Whose Side Are We On? On being an activist academic

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In asking whether sociologists should have values or be value-free Howard S Becker famously asked ‘Whose side are we on?’ His conclusions were that we should be on the side of the powerless and oppressed: that as academics, social scientists had a duty to examine social structures and the effect they had on ordinary people.

At the time that was a significant challenge to the academy. Founded on principles of reason and rationality, most disciplines tried to represent themselves as free from moral or political imperatives. Particularly in the wake of World War Two, where German scientists and engineers were co-opted into carrying out science to further Nazi ideals, the independence of the academy from political taint was held to be vital.

However, what Becker was pointing out was that the academy does not exist in social isolation. It is part of the social fabric of a society: educating its elite, informing discourse and policy. We make moral and political choices all the time: in choosing who we educate and how, what we research and what we don’t. To claim moral neutrality in the name of academic independence is simply to hide the fact that we are part of the elite and reinforcing their power.

I work in social policy, specifically around issues of gender, disability and age. Feminism, disability rights and gerontology all have a moral and ethical framework that expects academics to challenge power relations: particularly to challenge misogyny, ableism and ageism. If in our research we do NOT aim to highlight and tackle oppression, then we are accused of being ‘academic parasites’: using people simply for our own reputation and to reinforce our privileged position. Many social science and humanities disciplines expect a critical stance from their academics: to examine and critique the world not just as we see it, but to acknowledge and reflect on our own place in the world we research.

So when I engage in research that involves gender, disability or age I always engage in it as a political process. I am not just interested in analysing the social policies pertinent to women, disabled and older people. I am interested in finding out what social processes oppress them, and how those can be tackled. And I always try to reflect on my own position in that research: not just as an academic, but as a woman, a disabled person and a carer.

Many academics are also activists. The campaigns against climate change, to protect endangered species, to prevent domestic abuse, to tackle racism in policing were all founded on academic research, to name but a few. Academics also have a long history of crossing the divide to the third sector –  in my field the Fawcett Society, Inclusion Scotland and the National Carers Organisation have all been led by academics. There is also a long history of academics becoming politicians: Harold Wilson and Enoch Powell were former dons, and over 20 current MPs hold PhDs.

The current ‘impact’ agenda further supports close collaboration between activism and the academy: in the last REF, over 45% of impact case studies from my own discipline involved working with policy makers, and over half the universities entered reported ongoing collaborations with the third sector. Evidence-based policy and practice attempts to use research to inform social policy in proactive ways, and academics are usually very enthusiastic about its possibilities.

However, activism has its dark side, particularly in the age of social media and the resurgence of right-wing politics. As an openly feminist woman in academia I attract the usual misogynistic attacks in mainstream and social media. During the 2014 Scottish referendum I was carrying out independent research funded by the ESRC on what the different outcomes might mean for care policy and gender equality. I found that nations who had better gender equality outcomes, and used social care policies for that purpose, had gender equality enshrined as a national value in their constitutions. As a potentially newly independent country, Scotland could have that, and thereby acquire a powerful lever to effect policy changes. (Of course that alone would not make an independent Scotland a gender equal country and I was careful to stress that too). This finding marked me as a politically motivated independence supporter (I wasn’t) and attracted a fair amount of social media attacks from ‘cyberyoons’ (social media commentators against Scottish independence). Some took the trouble to track down my institution and make a formal complaint – which luckily my institution carefully replied to in my defence. I took it as a mark that I got ‘cybernatted’ almost as often as I got ‘cyberyooned’ that I was getting the balance of academic impartiality about right.

When I recently crossed the divide from activism to politics and ran for election in the 2017 snap general election, representing the Women’s Equality Party, I did so to highlight the gender-blindness of the main political parties. I campaigned on areas I knew about: social care policy, violence against women and women’s political representation. I was stalked, harassed, had frighteningly explicit pieces written about me in newspapers, and one men’s rights activist issued death threats on his website and targeted not just me but also my colleagues and students.

