‘The Fallen Woman’, Experts and #Slutgate

My hope, when posting entries to this blog, is that the words will be encouraging to the people who read them.  My writing seeks to build on the Social justice concept of recognition and I don’t mind whether this is achieved by celebrating the emerging musicians whose gig I reviewed last week or by providing a starting point for inexperienced readers who are trying to analyse myths in the media about specific groups.

The concept of Social Justice enables us to suggest that there are groups of people in the world, (e.g. people who don’t fit in with the norm) whose voices are often ignored, their lives seldom remarked upon, their identities not represented in positive ways and their ways of being unrecognised or undervalued.  We can see this ‘deficit’ thinking being countered in contemporary life by, for example, LGBT friendly media sites.

Social justice approaches challenge the silencing and stigmatisation of those lives and encourage us to avoid thinking of people’s lives as better v worse, normal v abnormal or good v bad.  Social Justice thinking encourages us to celebrate people’s identities for what they are.

Social justice approaches require us to challenge deficit thinking that only sees the negative in someone’s life, only highlights what people can’t do (for example disabled children), reduces a person’s worth down to a measurable criteria (whether they can pass an exam or fit in with a top down imposed rule) and never looks beyond the practice of stereo-typing. Iris Marian Young Justice and The politics of Difference is very good on this.

Deficit approaches are particularly gendered.  For example, we continue to encounter the 19c tradition of the ‘fallen woman’ who has lost her innocence (and God’s grace) by forgoing chastity, by resisting male control or by outwardly expressing her sexuality.

The ‘fallen woman’ stereotype is perpetuated in our current media and even when movies attempted to counter the stereotype, e.g. Pretty Woman, some characters experience more equality than others.

The anthropologist Judith Okely writes about the visual nature of this stereotype.  In a book called Own and Other Culture, she explains that in the school she attended as a child in the 1950s, girls who had contravened expectation were forced to stand aside from the other girl’s,

‘The miscreant individual so treated became a conspicuous bodily shape, as if cut out from a group photograph’.

This could also involve a girl who had infringed the rule having to sit under the matron’s table whilst the matron worked above.

The impact of this visual form of stigma on these girls’ senses of being, at the time, would probably have varied depending on their resilient capacity.  Some would be more injured than others by the process of ‘othering’.  But the overall messages they all got was, ‘don’t be seen to be different’ and that message would probably have injurious consequences for them at different times throughout their lives.

In the recent past the impact on girls of being different could be draconian, for example, teenage pregnancy could result in incarceration.  It is only 60 years since such girls (and also married women who had become pregnant by a man who was not their husband) would have been sent to a ‘Hostel’.

I noticed recently this fallen woman approach to young women was still being used when an newly elected MP was called a ‘slut’ by an academic on social media (I will refer to this academic hence forth as Academic 1), we also saw it in the previous parliament when the speaker’s wife posed naked, ‘but for a sheet to cover her modesty- so said the press’.

This post is simulated by reading an article where another academic (Academic 2) called out Academic 1 (‘slut caller’).

Before I carry on I should point out that I encountered a conundrum when writing this post.  I have this sort of unwritten rule that, with the exception of Tory politicians and occasionally politicians who mimic the Tories, I won’t use social media to attack or negatively name individual people.  It’s not always easy to stick to this rule – but I try (ok, ok – I might have bent the rule when making up the derogatory term ‘slut caller’ for Academic 1 ).

I try not to be too personal because Social Justice thinking and practice poses us a problem when we want to challenge dogma and/or point out flaws.  How do we do this without replicating the behaviour of the ‘haters’, the deficit model people, the apparent ‘enemy’? How do we do this without becoming a ‘hater’ ourselves?

It would have been easier to name both these academic.  So the conundrum was to name and shame or not to name and shame.  Indeed it would only take a second for you to find them on google but I have chosen not to name and shame and hopefully this moves the focus of my analysis from being about personalities to being about ideas.

To summarise the gist of the article I read.  Academic 2, challenged Academic 1 for calling a new MP a ‘slut’, Academic 2 highlighted the dangers of academics getting carried away with media attention and advised academics to stick to talking about subjects they have done research on – very sound advice.  In particular, the article explains that Academic 1 the ‘slut caller’ had not done research on Scottish Politics but had knowledge of German history  – it doesn’t mention whether this knowledge involved research on, ‘slut calling’ in Germanny.

Academic 2’s article finishes with some good and helpful advice such as don’t listen to professors who can’t show:

  • They are actually experts
  • Have actual done a study on the topic,
  • They are not “visiting” or “emeritus”
  • They are not simply managers with titles like principal, vice-principal, director etc.

Now, I have nothing against Academic 2.  Indeed, I greatly enjoy reading his outputs when they appear in the new media and this takes me to my first point.  If you believe in social justice then you don’t assume a person has one identity, you judge someone by their complex multi-identity whole.  Indeed, Academic 2 mostly writes stuff I agree with and I am usually only too happy to entertain his writing that doesn’t fit my world view as it might help me learn something.

There was just something very different about this post – it seemed to be targeted at a wider audience than Academic 1.  It seemed out of character that a person, who usually writes in a humorous way, should be so strict when it comes to the notion of ‘expertise’. This caused me to pause and reflect on why that might be the case.  Could it be that he had internalised some of the criticism, centred around his own expertise, that he himself had encountered in the media when he was attacked for a report he wrote on media bias? The article seemed to show some awareness of this possibility.

