Thursday, 23 February 2017

The Rise of the Supervillain and the Fall of the Jesus Christ Superstars

It’s a perverse quirk of human nature that the more we perceive someone to be immoral, a reject or an underdog, the more intensely we are drawn to them. Movie reviews talk about the bad guys, like the Joker, in Batman films way more than Batman. We obsess over a vampire or serial killer in a horror film, but we rarely remember the hero. And we see the same phenomenon mirrored in real life. The pop star who treats women like animals but tops the charts every week. The corrupt, bad boy footballer that all the kids idolise. The pantomime villain in the reality TV show who wins the viewer vote. But why do we root for these people when society tells us we should find them repulsive? 

Those of us who are sensitive to the faults of our humanity realise that when we are instructed to dislike someone or something and this instruction is vehemently enforced, particularly by someone who we consider to be superior to ourselves, then we are inclined to rebel and do the complete opposite (think girls from strict homes who grow up to be lap dancers, Catholics who grow up to be Satanists) or the taboo object/person becomes forbidden fruit that is attractive to us and we develop an overwhelming desire for it (think celibate priests who become paedophiles, how we desire fresh cream cakes even though we know they will make us fat). Right now the media is feeding us a daily diet of evil ‘supervillains’ and we are repeatedly instructed to disagree with them and find them repulsive - think Trump, Milo and Farage for starters. We obsess daily over these forbidden fruit supervillains to such an extent that repeated exposure is highly likely to trigger the attraction effect in some of those who are exposed to it (by fostering sympathy and generating an underdog that the public begins to rally behind) or we are likely to see a rebellious reaction, or a combination of the two. And we have already seen these responses play out in public forums. The more that the BBC pushed the remain vote, the more I suspected we would have a Brexit vote. The more that social media humiliated Trump, the more I suspected he would win the presidency. Humans are predictably rebellious creatures, we don’t like being told what to do. So is it any surprise that the supervillains are seeing a surge in popularity?

Those who were appalled to see the public rallying behind ‘the abhorrent’ should be quietly taken aside and made aware that these events and the changing public sentiment may have arisen as a direct response to their own actions. I wonder whether the popularity of these supervillains would have grown to such heights had they not been nurtured by the media spotlight, had we not been bombarded with constant outcry, outrage and protest through news reports and social media. I experienced the U-turn effect of this bombardment for myself a couple of weeks ago when I spotted a planned protest on Twitter and audibly uttered the words ‘oh FFS, not another protest’. The protest itself didn’t aggravate me and I generally agreed with the purpose of the march, but it was one of several taking place that week so I was becoming numb to them and, to be honest, a little irritated by the constant, exhausting barrage of outrage. Then I saw a news report on TV in which an incensed protester grabbed a reporter’s microphone and started preaching into it “people MUST ___, everyone MUST ___, if you don’t support ___ then you are EVIL!!”. Whoah, wait a second my dear. I wholeheartedly agree with you, but who the hell are you to dictate to me what I should and shouldn’t think? My hackles were raised and I viewed the protest in an entirely different light. These people were dictating to me what I should and shouldn’t believe and what I can and can’t say and I was annoyed by the tone of their aggressive, self-righteous preaching. When they started ranting about the evils of fascism, I burst out laughing. Pot and kettle? The next night I switched on the news and saw something that I knew would piss that female protestor off and I smiled to myself. For the first time I sided with the supposed 'enemy’ against someone who I was supposed to sympathise with, simply because my brain went ‘no, fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me to’. I was rooting for the supervillain.

Now this was just one ranting woman in a sea of protestors that made me feel this way, but I wonder whether this isolated incident is playing out on a grand scale amongst the general public who are exposed to the media’s constant ridicule and condemnation of the supervillains. Take Hollywood and the Jesus Christ Superstars, for example. We love celebrities when they prance around on screen or knock out a decent album because that’s what we are paying them to do. Katy Perry makes great music, J. K. Rowling writes great books and Meryl Streep makes great movies, but when they start evangelising at award ceremonies about how other people should live their lives, what they should and shouldn’t say, and, even worse, passing judgement on what they can and can’t think like some kind of award-clutching, superstar embodiment of Jesus Christ, then things quickly turn sour. I’m interested to hear their thoughts on how the lowly populace should live their lives and they are perfectly entitled to voice them (who knows, they might even identify solutions to endemic social problems that could revolutionise how we all live) however I suspect that they know fuck all about what it’s like to live on an inner-city council estate - to worry about housing, job security, who you are living amongst and the safety of those you love - and once I get the faintest whiff that they are looking down their noses at these people and telling them, with complete ignorance of the challenges that they face on a day-to-day basis, that their concerns are misguided or offensive whereas, on the contrary, they are more entitled to make a moral judgement since they are socially mobile, richer, younger or more highly educated than the average council-house dweller, then they morph into the ranting woman in the protest and my hackles are raised again. J. K. Rowling, for instance, preaches in such a nauseatingly self-righteous ‘pissing on the peasants from my ivory tower’ way and with such painful disregard for how the real world functions that I struggle at times to separate her from the trolls that she dismissively bats away…

