2013: The year of the hollow gesture

There is a certain fashion now to define a year and What It All Means as a comment piece. And so, in an attempt to be down with the kids, here is what the last year has meant to me.

To me, 2013 has been a year of Big Grand Media Gestures which do absolutely fuck all to change any of the system, as Big Grand Media Gestures are wont to do. Most recently, we saw this with the pardon of Alan Turing. Almost 60 years after the state drove Turing to suicide through their homophobic laws and “experimental” forced hormone administration, they have issued a royal pardon. Alan Turing is forgiven for being gay, to rapturous applause from precisely no-one paying attention.

It is not hard to see the hollowness of this gesture. Alan Turing was but one of the thousands of men persecuted in this fashion in the past, and it just so happens that he was the one who made himself most useful to history. This pardon was stage-managed by Chris Grayling, a man who believes B&Bs should be able to turn away gay couples. Homophobia is not a thing of the past, it is a thing which is still actively perpetuated by those in power, and they should be the ones on their knees, begging for forgiveness for the wrongs of the past, the present and the future. They should grovel at Turing’s grave, and prostrate themselves before those who–alive or dead–still bear the convictions that Turing did. One cannot magic this away, and all of the bits of paper rubber-stamped by the Queen in the world will not make up for it.

Maybe, instead of pardoning Turing, they should have stuck him on a banknote as a convicted criminal. Alan Turing, the queer who saved the world, convicted criminal. After all, it’s clear they wanted a war hero on a banknote, and unfortunately the only one they could think of was Churchill, the notorious racist and architect of genocide, whose major achievement was appearing the lesser of two evils next to Hitler. It was this that pissed me off when the face of the new five pound note was announced earlier this year.

Churchill’s jowly visage will be bumping off Elizabeth Fry, a social reformer who made conditions better for prisoners. A large campaign with a feminist flavour was outraged by this, framed only around how we need to have another woman on a banknote. Eventually, the Bank of England issued a press release earlier than they otherwise would have saying they’d be sticking Jane Austen on a tenner. Job done, women!

Except, once again, we see a certain hollowness. Elizabeth Fry is the sort of person who, in current conditions, would never make her way on to a banknote. She saw humanity in prisoners, while today the government are doing all they can to make the lives of those in prison as much of a living hell as they can get away with. The faces on our banknotes are a political decision. That is why they got rid of the woman who cared. It’s why they replaced her with a warmonger. And it is why they were perfectly happy to use the image of the relatively-inoffensive Jane Austen.

The state’s response to the banknotes campaign was a hollow gesture, but the campaign itself had a certain hollowness in a climate where many women just need some banknotes in our purses. Austerity is hitting women hardest, and many of us can’t hold on to a tenner for long enough to care whose face is on it.

The other large feminist-flavoured media campaign of the year has been No More Page Three campaign. I’ve written before about the myriad problems with it, so I’ll spare the screed and link you to this and this instead. As with the banknote campaign, I don’t doubt that those involved think they are doing good work, but as with the banknotes campaign, they are asking for something paltry which does nothing to change any of the underlying social conditions. It is for this reason that such campaigns are popular with the media. No More Page Three has been supported by almost every media outlet, with the notable exception being The Sun (obviously). Let us remember that the media is owned and run by the rich and white and male, who have a vested interest in the system changing as little as possible. And they’ll allow attention to be thrown over such campaigns because they know it won’t unseat them from their comfy thrones. It benefits them to reduce feminist discourse to simple requests for a page of a newspaper to be removed, or a woman–any woman–to be depicted on a tenner.

The media support is a hollow gesture, and playing the media support game is, ultimately, hollow feminism. It’s misdirected noise. There is a lot of good work going largely unnoticed, as Lola Olokosie notes here.

What we need is a revolution. Now, I’m not talking about the kind of revolution envisioned by Russell Brand, the kind which just magically comes if we wish hard enough for it. Brand’s words were hollow, only words, with little thought for what he was actually asking for other than something else. To watch people shitting themselves with joy over a millionaire sexist waffling an analysis which might have been pretty good if it came from a twelve year old was absurd. Brand wasn’t bringing the idea of revolution to the masses, he just said the word “revolution” on the telly.

Those of us who actually talk the detail and the process, those of us who translate these ideas into praxis–we are labelled at best “divisive” and at worst “criminals”. Even articulating the problems is frowned upon, so how can we build a solution?

These are the things that are likely to come up in the nostalgia shows of the future when we talk of 2013. These grand, yet hollow gestures, this token resistance. I am not saying it is a year where nothing has happened, because loads has. From the achievements of Black feminism to the gains made by the 3Cosas campaign, small victories are being won to little, if any popular attention. And this is what I hope to see more of in years to come, turning our backs on the Big Grand Media Gesture and moving towards the highly unmarketable organising and activism that is essential to immediate survival, and building a better future.

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