Sexism and the divisive nature of progressive politics

PUBLISHED: 13:00 31 January 2018

Last week's New European frpnt page came under attack on Twitter for underrepresentation of women. Photo: Twitter.

Last week's New European frpnt page came under attack on Twitter for underrepresentation of women. Photo: Twitter.

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After The New European was accused of sexism by a leading feminist, ZOE WILLIAMS explores the divisive nature of progressive politics and the purity it often demands.

If there is one thing you should never do, after an argument on Twitter, it’s to go on about it, afterwards, at greater length, to people who weren’t even there. The very last thing you should do is connect it to a different Twitter-row, as if to lift it out of the realms of personal chagrin by turning it into a trend. It makes you look like a serial-arguer with awesome capacity for a grudge, who will sacrifice any amount of dignity for the sake of mad beef (for the older reader: mad beef is a limitless supply of animus, ideally reciprocated: so, “we have mad beef” is preferable to “I have mad beef with him”). But there’s one thing worse than any of that, which is to try and have a large, abstract debate against an invisible opponent, without admitting where it came from. So this all came from an argument on Twitter.

The feminist campaigner and activist Caroline Criado Perez made the case that The New European was “the same as the old European; a bunch of white men”. Some of us said it wasn’t, because it’s not. The regular contributors are 50:50, male to female, which is pretty unusual, and when I say “pretty”, I’m just striking a mellow tone. It is really unusual.

A study by Women in Journalism last summer found that female bylines across UK newspapers account for only 25% of the total, a figure which was more or less unchanged (88:22) since a study by City University London from five years before. To make a more informal observation, that gender imbalance is very often compounded by a subject segregation, where men get the economy, Westminster, sports, international news, philosophy, major constitutional events and transport, while women get parenting, social care, fashion, food, shopping, weather and theatre. Sorry, that was unfair.

A lot of men review theatre. Topical segregation doesn’t happen on The New European because we’re all, broadly speaking, banging on about the same thing.

The argument wasn’t quelled: now the problem was the names on the cover, of which six were white men and one was a white woman. A head-to-head between Alastair Campbell and Nigel Farage; pieces by Matt Kelly, Michael White and Andrew Adonis; and an article by Angela Jameson.

At this point, I thought it was petty. Straplines are determined by the news agenda, and the population of the news is governed by wider and more structural forces than the whim of the editor. To put that more simply, except for Theresa May and Angela Merkel, the political landscape of Brexit is overwhelmingly male. Inevitably, then, the news agenda, some weeks, will have a cast list that fails to respect the gender split of the country at large.

You could argue that a very male-dominated political context needs more female writers as a counterweight, whereby equilibrium is restored by one gender analysing the other. I think this would be a sham; creating a microcosm of balance wouldn’t do anything to change the macrocosm. That’s not where the argument went, incidentally.

In real life, it took a downturn: Criado Perez accused me of being the new Sarah Vine. Nothing has stung so much since my ex-husband said my ego was like Scafell Pike, you think you’ve reached the top but then you turn around and there’s another bit (for the younger reader, Scafell Pike is a mountain in the Lake District).

Normally, that would be the end of the conversation; nobody ever wants to get to the bottom of a debate about diversity in the media because the real imbalance is money, opportunity and class. It’s better if there are as many women talking as men, but better still if there’s better racial diversity; all that is pointless if there’s only space for people of the same educational and background.

The honourable way to make space for the political debate we need is for the white and privately-educated to step off, and leave the field open for other voices. Yet I don’t want to step off, for self-serving and arrogant reasons, that I love what I do and think it’s meaningful, and for better reasons, that I think to withdraw – “tend your own garden”, as Paul Krugman put it, after Trump was elected – wouldn’t create space for the necessary voices, it would just leave a vacuum to be filled by the voices that don’t believe in diversity as a meaningful goal at all.

This, I’d venture, is how everybody on the progressive side feels: we all want broad system change without us as a martyr to it. As Julie Burchill said so well (for the middle-aged reader: you remember Julie Burchill): “In the long term, I’m a communist. But in the meantime, you’re not just having mine”. It’s not the best position, lacking altruism and internal coherence, but it is a reasonable one. The idea that, if you want things to change for the better, you have to be perfectly selfless before you start is a relatively recent one.

It feeds – of course it does! – into another Twitter argument, this one about whether Paul Mason should charge £20 for a book that was about a time in the future where people “exchanged ideas for free”.

It was a variant on an argument even older than the one about gender equality: if you’re so lefty, how come you have money? Why do you have shoes, when poor children can’t afford shoes? Why is Al Gore flying to Copenhagen (for the biggest environmental conference in human history) if he’s so green? How come George Orwell wasn’t starving (oh, no, wait, sometimes he was)?

It’s a peculiar curse of the left, that if you follow its reasoning – not to absurdum, simply to its logical endpoint – then everybody fails. Very few are living frugally enough that their lavishness isn’t an insult to the very case they’re making; perilously few are so committed to diversity that they will stop talking for long enough for a thousand different flowers to bloom. How do you cut through it, without forgetting the pluralism that makes the whole thing worthwhile? And why doesn’t the right suffer this at all?

To go, improbably, to a military analogy: fighting people squabble with one another irresistibly, marines against the army, the navy against the RAF, regiment against regiment, right down to the level of the platoon, they could suck an argument out of their thumb; until confronted with an actual enemy that wants to kill them, whereupon their comradeship is unbreachable.

Progressive politics, being of its nature pluralistic and empathetic, dislikes the very idea of a homogenous enemy. Even if it can conceive of an enemy, be it a Conservative government, a UKIP project gone horribly wrong or the patriarchy, it finds it uncomfortable to concentrate on it, and easier, always, to find fine differences within itself.

It is this very spirit that I love, the distrust of unquestioning allegiance, the preference for complicated battles over simple ones, an innate reluctance to accept what is ultimately an authoritarian line, that we park all differences and go for the kill.

These internecine wrangles look like fault lines but actually build humility and resilience. Could we be better? All of us could be better. Should we stop talking? Yes, but we can’t, so at least put it to use.

Zoe Williams writes political commentary, interviews and reviews for the Guardian and the New Statesman

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