It’s hard to say whether that was because I was a woman, or a feminist, or a politician (all of whom regularly are the victims of hatred on social media). But my political opponents in particular hated that I was drawing on 25 years of research in my campaigning. In one hustings, after I had criticised the ‘dementia tax’ policy of the Conservatives, my opponent shouted at me ‘NO-ONE KNOWS THE SOLUTION TO SOCIAL CARE, NOT EVEN THE SO-CALLED PROFESSOR!’. Actually, I do know A solution based on years of comparative social policy research, and I earned the title ‘Professor’ through my international reputation for my research. But hey, all’s fair in love and war and politics.

Clearly as a society we value academics getting their hands dirty and engaging in the real world. The ESRC funded me specifically to find real world solutions to real world issues to help policy makers prepare for possible constitutional change, not sit in an ivory tower writing academic theories that no-one outside the academy would read or understand. The current REF will apportion 25% of its research funding on the basis of the non-academic impact the research has. We want and need our academics to use their knowledge for the greater good, and sometimes using that knowledge is a consciously political act.

But we need to protect them. If we value their expertise and their independence, we need to ensure that they are able to not just research the risky subjects, but take the risks necessary to get their findings into policy and practice. Academics should never be censured for taking activist or political positions on things they know about.

However, as academics we also have an ethical and moral responsibility to not step outside the boundaries of our research or claim knowledge we don’t have. The current problems with Personal Independence Payments for disabled people can be directly traced to psychological academic theories being misused in a social context. The depiction of Scottish independence supporters as far right nationalists can be directly traced to a misuse of political and historical theory about nationalist movements particularly in the twentieth century. The list goes on.

We should expect protection from our institutions and from society, we should fight for the things we know to be ‘true’ based on our research, we should fight to keep our independent critical stance. No matter what Michael Gove thinks, we need experts now more than ever in tackling some of the complex social issues that face our society. But we should not claim to be experts in everything or to have the ‘right’ answers, or to think that our status as elites gives us permission to ride roughshod over the electorate, or third sector activists, or people who are experts in things as a result of their lived experiences. We should lend our expertise to amplifying their voices: we SHOULD still be on the side of the oppressed. Otherwise we are simply reinforcing our own privilege.

Travelling as a disabled professor: Ableism in academia and Nordic welfare

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Photo by Asad Photo Maldives on Pexels.com

This week I had to ask the Department of Work and Pensions Access to Work scheme to fund me taking my disability assistant to a conference on long term care in Copenhagen. They asked why I needed to go, and to take her. I explained that part of my job as a professor to attend international conferences, and that due to the fibromyalgia I couldn’t navigate my way through unfamiliar places, and I needed help with transport.

My assessor said ‘I didn’t know disabled people could be professors.’

Of course, I only thought of Professor Stephen Hawking twenty minutes after that – at the time I was too gobsmacked that the someone working for Access to Work (whose purpose is to support disabled people IN WORK) was surprised that disabled people could be academics. It, after all, a job that involves a lot of sitting down, and lends itself to the kind of practical and physical support that Access to Work can easily fund.

But the ableism didn’t stop there. Because I needed her to be with me at the conference to help me find my way around, and negotiate things like lunch queues and taxis back to the hotel, my disability assistant needed to be registered. Access to Work were obviously not going to fund her full conference fee: she was there to help me, not listen to papers on long-term care policy.

However, there was no way to register an assistant. At a conference designed specifically for academics to share research on care policy and practice, no-one had considered that a disabled person *needing* care might attend.

As part of preparing for her attendance, my assistant checked whether the boat trip planned as a social event would be accessible for me. Yes, she was assured, the gangplank was level, and there would be assistance on and off the boat. Well, good job she checked, and decided to accompany me, because access to the boat was down some very narrow and dangerous steps which I could not navigate without her help.

Copenhagen is the capital of a country which prides itself on its universal welfare state and delivery of long-term care. Citizens of Denmark have the right to access support services if they need them: unlike in the UK there is not a presumption that families will provide care and the state will only step in if families are not available or able to care.

However, in my experience of navigating airlines, transport and generally being in public as an obviously mobility-impaired disabled person, this meant Copenhagen was, in fact, curiously inaccessible. This inaccessibility stemmed, I think, from the assumption that a disabled person should not be *out*, working, but should be at home being cared for. And that if they were out, they would have a professional care worker with them.

