Life, indeed, doesn’t come with trigger warnings, but…

[cn/tw: discussion of trigger warnings; mention of issues which may warrant trigger warnings, such as sexual violence; descriptions of being triggered]

Someone who is, loosely speaking, a colleague (an academic in the humanities) wrote yesterday in the Guardian that life doesn’t come with trigger warnings, and therefore books shouldn’t either.

I see this debate rehashed in various contexts (fandom, academia, school teaching) roughly once a week. We can’t coddle students; this element of the work I’m teaching has to be a surprise to the audience or it won’t work; go to therapy instead of class if you’re so upset; I can’t possibly warn for everything that might upset someone. Aside from the fact that therapy isn’t available to the vast majority of trauma survivors (and particularly to women who’ve experienced sexual violence), let me tell you why, if you’re so reluctant to use trigger warnings in an educational context, you’re a poor educator.

As an educator, your primary goal should be to facilitate students’ learning. Now here’s what happens every time one of your students encounters triggering content unprepared in one of your classes or assigned readings. I’m basing this on my own experiences which, frankly, are fairly mild. The first thing I experience are intrusive thoughts: memories of my abuse experience, not so bad that I can’t tell where I am or think that it’s happening to me again, but bad enough that I need to pay attention to those thoughts, and relive part of the experience. I then tend to try to redirect and refocus these thoughts: often to regret, sometimes to anger, as much as possible to some kind of rationalisation – either of why this happened to me or why I’m being triggered at this moment. If I’m lucky, that’s about it, I can then move on and away from these thoughts. In the occasional instances where I’m not so lucky, I experience physical reactions: feeling cold, shaking, unable to warm up for hours; involuntary sounds; on a couple of occasions curling up in a ball, sobbing, crying, heart racing, struggling to breathe.

Guess what I’m not doing while all of this is going on. I am not paying attention to anything you might be saying in class, or any ongoing discussion, or anything that’s happening in the film you’re showing. I’m not engaging with the work or with you or with any content. This might be for 30 seconds, or five minutes, but in a few extreme cases it may take me the rest of the day to process these feelings and recover. This does not facilitate my learning.

If, on the other hand, I am prepared for potentially triggering content, I am much better at putting myself in a frame of mind that allows me to engage with said content in the ways you want me to: rationally, critically, and even emotionally. I can pay attention, I can learn the things you’re trying to teach me, I can think about it and reach my own conclusions. If your top priority as an educator is to facilitate students’ learning, then using trigger warnings allows you to do exactly that.

Now, you may argue that it’s only a tiny minority of students that are affected in this way. The stats say otherwise. Nearly one in two women in the UK has experienced sexual assault, domestic abuse, or stalking. That’s not even counting the people who may be affected by other kinds of trauma: eating disorders, drug use, depression, suicidal thoughts, self harm, racism, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia. As a working estimate, you may be letting down somewhere between a quarter and a third of your class by not providing trigger warnings.

And yes, of course it’s difficult to predict what people will be triggered by. My own triggers are often subtle and not obvious: a particular quality of lighting, certain turns of phrase, as much as outright depictions of sexual violence or abuse. But eliminating the obvious ones (there are plenty of lists on the internet if you’re struggling for ideas) would go a long way towards creating safer spaces for learning – which is what you as an educator should be aiming at.

I research sexual consent, so every time I talk about my research, at conferences and in lectures, I give trigger warnings. I’ve had a couple of people walk out when the warning was given. I’d much rather they did that and ensured they were safe, than them ending up triggered and having this affect the rest of their day or week. In that state of mind they’re highly unlikely to engage with what I have to say anyway, and for good reason. But apart from those couple of cases, the vast majority of people stay, and engage, and I would hope that they’re able to learn something. Which is ultimately what I, as an educator, want.


(In which the blogger is hurt and raw and makes some possibly ill-advised political predictions.)

I’ve been at a conference for the last two days so I’m still processing the election result. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but in some ways we could have seen this coming. And while I’m in many ways delighted for the SNP and somewhat gleeful at the complete collapse of the Lib Dems, both will bring deep structural problems with them. I am considering dropping some long-term activism work to focus on alleviating some of the immediate and very real harm our new lizard overlords will cause, but at the same time I’m very aware that we can’t afford to drop long-term work because that will only come back to bite us. This government will cause misery, suffering and death in the short term, but in many ways that is only a smoke screen for longer-term projects which will just perpetuate and multiply that suffering. Here’s the five things I’m most worried about on that longer term front:

  1. The EU referendum. I genuinely don’t think that David Cameron has lost connection with reality to the extent that he believes Britain would be better off out of the EU. Leaving the EU would very much be an act of cutting off your nose to spite your face. But I do believe that for a series of short-term gains with both his backbenchers and certain sections of the electorate he has talked himself into a corner and set events into motion that he will not be able to control. A UK exit from the EU would be pointless at best and geopolitically disastrous at worst.
  2. The Human Rights Act. The dominant discourse on human rights in this country continues to baffle me. There’s a certain theme of cutting off your nose to spite your face going on here. It’s almost as if the British public doesn’t realise that they, too, are human. Scrapping the Human Rights Act will of course exacerbate a lot of the short-term immediate hurt this government will cause as many will lose a last recourse to justice, and will entrench inequalities and injustices in the long run.
  3. The Gerrymandering Bill. As if First Past The Post isn’t sufficiently fucked up, this will exacerbate some of the worst issues of the current electoral system and make future Tory majorities more likely. This is the last nail in the coffin of electoral reform for at least a generation.
  4. The Snoopers’ Charter and other surveillance. Granted, a Labour majority government would have probably pushed this one through as well, but this is now a near-certainty. Strengthening the surveillance apparatus of the state is bad news for anyone who is in any way marginalised and attempting to resist. It’s only a matter of time until it’s also bad news for those who believe that they have nothing to hide and thus nothing to fear. Some may also remember that the “emergency” Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act 2014 has a sunset clause and can only be renewed by passing new primary legislation. DRIP expires in the middle of this Parliament, I am not holding my breath for it to not be renewed.
  5. Scotland. I have mixed feelings about this one. If the Scots do manage a second run at independence and do get away, I shall wish them much joy. (I actually think even if the Tories are now prepared to genuinely put Devo Max on the table, that will exacerbate the issues and hasten the demise of the Union.) None of which changes the fact that Scottish independence would leave the rest of the UK even more thoroughly screwed.

So yes. Survival will become even more difficult over the next five years, and it is vital that we try and alleviate the pain. But we need to at least keep an eye on the long term, lest those five years turn to fifty.


[Elsewhere] LGBT+ History Month: Identity and the Problem of (Evolving) Language

During the 2014 Winter Olympics (the ones that Russia hosted right after implementing Section 28′s bigger, meaner evil twin), I played something called the Tchaikovsky Drinking Game. It went a bit like this:

  • Non-Russians use music by gay Russian composer: take a drink.
  • Russians use music by gay Russian composer who is also a national treasure: take two drinks.
  • Entire Russian national team walks into stadium to the sound of t.A.T.u: down the bottle.

Read more over at Rainbow Teaching.

Identity and the Problem of (Evolving) Language

[This post originally appeared on Rainbow Teaching.]

During the 2014 Winter Olympics (the ones that Russia hosted right after implementing Section 28′s bigger, meaner evil twin), I played something called the Tchaikovsky Drinking Game. It went a bit like this:

– Non-Russians use music by gay Russian composer: take a drink.
– Russians use music by gay Russian composer who is also a national treasure: take two drinks.
– Entire Russian national team walks into stadium to the sound of t.A.T.u: down the bottle.

Of course, me being drunk on my sofa in no way helps LGBTQIA+ people experiencing horrendous violence in Russia, and I did also put some of my money where my mouth was, but sometimes the irony just gets a little too much.

There is, however, a second problem with the Tchaikovsky Drinking Game, and that is that Tchaikovsky died well before “gay” became an identity one could assign to people. In this case, it’s a fairly safe bet that Tchaikovsky was predominantly attracted to men, but even if we could prove that neither his engagement to Désirée Artôt nor his marriage to Antonina Miliukova were in any way founded on sexual or romantic attraction (and we can’t), what we consider a gay identity and a gay experience in the early 21st century in the UK is vastly different to what Tchaikovsky would have experienced in 19th-century Russia. Frankly, any apparent commonality and similarity are more likely to be due to our incredible ability to view history through the lens of our own culture than anything else.

Things get even murkier when we look at historical figures who have had what look like meaningful relationships with men and women. The temptation becomes too great to discount any different-gender relationships in order to claim them for “the cause”, thereby often erasing any potential of bisexuality. There are people throughout history who were assigned female at birth and chose to wear men’s clothing and have relationships with women: do we read them as butch lesbians or as straight trans men? And how do we tell the difference between an aromantic asexual woman and a “spinster”?

It may therefore be tempting to refuse to assign such labels to historical figures who never self-identified as lesbian, gay, bi, trans, asexual, or any other of a range of identities available to us now but not to them when they were alive. This, however, leaves us a people without a history. It leaves us vulnerable, without precedent. It allows others to tell our stories for us. It creates the impression that LGBTQIA+ people simply made ourselves up some time in the mid-20th century, and that maybe if only we’re ignored, erased or oppressed enough, we will quietly fade out of existence. History is a powerful political tool, which is why it is often so hotly contested, and why LGBTQIA+ History Month is so important.

How, then, do we both do justice to our history as a people and recognise that the lived experiences of those who came before us will have differed significantly from ours? It’s a fine line to walk, but let me attempt it nonetheless.

I would, first of all, argue that LGBTQIA+ history is not the only history that suffers from this problem – and than to an extent we have an advantage because we are aware of it. After all, how do we meaningfully argue that a peasant in 15th-century Somerset can share a national identity with, say, a systems engineer in modern-day Bath? The gulf of lived experience is just as vast, the commonality just as constructed.

