Tuesday 30 July 2013

Bedroom Tax at the High Court

I was very sorry to hear the legal challenge to the bedroom tax was thrown out of the High Court after just eight minutes. Sorry, but not at all surprised. And, if I'm honest, right from the start I've been of the opinion this action wouldn't go anywhere. Natural justice and that administered by HM Courts and Tribunals Service seldom meet, and, indeed, under the law, the government's bedroom tax has not broken it.

The grounds the policy were contested on were human rights laws; that the policy unfairly discriminated against disabled people. It's incontestable that it does. With Employment Support Allowance capped by a real terms cut at 1%, Disability Living Allowance to shortly be reduced in scope under the obscenely-named 'Personal Independence Payments', price inflation, and the making hundreds of thousands liable for a contribution toward their Council Tax bill, it's obvious a punitive policy like this would hit our most vulnerable people - among whom are disproportionate numbers of those who live with disabilities.

But the government undertook a crafty double move to ensure that the bedroom tax's administration absolved them of any legal responsibility for it. Earlier in the year, after being questioned by my MP about what constitutes a bedroom under the policy, Welfare Reform Minister Lord Freud replied by saying there isn't any objective definition. Instead, when someone signs a tenancy agreement with a local authority or other social housing provider they accept the house has x number of bedrooms stipulated on the contract. In other words, what is and isn't a bedroom is determined beforehand by the landlord and this is then accepted by the tenant once the agreement is signed.

The second part of the government's move is they have left it up to local authorities - as administrators of Housing Benefit - to determine who is and isn't exempt from the shortfall left by the bedroom tax. In my own experience dealing with the City Council here in Stoke, as per guidelines, it has decided to exempt anyone for whom another room is required for equipment essential to a resident's continued health, or who uses the spare as a stopover room for a carer. The case of Charlotte and Jason Carmichael, highlighted in the BBC's report, clearly falls into the latter category. While they are married they cannot, for medical reasons, share a bed. Therefore as a full-time carer who has to sleep in the "spare" bedroom, they should not have to pay the penalty. However, for whatever reason, the decision maker - the local authority - has decided the Carmichaels are not exempt. Legally speaking therefore, it is their council who has responsibility and may be open to court action on discrimination grounds, not the government.

Just imagine it. The spectacle of disabled people taking Labour-run councils to court and how it might demoralise that section of core Labour support who are disgusted by the attacks on the most vulnerable this government are making. You could almost say the implementation of the bedroom tax was designed with this in mind.

Unfortunately, while lawyers have pledged to take this to appeal I would be surprised if it got anywhere. Again, under the laws as they stand, the government have no legal responsibility for how one of their flagship social security policies is implemented. If the law ain't broken from a legal standpoint, further action isn't going to fix it. What do they say about the law again?

Monday 29 July 2013

Rape Threats, Twitter, and Masculine Crisis

So, Caroline Criado-Perez, wages a successful campaign to get a famous woman onto the £10 note and a pledge that, in future, the Bank of England's designs will better reflect the actual look and shape of British society. A welcome happenstance for everyone who isn't white, male and posh. But not all. Unfortunately, the bigger story has been the rape and sexual assault threats she's been on the receiving end of. Caroline talks about some examples here. It goes without saying the volume of misogynistic abuse has generated a furious backlash, from folk bombarding key members of Twitter staff to a 30,000-strong online petition, as well as talk of a Twitter boycott on August 4th. And, for good measure, Caroline has rightly reported threats received to the police. This has led to one arrest, and I expect a few more shall receive an unwelcome knock on the door from the plod.

Unfortunately, Caroline is far from the first prominent woman to have been so targeted. Any woman, especially those who self-identify as feminists and socialists and are active in campaigns around progressive social causes, are no strangers to this sort of harassment. As social media moves from the margins of our lives to something more central to what we do and how we communicate, this kind of behaviour becomes more of a social problem and less something women on the internet have to sigh and resign themselves to. So yes, it is entirely proper perpetrators of abuse are punished, their accounts shut down, and legal/criminal consequences result.

However, ostracising and punishing men and boys who use the internet to abuse women is only part of dealing with the problem. To borrow an over-used cliche, prevention is better than cure. So where does all this rape crap come from, and what's driving it?

To revisit a much-abused concept, masculine crisis might have something to do with it. Look, I know it's a fraught idea seized upon the so-called Men's Movement but I do think it has some sociological utility. It is, after all, undeniable that the way we all perform our genders is different and more varied than was the case 40 or more years ago. That 'being a man' and 'being a woman' is arguably a more uncertain, anxiety-inducing experience than was formerly the case. While feminists do have a point that commentators on gender make a fuss of masculine crisis but tend not to speak about femininity in 'crisis' terms; that says more about the gendered biases so charmingly built into our society rather than using crisis as a frame to think through changes to masculinity. Also, so there is no confusion; when I talk about masculine crisis I'm not harking back to some bucolic ideal. When describing and analysing the complex business of social change it's too simplistic to talk about it in terms of 'good' and 'bad' - conservatives and the hard-of-thinking take note.

