I don’t want to lift children out of poverty

I’ve been thinking more about how we frame our messages this election year, and I’ve realised something pretty significant.

I don’t want to lift children out of poverty.

Because poverty isn’t a hole in the ground, which a few errant kids fell into by accident. Why weren’t they watching where they were going? Can’t they just get themselves out again?

Where did that hole even come from? It’s been there forever. Hell, we put up signs to warn people – “Stay in school!” “Don’t do drugs!” “This way to the free CV-writing seminar!”

If some kids are going to be reckless and fall into the poverty hole, why should my taxpayer dollars pay for a rope to get them out?

It’s not my hole. I was smart enough to stay out of it. My parents don’t live anywhere near that hole. Why should stupid kids who jumped in get a free hand up? They’ll just jumping in again, because we haven’t made them face the consequences of their actions.

I don’t want to lift children out of poverty, because they’re not in there alone. Of course we don’t really blame them for being in the hole. But their parents? They’re adults. They should have known better. Why on earth were they wandering around a hole, with kids no less?

Some of them even have more children in the hole. We can’t reward that kind of irresponsible behaviour!

What if poverty wasn’t a hole in the ground?

What if we talked about poverty as violence. Not inevitable. Not accidental. A deliberate act, committed by human beings who hurt others for their own gain.

What if we talked about poverty as a scam. Greedy con artists stacking the deck in their own favour and stealing everyone else’s cards.

In either case, it’s a choice they’ve made, to profit and rule by robbig other people of options. Offering nothing but starvation wages and windowless garages to live in.

What if we talked about poverty as a wall. Something built by people – CEOs, rightwing politicians, the 1% – to trap everyone else and deny us freedom to live our lives.

What if we said: those people demolished the things we built together – state housing, social welfare, health, education – and used the rubble to block our path.

What if we said: we’re going to tear that wall down, all of us, together.

(What if we realised there isn’t one wall, there are multiple walls, and some people have more than one standing in their way, and we have a moral duty to destroy every single one of them, not just the ones that affect us personally?)

I don’t want to lift children out of poverty. Because I will not treat the deliberately-created, wilfully-engineered exploitation of other human beings as a natural phenomenon. A blameless boo-boo. An opportunity for abstract debate about whether the role of government is to throw a rope down or tell them to pull themselves out of the mess they got themselves into.

I want us to disarm the people who are hurting children by forcing them and their families to be poor. I want us to expose the fraud. I want us to break down the walls of poverty which have been constructed so a greedy few can hoard the profits of others’ labour.

We cannot offer solutions without naming the problem. But we’ve got it all backwards.

The problem isn’t poverty. It’s greed.

The villains aren’t the stupid people who jumped down the poverty hole. It’s the greedy. The rich. The neoliberal mad scientists who created poverty in a lab and sent it out on a dark and stormy night to menace innocent villagers.

The solution isn’t lifting children out of poverty. It’s tearing poverty down.

The right don’t want to have this conversation. They are very happy for us to keep talking about poverty as an abstract phenomenon. They love how much time we spend trying to nail them down to one specific, simple, objective measurement of poverty. They want us to keep saying poverty is a hole, so they can keep saying that it’s not the government’s job to give people free rope to climb out of it.

So let’s stop playing their game.

Lefty book reviews: Don’t Buy It

It’s more Post-It than book, at this stage.

Where to start with Anat Shenker-Osorio’s Don’t Buy It: The Trouble With Talking Nonsense About The Economy?

This review seems redundant, because literally every person I’ve encountered in the past year has been subjected to my near-evangelist recommendation of it. I don’t know every lefty in New Zealand (despite what Matthew Hooton might think); I just feel like I’ve said this all before.

And I have. Even before I read Don’t Buy It, or developed my slightly unhealthy adoration of its author. If you’ve read many of my posts about narrative and language and rejecting centrism, you’ll hear a lot of the same themes. I flatter myself that great minds think alike.