Using more nuanced language can go some way towards addressing the issues. Rather than calling Tchaikovsky gay, we can say that he had relationships with men. This can, however, sometimes result in focusing on acts at the expense of attractions and other inner experiences, thus erasing a number of possible identities such as bisexual or asexual. To mitigate this to an extent, we can speculate about the language historical figures may have used of themselves had they had access to our terminology, while still making it clear that it’s a speculation. Thus, if Tchaikovsky was alive today, he might identify as gay.

Above all, though, it is important to understand that any reading we make of history is by necessity revisionist and coloured by our own assumptions and prejudices. Perhaps the best we can do in telling our stories is make sure that we open up spaces and possibilities. I would encourage you to take the opportunity this LGBTQIA+ History Month to get students to question their assumptions and retell stories, while being aware that there is more than one possible reading of any given story – and any given person – out there.


My research blog finally looks like it might be up and running. It’s mainly a place for me to think out loud about stuff I’ve read, publish chunks of writing that may or may not make into papers or a thesis, attempt some rudimentary outreach, and hopefully further down the line engage in a dialogue with the fandom community.

Current posts include reviews of the two big fandom ethnographies from the 1990s (Camille Bacon-Smith’s Enterprising Women and Henry Jenkins’ Textual Poachers), and some quite raw musings on consent and empathy [TW rape/sexual assault].

[Elsewhere] Ladies’ Things

With Marvel having made six movies with lead actors called Chris, the calls for a woman-led movie have been getting louder. And while we’re going to have to wait until 2018 to see Captain Marvel, and a Black Widow movie is still not on the cards, our appetites have been more than whetted with the latest superhero show to hit our screens; Agent Carter.

The series premièred last week in the US with a two-hour long double episode, and while the tight plot and great action are noteworthy, there was one element of the show that really stood out for a lot of women viewers, and it’s a topic that TV is usually happy to brush over.

From very early on in the first episode it becomes clear that sexism, harassment and discrimination are a part of Peggy Carter’s daily life. While formally an SSR agent, informally her male colleagues patronise her, diminish her, ask her to perform menial administrative tasks like filing, answering phones or making coffee. Carter has to fight to be allowed to do her job and be recognised for her skills, potential and contributions – and she’s not the only one. Carter’s roommate Colleen finds her female colleagues out of a job, as soldiers – entirely unqualified for the work – return from the front to take them, while Waitress Angie deals with constant harassment from her male customers. It’s everywhere, and it’s unrelenting.

The debate about ‘strong female characters’ still rages on in modern feminist media critique. Such characters, more often than not, are either devoid of any femininity, or allowed to be feminine in only a very narrow set of ways. SFCs are simplistic, and often devoid of context.

They tend to move through a world as experienced by their generally white male writers: a world where they don’t have to consider the personal safety implications of being a woman in public; a world where being good at their job is a sufficient condition for success; a world where they can reasonably expect to be taken seriously by their peers instead of being told to “cover the phones”.

This is not the world that women – and other marginalised groups – live in. What many writers (especially those giving trite advice like “write them like they’re human beings”) don’t realise is that different people experience reality differently, and for marginalised people there are a whole set of social structures in place that make their experiences considerably bleaker. This is as true for women as it is for other marginalised groups – people of colour, LGBTQ people and disabled people. And of course, if you’re a member of more than one of these groups, the shit you have to deal with multiplies.

Marvel’s Agent Carter does a good job of showing the difficulties a white, cis, (probably) straight woman would have faced in 1940s America: being demoted or losing your job to returning soldiers, or being expected to only work until you get married. It also shows the kind of system-beating coping strategies that marginalised people often develop. You’re only good for making coffee? Make the coffee and listen in on the briefing. People see your pretty face and forget that there’s a person with thoughts and feelings and agency behind it? Lull them into a false sense of security. Men find women’s bodies largely repulsive unless it’s for their benefit? Use ‘women’s troubles’ to get a day off for world-saving.

This being a comic book adaptation, some of the ways in which Carter deals with her reality are basically power fantasies. There are times I wish I had comebacks as good as Peggy, or that I could press a fork to a man’s rib-cage and explain to him the consequences of his actions. Also true to the genre, Peggy acquires a sidekick in the form of Howard Stark’s butler Edwin Jarvis. He’s there to patch up her wounds, check the paperwork for disarming explosives, and drive the getaway car. These are exactly the kind of power fantasies we see male characters enact without batting an eyelid. A simple role reversal of the male hero and female sidekick would be tired and insincere, but the fact that Carter is shown in the context of pervasive sexism and discrimination around her gives the situation depth and nuance.

The show centres Carter’s experience and takes us into her reality. Where it could improve is in its representation of characters from marginalised groups other than white, cis, (probably) straight women. We have a disabled character working in the SSR, a fair few women – and that’s it. So far, men of colour have appeared either as shady criminals or jazz musicians, and women of colour apparently weren’t invented yet. Now that the writers have shown what they can do, there’s no excuse not to have a more diverse cast treated with the same kind of nuance as the lead.

And lest we forget, Peggy Carter’s reality is not one we left behind in the 1940s. Those of us who experience it on a daily basis know that sexism, discrimination and harassment are still with us.