And I know I’m not the only person starting to feel like this. There is an increasing groundswell of anti-Jesus Christ Superstar sentiment on social media directed towards big stars who have stopped being the jaunty puppets that we pay them to be and taken on the role of political mouthpiece. Please, now more than ever, we need you to be jesters to make us smile, singers to cheer us up, writers to take us away from reality, not a dictatorial moral thought police. Even the BAFTA audience this year looked like the residents from the Capitol in The Hunger Games, nodding sympathetically in unison in a collective moral masturbationary exercise in the hope that their unblemished souls will endear them to their peers, fans, ticket sales, book sales….The gulf between these Jesus Christ Superstars and ‘the ordinary people’ is widening at a rapid rate of knots and this rate it will swallow entire careers whole… 

Perry, Rowling, Streep, ranting protest woman - you are entitled to voice your opinions and I will defend your right to do so to the death, but please, please wake up and realise that you are feeding the very monsters that you are aiming to defeat. Each time you cast yourself as morally superior and speak down to the ordinary people beneath you in an arrogant tone, dismissing their concerns and casting out judgements, you alienate increasing numbers of ordinary people and drive them away from you and towards those who oppose you, regardless, I believe, of whether they consider your opinions to be more or less ethically sound than those of the supervillains that they gravitate towards. This is how conversions of loyalty are forced and oppositions gain power, for instance I agreed with the ethics of the ranty protestor but I cheered on the supervillain in order to see her defeated (never underestimate the fragility of a woman’s principles when faced with someone that she takes an instant dislike to). And the louder that you vilify and humiliate those that you oppose, the greater you risk creating a rejected underdog towards whom the people will express empathy since they perceive the underdog to be suffering the same humiliation and rejection that you heap upon them too. 

These are the underlying mechanics that are driving the rise of the supervillains and they will continue to gain popularity under the media spotlight and the barrage of your constant outrage and condemnation. After all, we’re only human and we can’t help how we respond to instruction, unlike your divine, virtuous selves…

Friday, 6 January 2017

In Defence of Men in Academia and a Warning to Feminist Academics

On the first day of my first conference as a first-year postgraduate, a male academic invited me back to his room. This academic was married, twenty years my senior and I barely knew anything about him. I gracefully declined at first but then, upon discovering that it was a time-honoured whisky party to which a select number of delegates were invited each year and two of my colleagues had also received the same invitation, I accepted. It was a fabulous night and the whisky party became a regular event at the same conference each year thereafter. The host is now one of my closest friends, I have met and stayed with his wife and children and we continue to meet up as often as possible to treat ourselves to good food, good wine and a good old gossip.

I was fortunate to meet such a delightful male academic at a conference, but yes, I’ve also had uncomfortable experiences with men at conferences. I’ve been stalked from seminar room to seminar room, hounded on social media and, because my politeness is a hazard to my safety, I’ve left conferences clutching phone numbers and email addresses that I’ve promptly binned. It’s an unsettling feeling to say the least (especially when you’re both confined to the same small venue for days on end) and it ruins any enjoyment of the conference. In fact a particularly bad experience can even cause you to question whether you wish to continue pursuing a career in the field. 

In response to this unacceptable and evidently common behaviour at conferences – and for some unfortunate folk for whom this is a day-to-day struggle in their own university departments - there has been an emerging groundswell amongst both female and male academics to scrutinise the behaviour of male colleagues, to pummel them into the dirt the very second they put a foot wrong and to hound those who exhibit behaviours not considered to be acceptable. Now if you’ve got Dr. Wandering Hands or Prof. A Women Should Not Have A Profession in your department then a proactive approach is entirely justified; I agreed that we should call them out and challenge them to account for their behaviour because these cretins can stunt the career progression of a female academic and cause serious and long-lasting damage to that individual’s confidence and motivation to continue teaching and researching in their subject.

