Thursday, 18 April 2013

In sleep a king

. . . as a dream doth flatter, 
In sleep a king, but, waking, no such matter.
Ten years ago I would have hailed this as exactly what I wanted to say. This piece has been judged excellent, well thought out and a breath of fresh air by many people I like and respect. It claims that it is impossible to write fluently without someone jumping on you and accusing you of oppressing people who may be female, disabled, trans, gay, non-white, etc. That language itself is being ruined by attempts to be "correct". That what people says is being lost in accusations of oppressing someone, while in fact far more people who genuinely don't know what "correct" language is are being alienated and left behind.

When I was young, I hated political correctness. I hated racism even more, and made a point of spending as much time as possible with the international students. In fact, political correctness seemed to me to be racism, but with a shiny veneer: "Oh, I won't say 'black coffee', because it is a problem to be black, but I'm too polite to say so. I won't use any word which refers to your colour, positive or negative or neutral; aren't I nice?" To be fair, I did know some people a bit like that. I was also once publicly held up as a racist in front of a hundred-odd other people because I'd fallen into a deliberately set trap. I was distraught (especially when one of the people praised for their "correct" attitude then went on to say "that Paki" the very next day).

It makes me shrink to say this, but it's true: I was particularly upset that my friends would repeatedly talk about how unacceptable it was ever to even mention the word "Jew" or "Jewish" because that was not only racist, but pro-Holocaust. My family had been ostracised by some Jewish people - a very small minority, I didn't doubt then and don't doubt now - who had refused to speak to us, even to give us directions when we were lost, because we weren't Jewish. (At school, my dad had been in a football team of mostly Jewish boys, who had named themselves "The Smelly Yids"!) I was sympathetic in speech but irritated in private when a friend complained that the university campus made it hard for her mother to walk as she had weak ankles: did she want the whole place knocked down? (It was a campus largely made of steps and pyramids and walkways. An amazing place. But definitely designed without disabled people in mind.)

I look back on my younger self with mortification. Did I ever say terrible things about anyone just because I felt My Right to do so trumped political correctness? Did I make things worse for anybody? It haunts me. Which, of course, doesn't help anyone.

I think, now, that what I was seeing and hating was a caricature. Much like the caricature tabloids write of health and safety policies, which stop people buying cheese and saying "Christmas", rather than are enforced to save lives. Or of immigrants, who are here to take all our jobs and live off all our benefits (you know, in right-wing minds they can do both at once).

Caricatures can distract from reality. They divide and rule.

As Deborah put it in a talk she gave recently to Hackney Skeptics, it was common in medieval times for women to accuse other women of witchcraft because that was pretty much the only social leverage they had. If you're at the bottom and unable to confront those at the top, it's all too easy to turn on those also at the bottom with you. I'm pretty sure this is exactly what the government and tabloids want the working classes to do - to spit at disabled people and call each other scroungers, rather than take our grievances to the government and to large-scale tax avoiders.

Another problem was that I was very ill at the time. It was an invisible illness. No allowances could be made for me. As far as I know, there's no special insult for "person with a major intestinal disorder who suffers from nausea and pain and anxiety" (as there is for many mental conditions or loss of mobility, for example) that could be not used. There were no physical adaptations that could be made. There was nothing to help me. I was jealous of those who could be helped and were.

Looking back, those who forbade mentions of various races or colours were invariably white. The girl who told me not to swear in her presence because she was a Christian also boasted about how she had destroyed her mobile's sim card to get a new phone on insurance. My Ghanian housemate was happy to talk about being black - but that was years later; he was not party to such discussions. I never heard what Jewish people thought of anyone mentioning the word "Jewish" or "Jew".

Well-meaning people wanted to speak in their support. Other well-meaning people disagreed with how to speak in their support.

The voices that should have been loudest were not even there.

So there I was, full of my own problems and without awareness of those I didn't understand - that I had no way of understanding. Until circumstance made me understand.

Three years ago I found work in a charity that provided information and hired out mobility equipment to disabled people. It was "run by the disabled for the disabled". I was the only person without a physical or mental disability. It was the most supportive place I'd ever known. My physical problems (the pain and nausea and weakness) and my mental problems (my depression, anxiety, workplace phobia as a result of bullying, and lack of confidence) were accepted and no big deal, but my colleagues were always there to listen and support me. I found myself doing the same for them. And a new part of me began to blossom.