Shops were frequently inaccessible due to steps, and when I attempted to enter using my crutches (and at times shuffling upstairs on my hands and knees because honestly, my desire for Danish pottery to take home as a present for my daughter is far stronger than any sense of personal dignity or shame), NO-ONE offered to help me. At cafes, noticing that I couldn’t balance a tray and crutches, not a single server offered to carry my tray for me. Taxi drivers seemed genuinely puzzled as to how to accommodate me and my crutch, and in fact I didn’t see a single wheelchair user or wheelchair accessible taxi the whole time I was there.  Disability assistance at Copenhagen airport seemed to rely on the presupposition that you would have a carer with you to phone the wheelchair operators when you entered the building, as information directed me to line up in an enormous queue to check my luggage in and then ask for assistance at the check-in desk. ‘The WHOLE REASON I have booked disability assistance is that I CANNOT queue or stand for long periods’ I irately told the airline staff, who seemed to think this was not their problem. ‘Could you PLEASE call disability assistance here RIGHT NOW to help me before I fall over and block the queue?’

I have travelled extensively since my mobility and memory have worsened, and in my experience, this is very common in Nordic welfare states, and very UNcommon in neoliberal Anglo Saxon regimes. In the UK, Canada, the USA and Australia, in similar situations, shopkeepers, waiters, taxi drivers, airline workers and other customer focussed personnel fall over themselves to help me. Not only that, but they seem to be able to speak to me and ask me whether they can help, and what kind of help I need, rather than either assuming they know, or asking my disability assistant.

It’s a good job that intellectually and professionally the conference was amazing, because from the point of view of an ethnographic participative study of ableism in action, it was first class. I only wish I had thought to get funding and ethical approval to write it up.

I campaign and research and write extensively about the need for a comprehensive social care system to support disabled people. If we could rely on proper support, I often argue, just as we in the UK can rely on the NHS to treat and where possible heal us without bankrupting us, then disabled people could work, could volunteer, could parent, could participate as full citizens in society without having a burden of gratitude to a piecemeal network of families, friends and supporters. If we could rely on properly funded care we could flourish.

I still wholeheartedly believe that, and my research and personal experience still supports that belief. But every time I have an experience like that in Copenhagen (and similar ones in Oslo, Stockholm, Gothenburg and Helsinki, just to prove it isn’t a uniquely Danish thing) I wonder if the paternalism of the Nordic universal welfare state isn’t somehow stifling co-operative and support in civic society. Shops don’t need to be accessible if disabled people have carers doing their shopping for them. Staff don’t need to be helpful if everyone has a paid helper with them. And I wonder if somehow we have lost the idea of *mutual* care and support: the emotional part of caring that links us all in a harsh world.

I think we all have an obligation to be caring and respectful towards each other, and not just assume that is someone else’s job.

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#transwomen, self id, #gra and protecting women and girls from #vawg

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Let’s cut through the bullshit caused by the recent media outcry over a #transwoman who raped a woman in a female only jail. Let’s put aside the myths than #transphobic women are placing razor blades under stickers to hurt those who try and remove them. Let’s ignore the violent trans rights activists who assault women. Anyone who physically assaults a woman for being a woman isn’t part of a debate I want to have.

Radical feminists themselves disagree on whether #transwomen are women: Judith Butler says they are, Germaine Greer says they aren’t. There’s a lot those women write that I agree with, and a lot I disagree with. One of the great things about being a political and academic feminist is that feminism is a constantly shifting, self-questioning, and learning movement. If the definition of a woman is someone female by birth, then clearly #transwomen are not women. But feminism is not about biology. The oppression that women experience is not because they have wombs, vaginas or breasts; it is because a patriarchal society accords women lesser status. It gives men privilege and power over women, and puts social structures in place that reinforce that privilege and power.

#Transwomen grew up in that patriarchal society. As young boys, they, consciously or subconsciously, learned from it. They grew up in a society where boys were socialised to be valued, to be strong, to have power. They weren’t probably aware – how could they be, how can you experience something that you are not experiencing? – that at the same time the girls around them were growing up and being socialised to be under valued (or only valued for what they can offer to men), to be compliant, to only have limited power. Transwomen learned appropriate roles for boys and girls, and decided that the roles for girls were more in line with how they perceived themselves. So they decided they wanted to be women.