Those who have the privilege not to have to deal with this sort of thing, however, should not congratulate themselves on how far we’ve come in a few decades: Agent Carter’s “cover the phones” is today’s “make me a sandwich”.

[This post was originally published at The Geek Agenda.]

[Elsewhere] Arrows and Aros

There were two things I absolutely loved about the Hunger Games books. The way they just kept getting bleaker with no light at the end of the tunnel was the first. The second was that Katniss Everdeen was a kickass female character who didn’t have a romantic bone in her body. Or… that’s how I read her. Imagine my surprise when Anita Sarkeesian of the Feminist Frequency (for whom I have all the respect in the world) complained about the romance content and love triangle, especially in the second and third books. Of course different people see different things in works of art and popular culture, so let’s look at how an aro-ace reading of Katniss can be constructed from the text.

When we first meet Katniss, she is sixteen years old. She has a network of acquaintances in the District that she occasionally does business with to ensure the survival of her family, but she only has a handful of truly close relationships: her sister, her friend Gale, her mother, and Madge (the mayor’s daughter) are the important people in her life, probably in that order. We see very little of her friendship with Madge, though it’s worth noting that there have been some readings of a more sexual or romantic relationship there. Personally, I feel there isn’t quite enough there in the text, especially compared to the evidence for aro-ace Katniss.

Because the books are narrated by Katniss in the first person, we get a very in-depth view of how she sees the world, though not necessarily a fair reflection of how the other characters may see it. From Katniss’s point of view, her relationship with Gale at the start of the trilogy looks like a very solid and very much platonic friendship. There are some clues in Gale’s actions and words that he harbours more romantic feelings towards Katniss, but it’s pretty clear in the first book that they have no sexual or romantic history together.

I think it’s fair to say that many 16-year-olds would consider the exploration of their sexuality a fairly central part of their life. And yes, you could argue that ensuring the survival of her family is Katniss’s main priority to the exclusion of all else, but most of the characters around her are shown or at least implied to be sexual or have romantic feelings in some way. Gale with his crush on Katniss, especially in the later books; Peeta who falls for her hopelessly even in the middle of the horrors of the arena; Finnick using his sexuality to keep himself and Annie safe; Johanna Mason’s provocative strip in the elevator. Additionally, Katniss is extremely frank about many things, including graphic violence and her own mental state – there is no reason to believe she wouldn’t be just as frank about sexuality if that was something that was important to her.

Let’s have a closer look at how Katniss thinks about three key elements of romantic feelings and sexuality: kissing, desire, and romance itself.

This is Katniss and Peeta’s first kiss:

“No Peeta, I don’t even want to discuss it,” I say, placing my fingers on his lips to quiet him.

“But I – ” he insists.

Impulsively, I lean forward and kiss him, stopping his words.

For context, Katniss has just treated his wounds in the cave and he is trying to talk about what happens if he doesn’t make it. They’re at this point playing up the love story for the audience in order to get more food and medicine from sponsors.

She kisses him to shut him up.

For the rest of their time in the cave, Katniss uses kissing as a tool to get Peeta to do things and to get the audience on their side.

“Getting the broth into Peeta takes about an hour of coaxing, begging, and yes, kissing…”

These do not sound like kisses that Katniss is particularly into. We get very little description of what they feel like for her. In fact, in Katniss’s mind they are simply tools. What we have to remember is that Katniss’s main strength as a character is using any and all available tools to ensure her own survival and that of the people she cares about.

Sister has been called up to be ritually sacrificed? Pretty much the only tool Katniss has is herself – so she volunteers. She has to kill Peeta or be killed? Have some poison berries to blackmail the system with. Need to convince the pampered audience in the Capitol to send her food and medicine? Play up the love story. Yes, Haymitch had to talk her into that one but only because she didn’t understand how the Capitol worked at first. Once she saw the tools, she used them. So if she needs Peeta to drink his broth she will kiss him if that’s what it takes.

Here are a couple more notable kisses. This is the kiss, in front of a live TV audience, that Katniss and Peeta share the first time they see each other after leaving the arena:

He’s kissing me and all the time I’m thinking, Do you know? Do you know how much danger we’re in? After about ten minutes of this, Caesar Flickerman taps on his shoulder to continue the show, and Peeta just pushes him aside without even glancing at him. The audience goes berserk. Whether he knows or not, Peeta is, as usual, playing the crowd exactly right.

Katniss is not focused on the actual kiss in the slightest. Unlike Peeta, who seems immersed in the kiss, Katniss is fully aware of her surroundings and the political situation they are in.

And here is Katniss being kissed by Gale in the second book. As descriptions of kisses go, it is neither full of romance nor desire.

Despite the fact that the sun was setting and my family would be worried, I sat by a tree next to the fence. I tried to decide how I felt about the kiss, if I had liked it or resented it, but all I really remembered was the pressure of Gale’s lips and the scent of the oranges that still lingered on his skin.

Katniss’s thoughts on desire are few and far between. This is maybe the only passage in the trilogy that deals with the subject in any sort of detail:

“I do,” I say. “I need you.” He looks upset, takes a deep breath as if to begin a long argument, and that’s no good, no good at all, because he’ll start going on about Prim and my mother and everything and I’ll just get confused. So before he can talk, I stop his lips with a kiss.