So, when reading Academic 2’s recent article and thinking that I mostly agreed with it, I thought it might also be an interesting activity to judge his work by his own criteria.  For example, I was tempted to look at his CV on-line to see if he had written about the use of the word. ‘slut’ or any other gendered issue.

But of course this approach would have wasted precious time.  Academic 2’s position ‘you can’t talk to the media about something you’re not expert about’ is a bit of a red herring.  Indeed, the main problem with Academics 2’s article is that it could or should have more clearly dealt with the fact that nobody should call another person a ‘slut’, rather than whether ‘slut caller’ was an expert ‘slut caller’ or not.

A more gender sympathetic article would have focussed more on analysing ‘slutgate’ as a classic example of one class of woman (an academic) using the ‘fallen woman’ stereotype to attack another woman from a working class background – in order to belittle that working-class woman’s status.  The attack reeks of a, ‘know your place’ approach to life.

Having come from a state school background to work in academia, I am used of this sort of snobbery.  This sort of thing has been happening for a long time, not just in academia, but that does not diminish the potentially injurious nature of the comment or its unacceptability.

I can be quite an aggressive person, particularly in my younger years (more of that in later posts) but it has always amused me to watch posh academics point the finger at people like me for assertively standing up to the discrimination and snobbery we experience in academia.

Some academics see other people’s assertiveness, as non-academic, as not polite and as aggressive but they can’t see how their own snobbish, elitist ways of being and bullying practices are actually the most aggressive aspect of academia.  They are hypocrites.

The second key issue that Academic 2 could have explored in more detail is why Academic 1, ‘slut caller’ would be so aggressive.  In my experiences there is more than one reason that a person is aggressive.  I don’t need to go into all of them – but we can conclude that something must be going on in the life of Academic 1 to lead her to act in this way (it could be medical, it could be socio-cultural, It could be political, it could be emotional etc.).

I wonder if it crossed Academic 2’s mind to pick up the phone and ask her what was going on? It might have made no difference, because you can only have fruitful dialogue when people are prepared to be reasonable and engage with your differences.  However, it might have helped – research wise – to provide more in-depth information.

Putting this last observation aside for a moment, we might want to conclude that Academic 2 was having a dodgy day and had perhaps missed the more important points of ‘slutgate’ because he also had – like his own critique suggests – strayed a bit out of his territory (I also could have phoned him to check this – but then I thought it only fair to employ his methods :)). His expertise lies in analysing the media =- you’d assume that includes an understanding of gender issues – so then you’d assume he got side tracked or wrote his article too quickly.

Though I was happy enough for Academic 2 to call out Academic 1 on grounds of class or sexism, I found it a bit strange that how would focus on the whether Academic 1 really was an ‘expert’.  Why would we want use the word expert in an academic way after our recent referendum enable the glorious Butterfly Revolution that recognised all of us as experts on our own lives.  Experts who should be free to talk about any political matter.

To clarify my own view of the term, ‘expert’.  My own work has involved many years collaborating with children and young people who are, ‘experts’ on their own lives.  I have collaboratively developed some level of ‘expertise’ in how to support children and young people to work with local people to change important things in their lives.

However, I don’t assume my expertise is anything other than my expertise – even when they give me an academic title (indeed its interesting that Academic 2 did not put the title professor along with the managerial titles to be ignored) .

When I write in the media I have different identities sometimes I provide opinion, sometimes I provide expert opinion and sometimes, I write rubbish because I am having a bad writing day.  I assume that whoever I am reading in the media has similar vagaries in their lives and that readers will engage with my stuff critically and point out my mistakes.

Whilst welcoming critique, I also hope that readers will cut me some slack because my experience of dyslexia results in me regularly making textual or numerical mistakes.

Reflecting on Academic 2’s article I realised I also could be charged with getting carried away in an activist way and occasionally, in my non-academic writing, using a selective set of information to challenge a stereotype.

(see my previous post where I was fed up with the Tories for laughing about poverty – the figures on poverty can be interpreted in lots of different ways. However, I also try to provide links for readers to follow up and make their own conclusions rather than just rely on mine.)

I don’t assume that anything I say is the final, ‘expert’ word on a subject.  But, if my job title and or utterances helps to advance the causes of children and families because some people see titles as important – then so be it.

I assume that people should be able to put forward their views whether they are considered to be experts or not.  I also recognise there is a difference between academic expertise (research/writing), expert knowledge (lived experience) and opinion (views related to our experiences).

If your article is published in the opinion section – its just that – not academic writing. When journalists ask me for an opinion I will usually give them one but I will also point out who has done the most research on the topic or who is best placed in the real world to comment, experientially, on the issue.  I expect the journalist to do their job properly and but I am sometimes disappointed.

Setting my disappointment aside, opinion that comes from personal experience is just as useful as academic research.  Opinion may be particularly useful when it is derived from using lessons learned (expert everyday experiential knowledge) in one setting to question practices in another setting.  Indeed, that’s what this blog is about – connecting different sets of knowledge to enable greater enlightenment.

So my conclusion on Academic 2’s article is that it has some good tips that make sense but the justification for these tips may not be so good – it may be built on a false premise.

Having said that, I found the article extremely stimulating and my conclusion is that over all its very useful.  More focus could have been placed on arguing from an ant-sexist perspective about the discrimination that women experience in the media and broadening out this analysis to state that it is very  uncool to write stuff in social media that is classist, sexist, racist, disablist, sectarian, homophobic, ageist, etc..

In the end the article has stimulated me to fill this gap – so nothing is lost and hopefully a lot is gained.