I was appalled by the rage I saw in some of the newsletters, such as Disability Today. They seemed to personally loathe anyone whose legs worked properly. But I was equally appalled by the slurs levelled at disabled people not only in the newspapers, but from a random man who took it upon himself to walk into the office and berate me for handing out blue badges to his neighbour who he was certain didn't need it. And I began to realise that slurs were spoken, judgments were made, policies were drawn up, without the involvement of the people they affected.

Perhaps one problem with knowing that others are disadvantaged is that decent people have an immediate instinct to speak up for such people. The trouble with that is that it gives those who don't actually have much knowledge a false idea of how much they do know. There's a point when you just have to say: I don't know what it's like to be coloured, disabled, or trans. And I have to shut up and listen.

There are men who write in favour of feminism, who speak volubly and passionately about how much they care and how anyone who thinks them sexist is hateful and misunderstands - but who will then ignore women's voices as soon as they don't like them. I doubt they realise they're doing this. They want to do good. They already get stick from those who disrespect their feminist stance, and this hurts, but they keep going. They genuinely mean well. Just as I meant well to say that political correctness was racism made respectable.

There are men who simply retweet women's words without comment, who chase away harassers, who protect vulnerable women even after their friends have been shot doing so, who don't tell everybody else what to do. These men are much harder to see.

A few months ago, a new website for feminist writing opened, and they asked me to submit an article. I wrote about my two sides of what I consider feminist activism: women in science, and Galactic Orchids. They turned me down. They wanted their first article about female genital mutilation to be from someone involved in the relevant culture. I was hurt - rejection always hurts - but they were right. I should be quietly supporting and amplifying voices of those actually affected. Not leading the discussion.

It wouldn't be right for me to tell my trans friends how to survive, or my non-white friends when to consider someone racist and when not. I don't know what that's like and it's not for me to say.

This is a difficult post to write, because if you're on Twitter you probably know there's been a big blow-up between prominent feminists over the issue of language. I have friends on both sides of the platform. Passionately so. One side says: they attack you if you don't know the words "intersectionality" or "WoC"; you can't open your mouth without them jumping down your throat. The other side says: you can be polite and they ignore you; you can get angry and then get labelled a bully. One side says: there's a core group of trouble-makers who are making this space less safe for women. The other side says: they just don't want to listen, they don't want to learn, their only solution is to continue oppression and marginalise anyone who dares disagree.

It is heartbreaking to be told you've used an oppressive word, such as "cretin", when you only meant "someone who has done something very silly and very funny" - and when you've just spent a huge amount of time and energy supporting someone with mental health problems, listening to them, pointing them to places that can help, leaving yourself drained. It is all too easy to leap to the defensive. "You KNOW I didn't mean that. Why do you assume the default position is that I'm ableist when all the evidence points the other way? Who cares about words over actions?"

But why spend an awful lot of time and effort for a cause if you're then not willing to listen those you're supposed to be supporting? Over something that really won't hurt you in practice? Calling out someone actually doesn't have to mean "you're ableist scum, I hate you and I'm going to shame you before the entire world. You will never live this down" - even though it feels that way. When people have pointed out I've used a word I shouldn't, they've generally only meant, "Please don't do that. I know you don't mean to, but it hurts, and it adds to the problem."

That's all I've meant when I've asked men (especially on Facebook) not to keep posting pictures or jokes that objectify women - that discuss us as if we're pieces of meat, that rate us by our attractiveness, that tell us to accept it was our fault for dressing wrong if we were raped, that we are too emotional and illogical to be scientists. Many are resistant. They know what they mean. I should keep quiet and accept it, right?

"Do call me out if I screw up, as I'm sure I must do from time to time, being white," wrote Scattermoon on Twitter. A different approach from defensiveness: Teach me. I will see it as teaching. Not accusing. I will grow.