But thankfully, I have not witnessed this type of behaviour in the men in my own department. There are 32 male academics and 27 female academics in my department and each one of them is a pleasure to work with. I’m judging them by our daily water cooler conversations of course and I have no idea whether they have anyone stripped and hogtied on their basement floor, but over the ten years that I have worked within my department I have not experienced one moment of malicious misogyny or harassment. I’m sure that if I pored obsessively over every daily conversation I could single-out one throwaway sexist gag or a lazy misconception that would have the averagely-incensed feminist burning the building down, but if a comment is made then it is not driven by malicious intent and I am sure that the source would be devastated to discover that he/she had upset anyone. On the whole our staff are mutually supportive of each other and our more confident, aggressively competitive and ambitious members of the department tend to be female (which is by no means a criticism, on the contrary it has contributed significantly to the success of the department). 

A couple of years ago the department was called to a meeting to discuss harassment in the workplace. It wasn’t prompted by or directed at anyone in particular, just a friendly chat with a professional on how the male members of the department should behave around women and how they could offer support and encouragement to their female colleagues. The meeting was very cordial and we all agreed that we shared the same desire to support everyone equally and we would strive to ensure that no-one felt disadvantaged, but, by God, things felt awkward afterwards. Some male members of staff, particularly the older members of the department who had known their female colleagues for many years, became so over-sensitised to causing offence that the simplest actions and conversations were painfully awkward and stilted. Colleagues that regularly dealt out mutually received and well-meaning banter began apologising after making the most innocent of comments, they overcompensated to the point of sounding patronising when genuinely attempting to be supportive and they didn’t know whether it was acceptable to enquire about family issues, illnesses or, in one case, congratulate a member of the department on her pregnancy. Far from clipping the wings of Dr. Wandering Hands or Prof. A Women Should Not Have A Profession, the advice that these individuals received caused confusion, it completely killed the relaxed atmosphere in the department and it turned the loveliest of people into socially bungling, terrified bundles of nerves.

I realise that I am lucky to work with a respectful group of people who do not require close scrutiny and criticism of their behaviour while other departments and universities are in desperate need of close attention and direction in order to make their working relationships bearable, however some women in academia take a disproportionately aggressive approach and they produce exceptionally venomous material that is directed towards male academics in general. This approach sits very uncomfortably with me and, if I am honest, their indefensible generalisations make me question whether the issue is as prevalent as they claim or whether they hold university positions or carry out research that relies heavily upon misogyny and harassment existing in the workplace, to which a successful eradication of these behaviours would put them out of a job. If I was a man I would take great offence upon hearing these generalised attacks however it must be extremely difficult to engage with this material as a male, hence I suspect why I am increasingly encountering women working in university departments who, like me, feel sympathy towards our male colleagues who endure criticism by virtue of assumptions made about their gender rather than from their observed behaviour. 

To those women in academia who are currently rampaging through university departments and sticking both barrels into the gullet of every man they see, I would offer this note of caution: know your enemy.  By all means aim for the bad guys and I will buy you all the ammo that you need to take them down, but please don’t take the scattergun approach because you’re taking good people down with them. In my experience, the good guys outnumber the bad and for every creepy guy who follows you around the room at a conference trying to give you his mobile number, there is a guy who would like to invite you to a whisky party because he admires your work and he would like to talk to you about it. Or there is a male member of staff who feels socially awkward at the best of times and he would like to engage more with his colleagues, but he’s afraid to speak up in case he plays the game incorrectly and says the wrong thing. Or there is an older male member of staff who has the deepest respect for the women that he works with, but he’s afraid to congratulate an administrator on her pregnancy in case he is considered to be speaking out of turn. Certainly there are monsters who target women in all walks of life and we must raise awareness and strive to keep each other safe, we must ensure that no-one is disadvantaged due to their gender and we must seek to punish those of any gender who behave abysmally towards their colleagues, but we should also guard against demonising a whole swathe of men based upon generalised conjecture and thereby behaving precisely like the same tyrannical, presumptive and intolerant monsters that we are fighting against.