I feel that thing again. The thing I only felt once before. In the cave last year, when I was trying to get Haymitch to send us food. I kissed Peeta about a thousand times during those Games and after. But there was only one kiss that made me feel something stir deep inside. Only one that made me want more. But my head wound started bleeding and he made me lie down.

This time, there is nothing but us to interrupt us. And after a few attempts, Peeta gives up on talking. The sensation inside me grows warmer and spreads out from my chest, down through my body, out along my arms and legs, to the tips of my being. Instead of satisfying me, the kisses have the opposite effect, of making my need greater. I thought I was something of an expert on hunger, but this is an entirely new kind.

Note how Katniss is telling us that this is the second time ever that she’s experienced desire. Based on this, it is possible to construct a demisexual reading of Katniss – maybe it has simply taken her this long to develop romantic feelings for Peeta, and that now leads to desire and sexual attraction. Yet, this is also pretty much the last time Katniss talks about desire. As for romance, Katniss never uses the language of love in reference to either Gale or Peeta. Both in the passage above, and when she talks about making a choice between the two of then, the word she uses is “need”:

Peeta and I grow back together. There are still moments when he clutches the back of a chair and hangs on until the flashbacks are over. I wake screaming from nightmares of mutts and lost children. But his arms are there to comfort me. And eventually his lips. On the night I feel that thing again, the hunger that overtook me on the beach, I know this would have happened anyway. That what I need to survive is not Gale’s fire, kindled with rage and hatred. I have plenty of fire myself. What I need is the dandelion in the spring. The bright yellow that means rebirth instead of destruction. The promise that life can go on, no matter how bad our losses. That it can be good again. And only Peeta can give me that. So after, when he whispers, “You love me. Real or not real?” I tell him, “Real.”

Katniss is a survivor, and she will use all tools at her disposal. What she needs to survive is Peeta. She never even tells Peeta she loves him – she simply lets him put words in her mouth.

So what about that love triangle then? I genuinely believe Katniss cares deeply about certain people in her life. Prim and Gale are probably at the top of that list, Peeta makes it quite close to the top. Her mother (to an extent), Cinna, Haymitch. Rue, obviously. And the way Katniss cares is that she’s fiercely protective – you don’t volunteer as tribute if you don’t care or are not protective of someone. I think at some point she realises that both Gale and Peeta are smitten with her. And she knows she can’t really return those feelings in the same way, and that that will hurt them. So I think a lot of the “love triangle” is her coming to terms with hurting them in this way when all she wants to do is protect them, as well as figuring out what she needs for survival and how to get that.

I think given the themes of violence and PTSD that run through the trilogy, one of the best features of Katniss’s portrayal as aro-ace is that it is consistent throughout the books, and set against a backdrop of clearly sexual and romantic characters. It is impossible to argue that sexuality and romance are not important in the world the author has created, as we have seen clear examples of both. At the same time, Katniss doesn’t lose her capacity for romance or her sexuality through the trauma of the Hunger Games – this is simply who she is, both before and after the trauma she suffers.

[This post was originally published at Rainbow Teaching.]

Je ne suis pas Charlie

[Content note: white, Christian-heritage person discussing racism and Islamophobia. It’s not the job of Muslims or people of colour to educate me, but if you do want to call me out on something I’ve got wrong, I would welcome that.]

I’ve lost respect for a lot of people and organisations over the last week. Apparently we are all now Charlie, and also incapable of recognising irony or nuance, or understanding power.
Because this apparently needs saying, let me start with it: I support everyone’s right to free speech. This includes racist speech, homophobic, biphobic and transphobic speech, anti-immigrant speech, misogynistic speech. I believe you should have the right to say those things and to not be persecuted for them by the state. Frankly, I believe this largely for selfish reasons: because it is way too easy to ban radical left speech under the guise of banning radical right speech, and I find it easier to deal with individuals’ free speech than with a state apparatus aimed at silencing. I also believe in people’s right to life, and by extension that no one deserves to die as a consequence of their free speech.

Now, having stated the obvious, let’s move on to irony, and nuance, and power which have so eluded us over the last week. I’ll start with the irony, because that’s the easy one. “Let’s fight for free speech with more surveillance!” said the leaders of nations which routinely jail or assault journalists, send their secret services to destroy hard drives, or have blasphemy laws on the books. If you don’t see the irony in that, I’m not sure I can help you. But I promised nuance too, so let me ask you this: when the security services use Charlie Hebdo as a pretext to get their current wishlist of additional surveillance powers, whose free speech do you think will suffer most from that? Is it the Johns and Pauls and Marys of this world that they will go after, or the Ahmeds and Mohammeds and A’ishahs?