There are four interrelated ways to think through this issue sociologically, and help explain why some men tweet rape threats to belittle, traduce and attempt to silence women.

As I argued in this post on UKIP and masculinity, age, gender identity, flexible labour markets/in-work insecurity, and the pace of cultural change conspired to generate a constituency of middle-aged to elderly men who found the "common sense" right wing populism of UKIP attractive. A similar set of processes are at work among younger men, too.

The situation facing all young people when they emerge from the education system, be that at 16, 18 or 21, is greatly uncertain. This month, some 21% of 16-24 year olds - 959,000 people - are unemployed. Whereas perhaps their parents and certainly their grandparents knew full employment and the possibility of getting into work right from school, it's more of a lottery for young people now.

So we have uncertainty. But we also have a more level playing field when it comes to jobs. This isn't to say there is no gender divisions at work - it would be stupid to pretend men and women aren't treated differently. But increasingly, especially at entry level, workplaces are increasingly mixed and young men and young women have to compete for the same jobs. And yet hegemonic masculinity - that complex of ideologies, values and expectations inculcated by socialisation and reinforced through family, friendship and media networks - hasn't caught up. A real man has a well paid job, has disposable income enough to buy all the mod cons and fashions, might *have* (in the property sense) a woman, or, at the very least, has women hanging off his arm; and, of course, has the time and inclination to play or watch sports, and/or indulge in masculine-coded pursuits like video gaming, drinking, gadgetry, or fishing. Women are too well aware of the mismatch between how society expects them to dress, look and behave, and their individual lives. But now that mismatch is being felt more by men too.

With this chasm between expected experience and lived experience, Emile Durkheim's 'anomie' comes in useful. As a sociologist interested in social integration, Durkeim used anomie to describe situations of 'normlessness'. Despite the term, this does not denote an absence of norms but rather a lack of fit between the value systems embedded in processes of integration and those actually inculcated in groups and individuals. Hence the frequent occurrence of dysfunctional and problematic behaviours across numbers of people is not a mass manifestation of psychological deficiencies, but indicative of anomic social problems. Masculine crisis therefore is the anomie that pertains to discourses and ideologies of "maleness".

For men either born during or having grown up knowing nothing other than neoliberalism's tyranny of the economy, there is no worked-out way to cope with the continued ideological affirmation of male privilege while, materially, it is undermined by insecurity and increased competition with women for jobs. This is why there are so many more socially acceptable ways of 'being a man' now. But at the same time anomic mismatches can generate social pathologies and, in this case, a resentment that privileges promised from the off are being frustrated and denied.

This is one way of looking at the homophobic and misogynistic cultures that reign in that intersection of multiplayer video games and hundreds of internet forums. The one place you can be a man - even if you're but a boy - is by shooting the crap out of other people in first person shooters. The celebration of militarism the Call of Duty franchise indulges would take several books to do it justice. But it is quite clear from the "banter" that takes place in the battles raging across Activision's servers that accompanying play is a verbal performance of masculinity defined by violent sexism, racism and homophobia. This is not just a question of 'expression', it's also a policing of boundaries. This juvenilia tries to effect an exclusion zone around what many of its players consider to be an unambiguously masculine space. The frequent calling out of "fags", cries of "I just totally raped you!!" and tea-bagging the digital corpses of one's deceased opponents all combine and recombine with tedious - almost banal - regularity. Unfortunately, while these arenas of death are make-believe there is no wall preventing the performance of masculinity in these and similar settings from bleeding out into real life.

The above is one example of the online performance of a pathological masculinity. There are many such performative sites outside of multiplayer video gaming, such as Facebook groups, porn forums, sports pages, music sites, tech boards. Men and boys might actively participate in one or more, or have a tangential relationship with them. But for a small minority, how to be a man online can heavily influence how they are men in real life. Or rather, while the immediacy of the social world places limits and strictures on behaviour, few if any such barriers exist online. It is therefore easy for men who've acquired a chip on their shoulder to lash out at those they hold responsible for their emasculating frustrations. They do not have to face the subject of their ire, nor do they have to read rebuttals or comebacks. They know their threatening behaviour is wrong, but their anonymity means they don't have to consider it. The safety afforded by the mediation of the monitor is perceived as a shield that allows them to force their privilege on others. As readers know, prominent, politically left wing women are a favourite target.

