Diddy. Going back further, it took me three whole years before I could bring myself to ask for a “Snickers” in the school tuck shop. “Marathon” had heritage, gravitas, a name that stretched back into classical antiquity. What the fuck was a “Snickers”? In the village where I grew up there was a corner shop called Gittins’s, run by a Mr Gittins. When he retired, some time around 1991, the shop was taken over by the Dimis family, but people carried on calling it Gittins’s for another five or six years.

It's now run by a Mr and Mrs Premier, apparently.

It’s now run by a Mr and Mrs Premier, apparently.

Though I’m sure that there are some in the media, particularly in its more Dacre-ish and Murdochian crevices, who’ll carry on calling Chelsea Manning “Bradley” out of spite and bigotry, for many journalists it’s simply the case that they know referring to “Chelsea Manning” will confuse the vast majority of their readership. Let’s not forget, Manning only announced all this yesterday. Are we supposed to expect journalists, newspapers, TV stations and their millions of readers and viewers to change gear so suddenly? If transgender people are encouraged and expected to go through a period of transition, a kind of slow morph from their old identity to their new one, isn’t it logical to expect the media’s representation of that person to do likewise?

For one thing, combing through the online coverage of Ms Manning’s statement, it’s clear that this is exactly what most outlets are doing. The Telegraph’s piece even switches from “he” to “she” mid-story. The Daily Mail, while referring to “Bradley Manning”, uses “her” and “she” from the start. Are people offended because only hours after the story broke these journalists mention the name that still presumably appears on Chelsea Manning’s birth certificate, driving licence, passport and military ID?

While we’re on the thorny, problematic and positively minefield-like subject of gender identity and nomenclature, I do wonder how equal rights for transgender people are ever supposed to progress, when so much of the dialogue surrounding them is rife with infighting, and seems deliberately designed to attach an even greater number of labels to people. Case in point: The word “cisgender”.

I thought we needed another pic, so I Google image searched "Cisgender".  I think I almost broke the internet.

I thought we needed another pic, so I Google image searched “Cisgender”. I think I almost broke the internet.

For those unfamiliar with it, to be “cisgender” means to exist comfortably in the gender in which you were born. You don’t tend to hear many men refer to themselves as “cisgender men”, but it seems to have caught on among some feminists who are broadly sympathetic to those women who were born men. I’ve read as much as I could about the term, hoping that at some point it would begin to make sense to me, that I could see how its use might make the world a better or more sensible place, but it just doesn’t.

To my mind, a man who becomes a woman wishes to be thought of as a woman. Once that transition has happened, she is a woman. Same goes for any man who was born a woman. He is now a man. The invention of a word like “cisgender” might be done with the best of intentions, but its effect, I believe, is one of further delineation, marking a boundary between “real women/men” and “fake” ones. A word like “cisgender” contributes nothing to the world but the pathologizing of everyday life.

A lot of offence is taken about the use of words like “normal” and “abnormal”, in part because we falsely attribute positive and negative values to those words, when all they describe is a general summing up of averages. When talking about what’s normal and abnormal, you’ll invariably hear some bright spark say, “But hey… What’s normal, anyway?” or “No-one’s normal.”

Shortly after he tries telling you that the world would be a better place if they made smoking powerful cannabis compulsory at the UN.

Shortly after he tries telling you that the world would be a better place if they made smoking powerful cannabis compulsory at the UN.

Well, sorry to break this to you, Stoned Straw Man, but there is such a thing as normal. There are norms. I, for one, am abnormal chiefly in two ways. I’m left handed, in a world in which 90% of people are right handed, and gay in a world in which the majority of people are attracted to the opposite sex. Should I be ashamed of being abnormal? Of course not. There are plenty of ways in which I’m perfectly normal – I’m average height, I speak the most commonly spoken language on the planet and I earn a fairly average wage for the country I live in – but I’m not proud of any of that stuff, so why should I be ashamed of the ways in which I stand out from the norm?

To describe oneself as “cisgender” seems like a desperate attempt to refuse your normality – which is just pathetic – or to try and normalise somebody else’s abnormality, which suggests you consider the abnormal inherently wrong. It tortures the English language by over-complicating it, without adding anything meaningful, and it creates differences and divisions where none should exist.

Anyway. That’s pretty much all I have to say on the subject. These are early, hastily-sketched thoughts which are subject to change; for example, if someone should convince me that a word like “cisgender” serves a clear and valid purpose.

Next time I’ll write about something lightweight and frothy, like Celebrity Big Brother, or Rylan Clark’s crazy, crazy teeth.

Because seriously... What the fuck is going on here?

Because seriously… What the fuck is going on here?