Heck, even if we somehow manage to stop new surveillance powers, the free speech impact on Muslims is already there: because every time a Muslim wants to raise issues of racism and Islamophobia, they have to go through a three-paragraph spiel about how Islam is the religion of peace and how they condemn any violence committed by any Muslim ever.
Dear fellow white people of Christian heritage: try that for a day. Try having to start every conversation with “I apologise for and condemn the crusades, and colonialism, and the homophobia and transphobia we exported to the rest of the world, and the fact that my religious heritage regards women as second-class citizens incapable making decisions about basic health care, and slavery, and genocide, and every war we’ve started in the last 300 years, and the fact that we continue to do these things today, with impunity.” Try that, and see how far you get with your free speech.

Here’s a bit more nuance for you: I can support your right to free speech, however obnoxious it is, but that doesn’t mean I have to give it a platform. Regardless of whether you buy into the terrorism story or are at least aware that, had these two young men been white, we would be talking of “confused and troubled individuals”, republishing the cartoons, marching on the streets and using #JeSuisCharlie all create a discourse that normalises the terrorism narrative as well as offending a lot of people and making them feel unsafe. Free speech has consequences, and when it is exercised by the powerful against the powerless, in the vast majority of cases it is not the speakers who suffer. With every republished Islamophobic cartoon you are causing pain. With every #JeSuisCharlie you are sending out a signal to Muslim people that they are not safe around you. And every individual joining a march is making someone wonder whether it’ll be their mosque shot up next. Exercising your free speech in a way that has these consequences, frankly, makes you a dick.

All of which rather neatly brings us to power. Charlie Hebdo is not racist or Islamophobic, we are told – those few of us who dare question it. You just don’t understand the French context. It is written for a French audience, we are told, where this kind of thing is not racist. Analysis about as incisive as “Actually, it’s about ethics in games journalism.”
Everyone – including Charlie Hebdo – operates in an existing context of power relations. Sometimes this context is so naturalised and normalised that we are not aware of it, no matter how good our intentions. If you’re telling me that a publication which routinely and deliberately publishes cartoons intended to mock Islam and offend Muslims is not racist or Islamophobic to a French audience, you are restating and reproducing those power relations. You are using your authority and power to define what a French audience looks like; and the French audience you’re describing – regardless of the number of caveats you include – is white and non-Muslim. If Charlie Hebdo is the best the radical left in France has to offer to Muslims and people of colour, and if the rest of white, Christian-heritage Europe gets behind that, our problems are a lot bigger than we thought.

By all means, defend free speech. Defend it from the state, and from private corporations, and from confused and misguided angry young men with guns. But defend it in a way that challenges and overthrows existing power structures, that makes people feel valued and safe, that reaches out rather than pushing away.

Surveillance costs lives

I gave a brief talk yesterday, followed by a Q&A, at the screening of CITIZENFOUR at the Cube cinema in Bristol. I was asked to talk about why I care about privacy, surveillance and digital rights. The reasons why I care and the particular aspects of digital rights that I am passionate about have changed significantly over the years, so in some ways this was a good opportunity to articulate that, and I thought I’d share with the class.

[Trigger warnings/content notes for discussion of domestic abuse, LGBT+ teen suicide, and institutional racism and ableism.]

One of the elements of my current PhD research involves looking into whether and how the internet facilitates political activism (in the widest possible sense of the term, because the personal is political), particularly for minorities and otherwise marginalised groups. Let me give you some examples.

One in four lesbian, gay and bisexual young people have no adult they can talk to about their sexuality, either at home or at school[1]. Many of them will therefore turn to the internet for information and support. For many LGBT+ kids today, the first space where they will feel safe being themselves will be online.

If you happen to be experiencing institutional racism from the police, or feel that you’re being treated unfairly by the JobCentre because of your disability, again, the internet is a likely place you will turn to for information, support, and to find other people with similar experiences.

Or, if you’re a woman experiencing street harassment on a daily basis, or in an abusive relationship, you may also seek help online.

There are many places on the internet that will provide you with practical advice or support: How do I come out to my Mum? How do I make a safety plan in case I need to leave my husband? What particular combination of forms and shibboleths might make the JobCentre treat me like a human being?

But there’s something else that happens too, something incredibly powerful, when you tell your story, and someone else stands up and says, “Me too.” Because suddenly, what you’re going through isn’t just a private, personal issue, something that is wrong with you and that you need to deal with on your own. You become aware that your issue affects many other people, that it is a social and political issue, and you can talk about it, and organise, and bring it into the public sphere.

Except, things work rather differently when you’re under surveillance.
Let’s go back to the queer kid, whose only access to the internet is at school. Half of it is filtered anyway, and the other half is monitored. Would you type “How do I know if I’m trans?” into Google if you knew that one of your teachers could see it an tell your Mum; if the horrendous possible consequences include being kicked out of home, or being subjected to serious physical violence?

How much more difficult is campaigning for justice if you’re the Lawrence family? If the police not only botched the investigation of your son’s murder but, to add insult to injury, put you under surveillance to make sure you weren’t rocking the boat too much?
And what of the woman in the abusive relationship, who knows that the police have access to data on how and when she used her phone, what she typed into Google; who knows that cops are two to four times more likely to be domestic abusers? Even if her partner isn’t a cop, she may rightly feel it’s too risky to seek help online.