Many of them take a brave and radical decision to physically alter themselves, to undergo hormone treatment and surgery to biologically transition to being women. This is a painful and expensive process, and requires medical intervention. As UK law stands at the minute under the 2004 Gender Recognition Act, once they have undergone that, they can legally be women. They are entitled to all the rights and protections that women who are born women are entitled to. And here is where I part ways with my ‘TERF’ sisters like Germaine Greer because to me, transwomen who have taken that radical step are women. They have experienced trauma and abuse as a result of their gender identity. They have fought hard for the right to that identity. They deserve protection as a result of that identity. I’ll march to the barricades and shout down anyone who says they don’t.

It’s not surprising that many transwomen would like to become women without having to undergo that painful physical transition. Suggested changes to the 2004 Gender Recognition Act would enable that: those born into a male body who consider themselves to be women would have to go through a process of self-identification, but would be able to be women without undergoing surgery or treatment to physically alter their bodies to become female.

And here’s the problem. These transwomen did not grow up as girls. They never experienced the socialisation that has led to women’s oppression. They do not understand why having a penis in a female changing room is threatening to other women. They were never taught that penises were weapons of rape and violence. But we who were born girls were. So many of us learned growing up that men were powerful and men could physically assault and rape you if you stepped out of line. 1 in 5 of us got to experience it first hand, with many more experiencing sexual assault, harassment, intimidation on a daily basis. Every girl I know grew up knowing not to walk home alone at night, because if we were attacked by a physically stronger man, we would be blamed.

So many of us looking at the issue of self identification and transwomen are concerned. If a woman is still biologically a man, and grew up as a boy and a man, then they still have the socialisation that says they are powerful and entitled, and they have the physical capability to act on the power and entitlement.

And the worst transactivists – the ones who use TERF as a slur, who toss around accusations of transphobia as a way of silencing women – reinforce our concerns. These are people acting like entitled men. They are shouting about their rights, and silencing anyone that disagrees with them – and when those people are women, they are using violence and aggression to reinforce their power.

Men who commit rape and domestic violence have one thing in common: not race, class or education, but an overarching sense of entitlement. The (much, much smaller) number of women who use violence against men often are the victims of abuse themselves, or in thrall to a violent partner, or suffering with alcohol, drugs and poverty. Men don’t need those structural supports to make them violent: they grow up in a world where their violence is condoned, expected and rewarded.

So letting biological males who identify as women into women-only spaces is problematic. Women-only spaces – particularly to protect vulnerable women and girls, such as those who are the survivors of domestic violence – are there to reinforce a fundamental human right for women: the right to life, and safety. That right is far more important than anyone’s right to self identify as a woman if they still have the physical capacity to act as a man.

Transwomen who grew up as boys and are still biologically men are just as likely as other biological males to be violent, abusive and have a sense of entitlement. To be clear: ie, not very. Most men DON’T rape women. Most transwomen AREN’T violent. But a violent abusive biological man who identifies as a woman is still violent and abusive, and a threat to women and girls.

And that is why, as a feminist, I do not support the proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act. Not because I am #transphobic: I neither hate nor fear transsexuals, on the contrary I fight ardently for their human rights. But because as a woman who has experienced abuse and rape, I understand, from the depths of my soul, that women and girls who need safety from abusive men need safety from men with biologically male bodies.

I support the right of #transwomen to self identify as women. And I would encourage the providers of most services and organisations aimed at women to include those who identify as women regardless of their biological status at birth or any other time.

But I would propose an amendment that states that the providers of any single-sex service recognised under the Equality Act 2010 can deny access to that service to anyone who self identifies as a woman but is still biologically male. Because those biological males are socialised as men and can abuse and rape, and my duty as a feminist is to protect them above all else. I would also point out the need for additional resources and services to protect #transwomen who are biologically male: transwomen experience domestic violence and rape at the same rates as women and need their rights to safety and protection to be recognised too.

Proviso: These are my own views, not those of the Women’s Equality Party or my employer.

