Monday, 30 June 2014

Why I'm a feminist Wings Over Scotland fan

To be honest, I started writing this post a couple of months ago but I didn't have the guts to finish it until I read this amazing blog post by Wee Ginger Dug. He really inspired me to get a move on and publish this, so here's why I'm a feminist and also a dedicated reader of the site Wings Over Scotland and a supporter of its founder, Stuart Campbell.

Some readers will be aware of accusations against Stu Campbell of 'transphobia, homophobia and misogyny'. I won't get into the first two claims too much since I think that conversation is for gay people, such as Wee Ginger Dug, and trans people too, but as a life-long feminist and someone who has taken part in feminist activism over the last few years I can say that Campbell isn't a misogynist in my eyes. Of course, like all of us he's been raised in a patriarchal society and he has doubtless internalised some misogynist values, as have we all, but his behaviour in public life is nearly always laudable and, in my view, always at least excusable.

At the risk of going on about trans rights when I said I wouldn't, the only criticism I'm going to link to here is that published on the A Thousand Flowers blog concerning Campbell's misgendering of Chelsea Manning. This article, unlike some of the others against Campbell, is based on the evidence of a Twitter conversation and never descends into mindless vitriol. It's the most fair-minded of the criticisms against him and there was one line that particularly stood out for me on the subject of misgendering and trans rights:

We know by now, surely? We know, don’t we?! Apparently we don’t. 

I would just add, 'no, we REALLY don't'. There are communities of feminists and activists who share a detailed and nuanced understanding of trans rights, but outside of these right-on pockets progress continues to be limited. I think Campbell's lack of knowledge is completely unsurprising given his background  and hardly constitutes an incitement to violence; to me, if anything, it suggests the need for awareness of trans rights to be taught in school (I certainly never heard trans people ever mentioned in my school, let alone their rights) and for greater awareness throughout society of concepts like misgendering and the use of pronouns.

His defensive response to being corrected has probably caused as much ire as the original tweet, but it's hardly news that people act defensively when challenged on the internet. Only one side of the conversation is shown on the A Thousand Flowers blog so we're lacking context. Either way though, I think this kind of reaction is something that we, as feminists and as people living in a society, should think about. People don't like being told how to express themselves. There is a debate to be had about how we can promote equal rights and discourage microaggressions without becoming the language police. And this isn't a 'more flies with honey' appeal, it's because there's something a bit totalitarian about judging people on their failure to adopt your language wholesale. A human being is not a sum of all the things they've ever posted on the internet. I study English at university but I don't think you need to have an in-depth knowledge of the subject to realise that treating a person as a text is dehumanizing and in this case has led to efforts (albeit counter-productive efforts) to dismiss someone's life work, to kick someone out of public life and render them verboten on the basis of a handful of out-of-context comments. Remarkably only a handful, given that we are talking about a white, male, videogames journalist who has been on the internet basically since it became available for public use. I've been on Facebook for ten years and I'm pretty sure that if someone were to trawl through my posts in the same way as Campbell's have been analysed they would find many things that could be read as sexist or homophobic, especially when taken out of context. It's a pretty bland life on the internet (or off it, for that matter) that leaves no traces of controversy anywhere in its annals.

There's also something a bit worrying about calls to boycott Campbell's site. Now, if you don't like the tone of the website or if you find Campbell's statements elsewhere to be unacceptable to your politics then fair enough, don't go on his site. But I've been recently made to feel by a couple of people that I'm somehow less of a woman or less of a feminist for failing to adopt their position. It's worth pointing out that there are no ads on Campbell's site for third parties, so he doesn't get paid by the click. He only gets paid if you actively donate money to him or buy his merchandise. It seems like the only reason to 'boycott' the site, therefore, is that it's not your cup of tea (a personal decision that you're totally entitled to make) or because you don't want to stroke his ego. The second reason seems to be cutting off your nose to spite your face - I personally don't care about Campbell's ego and the thought of giving it a wee electronic stroke now and again isn't going to put me off perusing the best and most thorough analysis of the media narrative that we are lucky enough to have in the debate, despite the slightly creepy imagery that I've just used. I feel like that's my decision to make and, once again, I think we should consider our position when we find ourselves proscribing other people's behaviour so closely when no harm can come of using this website.