The real problem here is that minorities and marginalised groups are disproportionately hit by surveillance. Partly this is a structural effect of the fact that we rely more than others on the internet as a place to meet and organise. But it’s also because some of these groups are specifically and systematically targeted for surveillance by the security services. If you happen to be a person of colour, or your name happens to me Ahmed or Muhammad, you bet that your data is subjected to much more scrutiny by the security services than if you’re a white, middle-class dude called John Smith. This is regardless of whether you have anything to hide.

But not only does surveillance have a chilling effect on the kinds of issues that can be discussed and brought to public attention; not only does it disproportionately hit minorities and marginalised groups; surveillance costs lives.

One in four LGB young people have attempted suicide, and nearly half of trans kids. Two women every week are killed by current or former intimate partners. And if surveillance plays even the slightest role in these people not being able to access help, or meet others with similar experiences, or organise and campaign, then surveillance is at least partially responsible for those deaths.

And that’s why I care.


I would also like to address one question that came up in the Q&A, which is “How can we find the right balance between privacy and security?” This is one of those tropes about privacy that just refuses to die: the notion that somehow there is a trade-off, and that if only we were willing to give up that little bit extra of our rights, we would somehow be magically safe from the big bad terrorists. If this is how you conceptualise your own privacy and security, I would really like you to question the implicit assumptions behind the privacy vs security dichotomy. I would particularly like you to ask yourself who you need to be safe from. And I would like to posit to you that if terrorism is genuinely the greatest threat to your existence, then you live an incredibly privileged life indeed. For most of us the threats come from elsewhere. With 45% of women experiencing domestic abuse, sexual assault or stalking at some point in our lives, the existential threats we face come predominantly – and unfortunately – from men. And if you’re a protester in Ferguson, MO, tonight, then by far the single greatest existential threat for you comes from your own police force. These are not issues we will solve with more surveillance.

[1] These figures are from Stonewall. I am not aware of similar figures existing for trans youth, but suspect they are higher.

[Guest post] How we tried to prevent incidents at a hacker camp, why we expected not to succeed, and how we failed.

Creating safe and inclusive spaces within geek and hacker culture is something I struggle with fairly frequently. See, for instance, this from last June. I believe those of us involved in similar endeavours need to talk about it openly and frequently: to each other to share best practice, to event organisers to ask them for support, and to our geek and hacker communities in general to achieve a cultural shift. The !!Con team reflected powerfully on their experiences and failings. Below is an equally powerful piece from my friend Drcable around similar themes. I would like to thank Drcable for sharing their thoughts and ask all of you to continue this conversation.

(Drcable is a cyborg who just wants to be left alone. Unfortunately, society sucks and is the most interesting problem to solve, so they ended up a designer and activist)

Over the last summer, I volunteered with the safer spaces team of a European hacker camp, trying to prevent and deal with any incidents that could arise from putting approximately 1000 mostly white, mostly men in a field.

We expected incidents. We tried to prevent them. Broadly, we were successful. There was one incident which I would class as preventable without the need for a massive cultural shift, and several other incidents which, while absolutely not acceptable, would have been unpreventable given current society, without significantly changing the nature of the event.

Most of my experiences of safer spaces work involve more radical, explicitly feminist events, at which the norms of behavior are significantly different to those of the broader patriarchal, racist, and generally oppressive, society. Hacker camps are not – for all their talk of “disruption” and “freedom” – like this. They are a place for white dudes to fly quadcopters and shout about text editors over 8-bit live coded music.

The camp had a safer spaces policy that is pretty typical for the tech world- cribbed off and credited to the geek feminism wiki, worded to not cause a fuss but still be useful. The camp did not have centrally organized areas, meetings, or workshops for oppressed groups. It did not have a policy of banning people from the camp who had caused disruption at other events.
Any place which does not explicitly filter for feminist engagement, or by experience of oppression, is going to reproduce patriarchal biases. Sometimes this filtering happens by self selection- advertise yourself as a feminist event, among a feminist social circle, and you’re going to get people engaged with feminism attending. Sometimes it is explicit: put up a “no cis people” sign, and you’re going to dramatically reduce, if not remove, the number of transphobic incidents.

Of course, filtering, of either type, is never enough. “Engaged with feminism” can easily fill your event with racists, homophobes and transphobes. “No cis people” is well documented to produce racist and indeed transmisogynist spaces.

Filtering will produce awareness of certain biases among your attendees. However, it is impossible to produce awareness and full understanding of all biases, because it is impossible to experience every form of oppression. People have unique experiences and can be blinkered to others’ experience of the same oppression.

Hacker camps do not filter, because unless you want there to be twenty people rather than a thousand camped in your field, then there’s little point. Hacker camps, when they provide the slightest nod to people other than white men, use safer spaces policies.

Safer spaces policies are there not to prevent the reproduction of all patriarchal biases, but to prevent their manifestation in violence- verbal, mental or physical. They’re there to lower the cost of participation for people from oppressed groups from “I’m going to get slurs shouted at me all day” to “I’m going to feel slightly out of place”.

