Oh dear, Demos


8:04 pm - May 11th 2009

by Jess McCabe    


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Think-tank Demos last week launched their vision for how power should be “radically” devolved.

But Jenni Russell at Comment is Free went to the launch, and “no one mentioned women’s existence once”:

As I stood listening, I began to feel a rising tide of outrage. There was just one problem with this message of transformation and innovation – which was that every single one of the five speakers arguing for change was a man (white, at that). That every name mentioned as a new Demos adviser was that of a man. That no one mentioned women’s ­existence once. And that when we were shown a brief video about how power must be shared with the people, every silhouette and every symbol on the screen was – quite unselfconsciously – that of a man.

Very… er… radical.

(Crossposted from The F-Word)

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About the author
Jess is editor of the online magazine The F-Word.
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Story Filed Under: Equality ,Feminism

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Reader comments


True. I was there. In fact, since Catherine Fiesci left, it seems like a lot of senior women researchers have also left.

I’m happy to correct the point that since Catherine F left Demos, the think-tank has recruited many senior researchers who are women and has increased its share of women who work there.

There’s one major anecdote from the night that no one seems to have written about anywhere else either.

One of the speakers, I think it was Geoff Mulgan or Philip Collins, made a joke about campaigning with cabinet minister James Purnell. Apparently they were speaking to a bunch of scottish barbers, and James Purnell leans over and mouths: How do we communicate with these people?.

I’ve not heard such cringing laughter for quite a while. Purnell was so embarrassed he came on and said that if Collins/Mulgan was his speech-writer he’d have him fired.

Anyway, just felt like writing that down because despite the tons of journos there, no one mentioned the main joke of the night.

Surely the reason for opposing racism, sexism, homophobia etc is so that we can value the individual for who they are and what they have to say without extraneous prejudices getting in the way.

By that standard, this post is contemptible.

Hang on a sec. I know there are still plenty of (now crumbling) old boys networks that can still get their men in to high places in many sectors, but I think this point is taken rather out of context. Take IPPR for instance. Illiberal and corporation pleasing as they are, 5 out of 6 of their directors are women: http://www.ippr.org.uk/aboutippr/staff/ and the rest of their staff are evenly matched. And before the current crop of Demosites, you had Catherine Fieschi running the show. The CPS has Jill Kirby as director.

*facepalms*

@Nick This incident of sexism and erasure of women is OK, because the organisation was previously run by a woman?

@Pagar Read this first

Hi Pagar
How is pointing out that a discussion about ‘radically devolving power’ was male-centred (in terms of both speakers and content) an ‘extraneous prejudice’?

Hi Nick
Which point is it that you think is being taken out of context? The event was about Demos’ vision… hence the need to look at Demos itself. Don’t see how the fact that Catherine was previous Director is either here nor there as doesn’t change how the event played out.

Unless you think the event was deliberately sexist in its setup (“We’re the future and we’re men!”) then I think you need a bit more to go on. Basically, you have cast a particular interpretation on the meaning of an event. One doesn’t assume that IPPR’s 5 out of 6 directors being women is an indication of sexism (it would be a ludicrous idea bearing in mind what we know about the background context). All I am saying is that you have to apply the same contextual test to the Demos event too. Overall, they don’t seem to have been sexist in the past so unless women disappear from their work entirely in the future and this event is some sort of weird turning point, then the fact that there happened to be no women on this particular platform is not especially significant. It is instead a significance that Russell has added.

Two prominent women researchers from IPPR actually went to work for Demos not so long ago.

I think the whole “don’t count anyone according to gender because that defeats the point of opposing sexism” schtick is lame. It’s like saying having a Black Police Officers Association is “racist” – what tosh.

Spot on Sunny, well said. It was Collins btw – not Mulgan – and he has form on this stuff.

@Pagar Read this first

I did. Had I been commenting on a feminist blog I could have been accused of trolling.

I wasn’t. We can value the individual for who they are and what they have to say regardless of their gender, race or sexual orientation.

It’s simple really.

I did. Had I been commenting on a feminist blog I could have been accused of trolling.

I wasn’t. We can value the individual for who they are and what they have to say regardless of their gender, race or sexual orientation.

It’s simple really.

It’s not simple, because gender, race and class does not have a level playing field. That’s why Jess directed you to 101.

It’s only “simple” when you are white, male and straight.

It’s only “simple” when you are white, male and straight.

And presumably living in a culture where that classification is perceived as gaining an advantage. That classification probably doesn’t help in Zimbabwe, India or China to give just three examples.

You see this is the problem with such assertions, they aren’t universal in their application and so cannot give a universal description of advantage and disadvantage in society. It’s about who has power and who has not, any body with the ear of government has power, any body that does not has not so much.

And presumably living in a culture where that classification is perceived as gaining an advantage. That classification probably doesn’t help in Zimbabwe, India or China to give just three examples.

You don’t think male privilege, white privilege or straight privilege operate in Zimbabwe, India or China?

Privilege isn’t really about a perceived advantage, either. I really suggest doing one or some of these exercises.

L Bek

I said
We can value the individual for who they are and what they have to say regardless of their gender, race or sexual orientation. It’s simple really

You said
It’s only “simple” when you are white, male and straight.