 

 

#notallwomen, @WEP_uk & the #transwomen debate on #GRA

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I am so sorry that I can’t get to the WEP conference this weekend: a combination of work, family and health issues have made it impossible without a Star Trek transporter. I wanted to tell you all how much I will miss you, and also say what I would have said, had I been there.

The Women’s Equality Party stands up for all women. It is intersectional. We fight for BAME women, for disabled women, for White women, for LGBT women, for left-wing women, for right-wing women….you get the picture. Because some of us ARE those women, and all of us support them. Because we understand that inequality hurts everyone. Because we signed up the party to be part of a political force for equality. This is why we march, we campaign, we run for office, we debate, we tweet, we rattle buckets, we run marathons, we host book clubs and pub quizzes, we stand outside in the freezing rain standing up to pro-Lifers and men rights activists….

This weekend, we are going to debate the reforms to the 2004 Gender Recognition Act and its implications for the 2010 Equality Act, and the safety of women and girls. We’ve never had a topic so likely to cause division in the party, as it does in wider society. I want to say here what I would say if I were in Kettering with you this weekend.

Firstly, #trans rights are human rights. That is not ever under dispute. #Transwomen have faced discrimination and violence on the basis of their gender. #Transwomen are women, that’s not up for debate. @wep_uk must absolutely always stand up for #transwomen.

Secondly, the proposed changes allow for self identification. Now, in any other field of discrimination where there was a protected status at stake, this would never be the case. Disabled people can self identify all they like, but in order to access help and resources on the basis of disability, they must prove a ‘substantial and permanent’ impairment or condition. Victims of racial harassment and hate crimes must prove that the actions took place *on the basis of their race, sex, gender, sexuality, religion* to be considered hate crimes. None of us get to decide our own status, particularly not if we are using that status to claim discrimination or protection.

Thirdly, the #transactivism that has turned to violence, threats of violence, hate speech, no platforming etc, does not represent the views and experiences of the majority of #transwomen. Any more than extreme radical feminists who claim that all heterosexual sex is rape and all men are rapists represent the vast majority of #feminists or even any branch of #feminism that I recognise to be valid. Threats of #vawg (punch a TERF) are male pattern abusive behaviour, even if they are carried out by women. @WEP_uk must never ever tolerate that. Just as we shut down the #MRAS who want to silence women, we should shut down #TRAs who threaten violence. It’s a no brainer. TERF has become a violent slur against women and is now hate speech – even though its roots were from trans-exclusionary feminists who were questioning whether to be female – and to experience oppression on the basis of being female – was intrinsically linked to biology, which is in itself a reasonable enough question (and when you look at how much discrimination women face for being mothers there’s plenty of evidence that suggests biology and reproduction do have something to do with it). Even Wikipedia has it wrong:

Feminists holding transphobic views are called trans-exclusionary radical feminists, or “TERFs” by opponents. 

Transphobia is ‘dislike of or prejudice against transsexual or transgender people.’ Questioning whether androcentrism and biology define you as a woman is not dislike or prejudice. TERFS are not by definition transphobic. Let’s use language responsibly.

Fourthly, safe spaces for women and girls, and women-only spaces are absolutely needed. They aren’t for everyone, but then not everyone needs one. Just because as a White woman I am unlikely to experience #racism (#antisemitism is another matter!) doesn’t mean I don’t understand that sometimes BAME feminists are sick and tired of bearing the emotional labour of educating privileged White women on #blacklivesmatter. It doesn’t mean that I object to the conversation sometimes being about #race just because it doesn’t include me. And just because I am a survivor of #rape and #abuse who didn’t need or want a woman-only space doesn’t mean I don’t understand that sometimes you do need to exclude men (and that can include #transwomen with penises). Domestic abuse shelters and other areas where vulnerable women and girls need protection should never, ever have to admit an adult human being with a penis no matter what they self identify as. It is not #transphobic to say that. Nor should the accusation of transphobia be weaponised to silence women.

@wep_uk is the only political party to have compassion and kindness for each other embedded into its constitution. I am deeply proud of that. I really hope you all remember that as you debate, and it isn’t going to be easy. But I know you can do it.