That’s my bias: I agree with pretty much everything Anat Shenker-Osorio has ever said, and firmly believe that unless the mainstream leftwing movement starts doing things differently, we’re not going to build the mass support we need to fundamentally change our world.

Anat Shenker-Osorio is a strategic communications expert and research from the USA, who’s worked with American and Australian trade unions, our own CTU, and a range of progressive organisations in the US. In October 2015 she ran workshops in New Zealand with commsy-type people from the CTU, trade unions, and the Green Party. That’s where I first met her, and the rest is fangirl history.

The book is fundamentally about language. The messages we send, not just with our policies or campaigns, but the metaphor and subtext of every slogan, speech and press release.

The point is we’re doing it wrong.

Look at the global financial crisis of 2008. A tremendous opportunity to highlight the basic problems of capitalism. A time when practically everyone on Earth was ready to do things differently because the system was clearly broken. What happened? The banks got bailed out. The world kept turning.

Why? Because the content of our messages might have been bang on, but the delivery wasn’t. As an example, Shenker-Osorio addresses the “global financial crisis” itself:

We often think about crises as sudden, unpredictable turns of events. Think of the common usages of this concept, like midlife crisis and identity crisis. These are generally unanticipated alterations of behaviour. … We never saw that coming.

We don’t necessarily look for a solution to emerge … nor are we out looking for someone to blame for what happened. In fact, we might be tempted to believe the situation will right itself …

Thus, our frequent reliance on the phrase “economic crisis” most likely does not establish the necessary idea that this was a long time coming, people in power made it happen, and we need to act deliberately to change course.

It seems pedantic. It’s very word-nerdy. And the kinds of people who always get up in arms when progressives start critiquing language may ask “who even cares?”

It’s true. Most people don’t think this deeply about the language they hear. But they’re still picking up the subtext, and if the subtext is reinforcing the right’s way of thinking about how the world works – that the 2008 crash just happened, that nothing’s fundamentally wrong, that no one could have seen it coming – they’re never going to find our solutions credible. We’re fighting “that’s just the way things are.”

Think about the naturalistic ways we talk about “the economy”: it grew. It shrank. Jobs were lost. Wages sank. All this just happens for no reason. There’s nothing we can do about it.

Think about “the top 10%”. How strongly we associate “top” with “good”. It’s much easier for the right to say the wealthy are more hardworking and deserving when we reinforce the idea that they’re better than us.

It’s not just metaphors. The left loves the passive voice – “inequality must be addressed”, “reforms are needed”, “the policy will need to be reviewed”. We feel like we’ve taken a real stand – yet said nothing. We don’t name the villains – we paint people as victims of a terrible faceless system.

At the end (because language is vital, but it isn’t the only thing) Shenker-Osorio presents a set of four powerful policies to redefine key parts of the economy – and re-set our expectations of how it should work and who it should work for. They’re US-specific, but the idea of putting forward audacious, groundbreaking strategies backed up by strong, coherent messages is immensely important.

Because we’ve been afraid for too long. Buying into the language and framing of our opponents has felt lovely and safe. We want to sound grown-up and mature like those serious businessmen politicians. But that’s why we’re losing, and that’s why we have to change how we do things. As the book concludes:

Progressives must stop humming in a blandly nonoffensive alto. Regardless of what we do or say, our opponents will call us wildly out of touch and wacky, so we might as well have some fun and say what we actually mean. It’s shockingly difficult for us to speak from our worldview, accustomed as we’ve become to walking the fictional middle line. We’re losing so much ground in every battle, it feels scary to “go out on a limb” and come out swinging for what we believe. But make no mistake: continuing to do the same things and expecting different outcomes is a madness we don’t have the time to indulge.

dont buy itFor such detailed and challenging subject matter, Don’t Buy It is an immensely readable book. It’s optimistic, even as it tells us that we’re doing things wrong. It offers a clear path forward. I hope progressives here and all over the world choose to take it.