Of course, they also have a second purpose – they are a form of fliter, a message saying “we’re not actively violent towards oppressed groups and if you are then you’re not welcome”. How effective this is depends on how well the policy is publicised. If it’s on the front page, impossible to miss when you buy your ticket, then it’s a more effective filter.

Safer spaces policies are not going to be 100% effective at removing acts of violence. Because your selection of society inevitably reproduces some of society’s oppressive biases, given enough opportunities for an incident, there is going to be one.

That is my take on most of the incidents that were reported to us, post event[1] . These incidents where casual misogyny of the kind that is usual under patriarchal societies. They would have been impossible to predict, and without significantly more filtering, were likely to happen. This does not mean that they should have happened, or that we should not learn from them or use them to educate people about what can happen in future. These were not “minor” issues. They are not an acceptable cost of doing business, but they are an expected one.
There was one incident that was preventable. Vinay Gupta had proposed a talk, and it was accepted, and made it past light vetting by the organizers.

Vinay is known, at least among women and other oppressed groups in technology and political circles for his misogyny, transphobia and racism. However he had never, to the organizers’ knowledge, done this from the stage. So obviously it was a great idea to give him this opportunity.

The safer spaces team was convened very close to the event (approximately one month prior) and had not been involved in talk selection.

We discovered he had been involved because I was going through the program, and noticed his name. It was a 100% fluke, outside any protocol. After much debate, we decided that there was less chance of an incident occurring if we chose to let his talk continue, though we were clear that he should not have been invited in the first place. While this decision may seem counter-intuitive, and with hindsight was incorrect, the main factor influencing this was the fact that he is known for taking call outs badly and loudly, often responding with slurs and (verbal and/or mental) violence.

This decision, along with the recommendation that someone from the safer spaces team attend the talk and be ready to deal with any incident, was passed on to the organizing team and they accepted it, and the criticism that he should not have been invited.

Before the talk, I identified myself to the stage crew, warned them that he had a reputation, and said that we might need to deal with an incident from stage. The stage crew were aware of parts of his reputation, but had not been briefed by the organizing team[2] . We agreed to be ready to cut his mic if things went bad.

[cn next paragraph: descriptions of rape apologism and anti-semitism/nazi and fascist references]

During the talk, he made references to a “nerd reich” or “nuclear powered american reich”, along with describing being charged a lot of money by your plumber as “being raped by your plumber”.

The decision was made by me (as a member of the safer spaces team) not to ask for his mic to be cut – a disturbance on this scale would have done more damage than good. My call, if you were there then feel free to disagree with it, and discuss it with me if you really want to.
I requested, coming up on the end of his talk, that an apology be made from the stage team. This was instantly accepted by the team and the moment he left the stage, someone went up and issued an apology for “inappropriate language”.

Were I giving the apology, it would specifically have called out his rape apologism and anti-semitism. Later on, at a meeting with the organising team, it was made clear that he will not speak at the same event again. Overall, the response to the incident was satisfactory.
It is however clear to me that we should not have allowed him on stage. He had a history and we made a bad call, partially in the hope that it would all go away. We should have dealt with it before he had the chance to do damage.

However, the reaction of the camp to not allowing a well known speaker and activist on stage would not have been pretty. The camp was not a feminist event, and decisions like that would have triggered days of mailing list outrage, twitter rants, and on-site tension.

The culture of the camp was not in a place where such a decision would have been considered normal, and we allowed that culture to affect the process. The system we’re operating within will always affect our decisions, however we didn’t make sure that there was a sufficient separation between the culture of the camp and the conduct of the organizers. This did damage to vulnerable attendees.

This separation is precisely the reason we have formal policies and separate teams. There are complex reasons why this separation fails, from lack of support from the organising team to activists not having the energy or mental health to deal with the demands (self care and the pressures of safer spaces are another post, and a long one).

At the end of the day, we must always consider our vulnerable attendees first and any other concerns, those of the team and of optics, for example, must be held back for a later date.

I must end this section with a warning: Vinay Gupta is not a person who can be trusted to speak at your event. He is a well known misogynist, anti-semite, transphobe and rape apologist. By giving him a platform you are exposing vulnerable members of your audience to possible violence and sending a message that you do not care about us. You cannot do this and claim to be a safe space.

There were other failures in the safer spaces team. We were all white(passing). Our disabilities were few, and mild (we were also tasked with dealing with access). We were small, and did not have resources to dedicate to education of the attendees, which may have prevented some of the other incidents. These are, to my mind, problems of hacker culture. A safer spaces team is never going to be as well resourced as it will at a comparable feminist event, and even feminist events muck up, as wiscon showed us.

A safer spaces team will never succeed 100%. There will always be failures as long as the current societal norms are oppressive. Whether it’s the white guy with dreads who you just can’t get the org team to kick out, or the transphobe who shoots a nasty look at your friend, you’re never going to eradicate oppression in a weekend within one person, let alone a thousand.

Broadly, I think that the team did a good job. We can learn from our mistakes and you can learn from them.

[1] We had no reported incidents during the event, several were reported later, and dealt with.
[2] We had not requested this, through the organizing team had flagged him as a possible incident on their own during vetting.