When it comes to the specifics of this case, matters are not helped by the relationship between peer support and Twitter dynamics. Not many readers will remember Kenneth Tong, but his Twitter-fueled brief foray into the spotlight is a study in how the game is played. In his case, it was a series of over-the-top, outrageous and misogynistic tweets about women's bodies that attracted the attention of several A-list celebrities and drove notoriety and thousands upon thousands of followers his way. The man was a nobody who became a somebody - the more attention he got, the more outrageous he became. With the desperately sad cases harassing Caroline Criado-Perez it's similar, but different too. They threaten not just for notoriety but for the rise they get. Hidden behind anonymous accounts, they are competing with each other for the numbers of followers attracted, the amount of flak they get, direct replies from Caroline, and retweets of their abusive messages. In their closed emasculated masculine universe, the 'look at me' privilege they hunger for is reduced to 140 characters or less. They feel they have won because a woman has been forced to recognise them and respond to their threats. They are pathetically inadequate in other ways, but among their peers they have proved their stunted manliness and as such reap whatever kudos points that awards them.

Of course, violent, misogynist hate speech - which is what these rape threats are - are not new. But what is new is the platform on which they are made, and the public scrutiny they have attracted. I am sure many people - including many men - had no clue this kind of behaviour is part of the deal women writers, campaigners, and politicians have to endure as part of their prominence. But the problem has now been exposed. There are groups of men and boys who, out of a mixture of jealousy and fear, feel a gut hatred toward women for the reasons described. Ensuring the law deals with these men is only a short-term fix. The material relationships that condition this behaviour will take much longer to address. But in the mean time everyone with a decent bone in their body, regardless of their politics, should stand in solidarity with Caroline, Laurie Penny, Helen Lewis, Mary Beard and the thousands of other women who put up with this abuse, day-in, day-out.

Sunday 28 July 2013

Dr Who and Women

Hat tip to @catherinebuca for pointing me in the direction of the STFU Moffat tumblr about the vexatious relationship between Dr Who and women. Or, rather, that that exists for the show's lead writer, Steven Moffat. Basically, long-time readers who liked these pieces will very much enjoy what's on offer.

Below, for example, is typical of the crap that is take on and challenged. This from 'Gustaff', a guest writer at Doctor Who TV website on whether the next Doctor should be a woman:

“I can’t imagine this change happening to the Doctor any time soon as it would cause all sorts of problems. The first would be his sense of identity. For 1200 years he’s been male. What sort of psychological damage would it inflict if he suddenly found himself female? That’s like going from being the smartest kid in class to the dumbest in zero seconds flat. What sort of self would you have left if all the other morons in your class suddenly had IQs which made yours look like a joke?”


Saturday 27 July 2013

Earth, Wind & Fire - Fantasy

1977 was a great year for many reasons. Star Wars. My entering the world. And this:

By-Election Results July 2013

No. of Candidates
+/- 2nd Quarter
5 (+2)
7 (+1)
2 (+2)


Plaid Cymru**

3 (+2)

* There were no by-elections in Scotland
** There were three by-elections in Wales, only one of which was contested by Plaid Cymru
*** Please note there were two occasions where contests had more than one Independent candidate
**** 'Other' this month consisted of the National Front (108 votes) and the Socialist Party of Great Britain (11 votes)

Overall, 22,273 votes were cast over 17 individual local (tier one and tier two) authority contests. All percentages are rounded to the nearest single decimal place. For comparison see last quarter's results here.

For clarification, holds/wins are the number of contests each party has won. The figure in brackets are their gains.

As I've noted on previous occasions, we're not really comparing like-for-like when it comes to setting one collection of by-election results against another. Contests vary greatly in location. You can have a clutch in safe Tory areas, a batch in traditional Labour areas, and so on. That's why from this month I have included a column that measures the monthly change in in a party's average vote. Where the change is drastic, as is the case with the Tory, UKIP and Green votes, chances are it reflects the characteristic variation of the wards being contested. Where there is less month-to-month change, it could either be that by-elections are randomly occurring in wards favourable to certain parties or, as time goes on, is more likely to suggest something stable about the figures yielded - especially when they tend to bear out opinion polling.

So, it's perhaps to early to say this suggests anything. For instance, while opinion polls have found that UKIP support is winding down for the moment, the simultaneous collapse in it and the average Tory vote this month could owe more to the variation of the wards contested rather than the phenomenon identified by the polls. If for the next few months the variation is small either way, then something greater than natural variation is being indicated.

On the minor party front, no BNP presence this month is welcome - as was noted last month they are being out-organised by TUSC. It's also worth noting that for a while now TUSC are the only far left organisation that consistently stands in by-elections. The votes are derisory but as with any new(ish) small party (though, of course, TUSC isn't a party) you need to stand when and wherever you can to familiarise yourselves with the electorate.