So what you are saying is that the opinions and value of the white, male and straight person are worth less because they have those characteristics.

Of course you are welcome to hold that opinion but I can assure you it is a slippery slope you are treading.

If I am disabled, does that make my views worth more?

What about if I’m a transvestite and my grandfather was Chinese?

You don’t think male privilege, white privilege or straight privilege operate in Zimbabwe, India or China?

Well white privilege certainly does not, it may have done in the past but not currently. But it’s interesting that you’ve now broken down one category ‘white, male and straight’ in to three different categories – ‘male privilege, white privilege or straight privilege’.

How far can you break down each of these categories – working class males, middle class males, educated males, uneducated males, private sector males, public sector males, etc, etc?

Couldn’t these categories be circles on a barn door?

As I said previously, it comes down to those with power and those without, independent of perceived category. Putting power in the hands of individuals by splitting the atom of social categories will do far more for equality than the arbitrary grouping of those individuals into categories to fit a preconceived agenda.

Jess @13:

First off, I concur entirely that it is short-sighted and foolish of any think-tank to ignore 50% of the human race in pretty much any politicised context.

Secondly:

white privilege

Almost certainly doesn’t do you much good even in post-Mugabe Zimba. It certainly doesn’t do you any good in China, where we are broadly speaking thought of as aliens who can do childish tricks and have limited sapience but also own nukes. What will help you have a lot of status in either place is potloads of cash.

Being white, western, male and straight makes you statistically much more likely to have pot-loads of cash when you visit a country like that. Therefore, gimpy is still wrong, but the underlying point; that race prejudice does happen against white people if you’re standing somewhere that ain’t here, still has some validity. [1]

Pagar @14:

So what you are saying is that the opinions and value of the white, male and straight person are worth less because they have those characteristics.

No, that’s not how I read the comment at all. I’m also white, male, straight; I have had actual people actually telling me that my opinion was invalid because I’m a rapist (because I’m white, male and straight). This kind of hysterical prejudice does exist in the radfem movement but it is, delightfully, much rarer the further removed in time we are from 1980.

What is true is that people like you and I, who live in the west and aren’t on the breadline, and who have a post-University level inculcation of intellectually liberal values, are in a very unusual position. We don’t lose any personal power or social validation and respect by assessing people with a schema that ignores race, class, sex and gender [2]. Because we are inclined to be fair and reasonable, being fair and reasonable seems like a simple case of enlightened self-interest. Therefore an absence of women on the board of a right-wing think tank may be meaningless.

For many of those who share our world, these attitudes are insufficiently generalised (because vast wealth imbalances and huge populations of the under-educated still exist). Therefore, from their viewpoint we are in a current and on-going battle to spread the attitude you and I happen to share widely enough that we can finally stop shouting about it and move on to the next thing we need to fix.

[1] I’ve been the focus of a race riot for being white in the wrong place at the wrong time.

[2] Pet bug-bear of mine. Gender != sex; both are at times significant.

“limited sapience but also own nuke”

It is true too. I am told average Chinese IQ is around five points higher than those of whites 🙂

Being white, western, male and straight makes you statistically much more likely to have pot-loads of cash when you visit a country like that. Therefore, gimpy is still wrong,

Wasn’t quite my point and I couched my statement with appropriate words of equivocation to avoid being absolute! Besides I’d argue half convincingly, based on statistics from the UK, that gay men are more affluent than straight men. So being gay makes you more likely to have cash than being straight.

Anyway, my point is that privilege is a cultural phenomenon and thus varies between cultures. It is not a universal feature of being white, male and straight to have the advantage, it depends very much on where you are. Also, that the classifications used, with the possible exception of sex, are arbitrary in their definition. Thus, you cannot glibly dismiss arguments as having no merit because they come from someone ‘white, male and straight’ when these classifications are problematic.

19. Disraeli lives

Errrr………… I’m a little confused by all this. I was at the Demos event as well and there were many successful (and powerful) women there – both from Demos and from other organisations. It does seem a little hysterical to assume that, because there weren’t any women speakers, there was some kind of mysoginistic agenda being pursued.

As for Phil Collin’s remark about JP – he said that the incident occurred on holiday, NOT while campaigning, and I thought JP took it in pretty good humour really. Perhaps, like any birthday party, this was more an event for good humoured fun, conversation and entertainment than the ideological assault on feminism that some of you seem to have percieved?

Richard Reeves has responded in The Guardian
http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/may/14/response-politics-womens-rights-equality

I thought the substantive question was whether liberalism had the resources to do more than hope for change on gender equality.

I’ve written about feminist goals and liberal ends, using the example of parliament and politics because Reeves worries about the loss of the 1990s feminisation of politics, but is wary about the means which got us even that far, and because I don’t know anything substantive about the boardroom issues. Anyway, broadly the claim that liberalism risks lacking means is an important one, but there are also important liberal challenges to a traditional radical positive action agenda, and perhaps even some shared ground to be found from that given the commitments of a substantive liberalism
http://www.nextleft.org/2009/05/liberals-for-feminist-goals-but-can.html


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