Bookdepository link here; also available from Unity Books.

More about Anat Shenker-Osorio at her website.

Watch her address to the 2015 CTU conference on YouTube.

The importance of words

Expanding on some thoughts I had on Twitter.

It’s an interesting phrase, “language policing”. We all know what the police are. Even people with the good fortune/whiteness to have mainly positive interactions with them would describe their role as “enforcement”: applying force to ensure rules are followed. It’s used negatively – unlike actual police who are (theoretically) empowered by the state, this kind of “policing” is done by people who have taken authority upon themselves.

I use “body policing” and “food policing” as pejorative terms – because it’s no one else’s business what someone looks like or what they eat. But “language policing” is a pejorative I’m usually on the “wrong” side of  – because I ask people to think about the language they use.

When I wrote this in November I was responding to the idea that it’s “just one word”:

It’s never just one word. Women aren’t walking around living practically perfect lives, taking it all for granted, until one poor guy says one bad word, at which point we descend upon him like harpies and rend the flesh from his bones.

It’s one guy saying “chicks” … after another guy called you a “cheerleader“, after another guy referred to you as “the office girl”, after another guy joked that you’re “more than just a pretty face” …

But now I’ve been thinking about how “just one word” is a big deal. I said on Twitter:

Language is so important my first feminist thoughts came from learning as a tiny child that all men were “Mr” but women were “Mrs” or “Miss”. I can literally remember my mum explaining (so a tiny child could grok) that women could use “Ms” as an act of resistance against patriarchy. From day 1 of primary school you either learn or unconsciously accept a woman’s marital status is the 1st thing to know about her. But not a man’s.

*That* is how important “just a word” is.

“Either learn or unconsciously accept” is the key bit. I was raised by a feminist in a family of academics and English teachers, so I was always going to think about language and subtext and framing. That doesn’t happen for most people.

They go on with their lives, right as rain, and it becomes a natural, normal, totally-unimportant fact of life that women are either married or unmarried, and you need to know which.

Is it so difficult to see how just one word – two or three letters in front of someone’s name – reinforces a basic tenet of patriarchy, i.e. that women are defined by their relationships with men?

Nobody (hardly anybody) walks around thinking “I’m totally going to oppress a woman by calling her ‘Miss’.” But language influences the way we see the world. When we blithely accept we call all dudes “Mr” but have to ask if a woman is “Mrs” or “Miss” or “Ms” (she’s the stroppy one!) we don’t consciously think “All women are defined by their marital status”. When we label something “hysterical” we don’t consciously think “I’ll minimize women’s credibility by referencing archaic ideas about physiology and historic beliefs about women being incapable of rational thought. Haha!”

But those are the messages you’re reinforcing in your own mind, or reinforcing in the minds of others. Unintentionally, you are reducing women to their marital status or invoking historic ideas which undermine their speech.

(Note: dudes, some of you do use words like “hysteria”, “bitches” and “cunts” deliberately to wind us up, and we can tell, and it’s really not helping to convince us that you’d be a great ally if we just lightened up.)

What to do? Think about the language you’re using. Especially if you’re in a position where your words are going to be read or heard by a lot of people – people who don’t know you well and may not give you benefit of the doubt. Get someone else to check for you – it’s really difficult to kick linguistic habits (she says, checking how often she’s used the word “actually” this post). Be open-minded when someone points out an unintentional meaning you didn’t realise you were giving out.

Some people may not be polite about it. But if you think it sucks being told “your language is sexist”, imagine spending your whole life filling out forms which demand you identify yourself as Property Of A Dude, Not Property Of A Dude Yet, or Probably An Angry Lesbian.

You don’t have to agree. You don’t have to change your language at all. But you may be uncomfortable knowing that for many people, it marks you as a sexist douchebag. You may get called up on it again. If you’re okay with that, carry on, brave soldier of privilege. But you know what you’re doing now.