Joining Galaxy Zoo and Skeptics in the Pub meant that I had to be very ready to accept correction if I ever made a scientific mistake. Being a feminist - and one who includes women (and men, and transfolks, and etc etc) of all colours and abilities and backgrounds, which is my current understanding of the word "intersectional" - means I have to be ready to accept correction, too. In my family we never used "nut" to describe mental health problems - it was often an affectionate word, sometimes actively complimentary, in praise for a really silly joke. But just as I learned a new language when I moved to Spain back in 2003, I learned a new language when I left home.

It really hasn't hurt to watch how I use the word, and similar words, now. To adapt a little is a very small price to pay for knowing a vastly more diverse group of people than I used to - and knowing so much more as a result.

It's true that lots of people don't know what "intersectional" means and there's no point assuming they do. That doesn't mean the word has to be rejected out of hand, though. New words do spring up. "Cis", for instance, to describe "not trans". "Straight", for example, to mean "not gay". Yes, language is complicated, and frankly, columnists, you can't please everybody - it just isn't possible. Any read of any comment section will demonstrate that.

As I read on a blog yesterday which I now can't find (if you know the one I mean, please post it in the comments!), it is very easy for a campaign to seem whiny and unimportant if you don't know what it's about.

And the only way to learn what it's about is to listen.

Monday, 15 April 2013


Come take my hand and run swift with me,
Leap high till we skim over road and tree,
Till oil-painting fields fall fast down below
And wind burns our faces, and cotton clouds grow.

Come take my hand and fly round the world
Race faster than falling, up into the cold
Slingshotting us into the deep blue of sky
Soft pale horizon, dark airless roof high.

Hold my hand tight as stars stream overhead
And Orion turns cartwheels and our sheer speed has led
To our satellite orbit round Earth blue and bright
The landscape tingles with stars in the night.

The Moon and the space station make paths like a spell
We roll steady and safe in Earth's gravity's well.
Come take my hand and fly high with me
Join the dance of the planets in our galaxy.

I've never been satisfied with a poem I've written, but hey, it's always good to push yourself out of your comfort zone. Seriously, with space suits and considerably less gravity than the Earth's - say, a large asteroid - this is actually possible. Or a rocket. The reason things stay in orbit, be they moons or binary stars or the International Space Station, it's because there's a perfect balance of speed and gravity. Everything in orbit is in freefall, but moving so fast that the falling only amounts to being pulled around in a stable ellipse or circle.

Do you think, from the aeroplane window, that British fields look like oil paintings? I do. Spain, with all its olive trees, looks like black-dotted yellow graph paper. Norway looks like dark green papier mache, and Nova Scotia - which I think is the black-and-white icy mountainous area we flew over when I went to America two years ago - looks absolutely amazing.

This is one of my favourite ever pictures of space. I'd love to do this some day.

Monday, 1 April 2013

Crowdsourcing a Galactic Orchids talk: What are your astronomy questions?

Why do stars live in galaxies, rather than being spread out evenly through the Universe? Where did the Big Bang actually happen? Doesn't the Moon pull on water and therefore affect us? These are just three questions I've been asked and have got round to answering on this blog (here, here and here, in the same order) - and now, inspired by Dean's Comic Relief crowdsourcing efforts, I'm inviting you all to send me astronomical questions out of which I might make a whole talk.

My most major astronomical activity these last few months has been Galactic Orchids, a series of talks to raise funds for the Orchid Project and Daughters of Eve, two charities fighting (in very different fashions) to end female genital mutilation. I have about seven talks now, but I'm running out of ideas for them, and would like to keep going in autumn 2013 - so I'd like your ideas, please! What puzzles or interests you about astronomy? What would you want to hear about?

Your question might have a short answer, such as: Why is a lunar eclipse red? Or it might be major, such as: What exactly have we done so far to explore Mars? So I hope to make an entire talk out of short questions, and I also hope to make a few talks out of longer ones. Feel free to suggest what you'd like an entire talk to be made of!

If you'd like to come, the next two will be Wednesday 10th April and Wednesday 8th May, both at 7pm at the Newington Green Unitarian Church in Stoke Newington. There'll be tea, coffee and biscuits available afterwards and a question and answer session - it's very informal. We began in October 2012 and have so far raised over £300.

You can ask questions or suggest topics by leaving a comment here, tweeting me or Galactic Orchids, or visiting our Facebook page.

Thank you very much!

NGC 5218 from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. At Galaxy Zoo we call it "the rose".