So, finally to the Wings Over Scotland website itself. I consider this website to be one of the safest spaces for feminists on the internet. Seriously. When allegations about 'misogyny' on Campbell's part first came out I was concerned. I've read pretty much every article on the website for the past 5 months or so, I check it nearly every day, but could something have slipped my attention? My first reaction was to go to the website and search for Johann Lamont's name. Anyone who has spent the shortest amount of time as a feminist on the internet will know that nothing brings out the sexist abuse like a female politician on the 'wrong' side of the debate. However, criticism of Johann Lamont based on appearance or gendered language is notably muted on the site. Not only that, but when one ventures below the line the comments are remarkably short of gender-based criticism. There are a few examples of people saying 'hey, where did my comment go?' so my suspicion is that, rather than Wings readers being universally gender-blind or at least too polite to mention it, Campbell is doing a great job of moderating the website into a nice place to be. This is on a website that had advertising pulled from the Glasgow underground after a single complaint that the site (the site mind, not Campbell himself) was 'transphobic' and 'misogynist'. You can see why Wings fans were a bit miffed about the injustice of that, especially given that the advertising was paid for with their money.

You might think 'okay, so the guy isn't a bigot. But still, why have you spent all this time defending him, don't you have better things to do?'. Well the answer to that question is probably, but I couldn't help myself. I have never met Stu Campbell irl, but when I do I'll be shaking his hand. I am utterly grateful to him for the work he's done. Over the last few months his site has been one of the best resources for me as a campaigner and as a fledgling nationalist. The site is funny, and moving and passionate - partly because of the distinctive tone adopted by Campbell, one that some of his critics seem to have confused with a wish to make the site all about him. It's well-researched and referenced and accessible. Basically, the site represents part of the future of Scotland that I want to see. Let's remind ourselves (or, in case any of those folk are reading who proudly say they don't visit Wings while lambasting those of us that do, here you go for the first time):

On gay marriage and the SNP:

This blog can think of no greater tribute to bestow on any government than that it’s prepared to lose votes, and considerable numbers of them, to do the right thing. We salute it without reservation.

On feminism:

It's traditional when one is male and advancing supposedly-controversial arguments like this to proclaim oneself to be a feminist. Well, I'm not. I despise all forms of sectarianism and discrimination and I always have. I'm an egalitarian – I believe men and women of all colours and persuasions to be fundamentally and self-evidently of equal worth and merit and entitled to all and exactly the same rights.

Of course, I would love it if everyone understood the goals of feminism and proclaimed themselves unreserved allies - but being for equal rights is my second favourite choice. This is the man who has been subject to so many, many accusations on the internet over the last wee while in the name of feminism. I can't remember such vitriol ever being aimed at David Cameron from the feminist community, even though his policies are closing rape crisis centres, and leaving women unable to feed their kids, and getting rid of public sector jobs that would otherwise be giving security and decent pensions to women in Scotland. This is why critics of Wings are thought, by some, to be unionists in varying levels of disguise. Why else would Wings be your target? He's just a normal guy with a very special website. Don't use it if you don't want to, but please respect my choice to consider him a friend. He's helping us get closer to a Yes vote, to childcare that doesn't cost an arm and a leg and a would-be career. Towards a society that doesn't target women by bringing in policies that specifically discriminate against them. I see Scottish independence as a step towards a more equal society, and I know Wings does too from all the hours I've spent on the site. Campbell is an honorary ally in my eyes, whether he likes it or not, and there's a pint with his name on it if he ever finds himself with some time on his hands in Dundee.


  1. Excellent blog. My only quibble would be that instead of tackling "Trans Rights" in schools, to my mind, a far more productive route would be to teach a bit about Gender Dysphoria in schools. Once folk fully understand transgender issues as the cure for a medical condition like many others, the prejudice will fade away.

    As I argued here, hystrionic attacks often written in the jargon of a clique, are not the way to bring folk on side.

    1. Thanks very much for posting Roddy - I actually saw the link to your blog under Wee Ginger Dug's article and I read it the other day - I probably should have linked to you too in the article since I'm sure you subconsciously inspired me. I had something about gender dysphoria in one draft of this post but I didn't want to get into the nitty gritty too much for fear of hurting some feelings - thanks for posting here, it's really helpful.