The worst sexism ever

Back in 2011, Skepchick founder Rebecca Watson made some really mild comments about a dude’s inappropriate behaviour at a conference. Things blew up, especially once the prince of Internet Atheism, Richard Dawkins, left a comment mocking Watson for making such a fuss over such a small thing. His argument, in a scathing “satire”, boiled down to: how dare you talk about this bad experience, things are so much worse for oppressed Muslim women.

(Being Richard Dawkins, he said it as offensively and gratuitously as possible.)

And that was Elevatorgate. Neither the first, nor the last, but definitely one of the premiere cases of the thing I’m blogging about today.

Again and again, when women (or any other group of people pointing out the ways their lives are constrained and affected by oppression) speak out about something – no matter how “calmly” or “reasonably” they put it – we’re scoffed at. “Oh, like this is the worst sexism that ever happened *eyeroll*” or “Things are way worse for women in Syria, you know“. The only possible inference is: “you shouldn’t talk about this, because this isn’t really serious.”

As I wrote in my post about the myth of language policing:

It’s never just one word. Women aren’t walking around living practically perfect lives, taking it all for granted, until one poor guy says one bad word, at which point we descend upon him like harpies and rend the flesh from his bones.

It’s one guy saying “chicks” … after another guy called you a “cheerleader“, after another guy referred to you as “the office girl”, after another guy joked that you’re “more than just a pretty face”, after another guy asked if your husband was going to sign off on the kitchen quote, after another guy got praised for repeating something you’d said 5 minutes earlier, after another guy assumed you were the nurse not the surgeon, after another guy assumed you couldn’t do basic math.

That’s what sexism is like. This omnipresent state of “being a woman in a patriarchy” is manifested in a hundred different ways. Yes, most of them, if they were “the only” thing happening, would be trivial, easily brushed off and forgotten. But they’re not. They’re constant. And sometimes women complain about them.

And when we do, it seems to just be a matter of time before someone jumps up to point out that, well, this isn’t the worst sexism ever so stop complaining.

Whatever your intention, however you phrase it, you’re effectively telling women to stop talking. That their concerns aren’t valid – and that you are the person who gets to decide whether or not they are, largely based on being (usually) white, or male, or cisgendered, or wealthy, or famous – or any other of the characteristics which our society infuses with credibility. We don’t get to decide what’s important for us, what harms us or what we want to tweet about. You do.

And when we women say “hang on, this feels a bit like you want me to shut up”, the response is: “I don’t want to silence women! I love women! I was just making a point, I never said you shouldn’t have an opinion at all!”

Every single time: this issue is trivial and that experience is all in our heads and this problem is just a misunderstanding and why, oh why, are we talking about it at all?

As I get older and theoretically wiser, and see the same “well-intentioned” calls to sit down and stop making a fuss made over and over, I stop believing that this isn’t malicious. It’s too easy to make women shut up about everything this way – because nothing is as bad as The Sum Total Of Patriarchy. And The Sum Total of Patriarchy is so massive and pervasive that there’s no practical way to attack it directly. So what option do we have but to sit down and stop making a fuss?

We’re told to “pick our battles” on pretty much every battle there is – and we already have a list that’s too long of the battles we’ve already surrendered.

Well, to end on a note of high drama, here’s the battle I’m picking: I won’t be quiet about sexism. Sometimes I’ll talk about the big issues. Sometimes I’ll talk about the small ones. And if you desperately need to try to tell me whether the things I talk about are or aren’t important, I’ll probably be talking about you next.


Inspiration for the day: Dame Helen Mirren

On why she wishes she’d told people to “f*** off” more:

She explained that the phrase is empowering to women especially because we’re so often taught to be polite in every circumstance. “We were sort of brought up to be polite and sometimes politeness, in certain circumstances, is not what’s required,” she said. “You’ve got to have the courage to stand up for yourself occasionally when it’s needed.”

And just check out the archive of Helen Mirren-related posts on Tom & Lorenzo. Pure awesome.