say it out loud: feminism and equality

‘I’m not a feminist,’ says Laura Waters, in her Guardian column about women in science. ‘I’m an ‘equalist’.’

In doing so, she resurrects a tedious semantic argument, and one that’s been fought on many shores before now. Waters contends that she is “fully devoted to promoting science to women as a great career choice and [that she] honestly believe[s] we need more women at all levels in science.” She wants to “ensur[e] women actively choose to stay in science and climb the promotional ladder.” She mentions positively the Athena SWAN programme – which gives praise and status to institutions that actively work to promote equal treatment for women in academia.

I’m sorry to break it to her, but that’s a feminist viewpoint. That’s an entirely feminist argument. If she wants it from a better source than me – it’s exactly the feminist argument I heard Jocelyn Bell Burnell give at WITS a couple of weeks ago.

I have no problems with Waters’ viewpoint. It’s one I espouse myself (any reader of this blog will know that). My problem is with her denial of feminism.

I’m a feminist because I believe in equality. Equality is – for the most part – the primary role of practical feminism. Currently society does not view women as being the equals of men. There’s a gap there that needs filling, and feminism works to boost women’s role in society to fill that gap. It’s not inherently anti-men to be pro-women; it’s not anti-equality to say that one group needs more support.

Imagine a bar chart of the gender pay gap. For every euro Irish men earn, Irish women earn 13.9% less (Irish Examiner, Feb 2013). Parity in the hourly wage – the value of an hour’s work – would have men with 100%, and women with 100%. At the minute, men have 100%, and women have just over 86%. Clearly that’s inequal. To make it equal, you have to close that gap – and you do that by helping women, because women are the group that’s worse off in that situation.

Equalism? Sure. Through feminism.

Waters wants academia to be fairer to women. Women need more help than men do to fulfil their academic potential, because currently the power bias in the institutions of academia swings heavily toward men. What do we do? Make things fairer for women. Use Athena SWAN to reward institutions that reward women. Understand that family structures still involve more women than men doing part-time or awkward hours in order to be around for the kids, and accommodate that. Give positive female role models to young women in STEM careers.

I’m almost reciting Waters’ points here, which is actually the key to what I’m saying: this is a feminist argument.

Why disavow feminism? It feels like internalised misogyny to me**. It’s not lesser to be a woman, and it’s not lesser to be a feminist. Throwing your lot in with the boys may get you approval at the time, but in reality you’re cheerily standing over the status quo while inequality happens all around you.

Feminism is the reason you have a job in academia. Feminism is the reason you get to have an opinion and have it out loud. Feminism is the reason programmes like Athena SWAN happen, and feminism is the reason that it’s recognised that the sciences should be more welcoming to women. We are where we are because of feminists, and sniffily casting that aside and pretending you’re more advanced, somehow, is disrespectful to their work and their sacrifices.

No-one is saying that scientific output should be judged separately depending on its author’s gender. No-one is saying that an institution should seek a candidate of a particular gender rather than a candidate who’s best for the job. What feminism asks is that a women who reads the jobs posting should feel as able as a man to apply, or that a woman offered a job should feel comfortable and respected in accepting the place.

I believe in equality. I think a just society would offer the same chance to everyone. Feminism wants that full and fair chance for women.

Be proud to be a feminist! Feminism is the path to equality. We have lots of work to do.

** please note that I say this in reference to mainstream feminism, and women who disavow the label totally. I’m not referring to women who choose to use a different term for ‘believes in women’s rights’, like ‘womanist’, because of minority status or perceived disrespect by mainstream feminism. That’s a matter beyond the scope of this post.

questions on a grand scale

It is sometimes said that scientists are unromantic, that their passion to figure out robs the world of beauty and mystery. But is it not stirring to understand how the world actually works — that white light is made of colors, that color is the way we perceive the wavelengths of light, that transparent air reflects light, that in so doing it discriminates among the waves, and that the sky is blue for the same reason that the sunset is red? It does no harm to the romance of the sunset to know a little bit about it.

— Carl Sagan

There is certainly something to be said for perspective.

I am not a scientist. I read and watch a lot of popular science because it fascinates me. I want to learn and understand everything I can about the world in which I live and the laws by which it functions. I am aware that this knowledge only just about allows me know how very little I will ever know, but science is a heady drug. And I’ve definitely gained a lot of perspective.

Being reminded every so often that you are the result of millions of years of evolution – a mid-stage example of your species, by all accounts – and that you reside on a rock hurtling around one of an unfathomably large number of stars in an ever-expanding universe will do that to you.

Oh, did you mean perspective in the ‘expect the mundane’ sense? Sorry. I heard it in the Douglas Adams sense.

Coming to hobbyist science reading as an adult is a strange experience. I studied general science up until Junior Cert level (that’s GCSE equivalent). Then I looked at my overall aptitudes and decided that, although I’m sure I would’ve made an adequate scientist, I would rather be an excellent humanities student. I ditched science, hopped into the modern languages driving seat, and left behind me only dust.

Of course, it didn’t help that up until then, I had never encountered any science education that had grabbed me. Biology was a collection of sets of diagrams to label and memorise. Physics, as explained through pictures with little arrows showing vectors but no real-life examples, looked stultifying dull. Chemistry was an unending series of covalent bonds – although, no, I’m being unfair to chemistry here. It provided the only specific memory I have of that class: one day our teacher wanted to show us the reactive qualities of sodium in water. Unfortunately, she used slightly too much of the sodium, and it displayed its reactive qualities very nicely. No-one ever painted over the scorch marks, though.

There’s nothing more dulling to a child’s enthusiasm and capability for awe than a textbook that gives you the basics but leaves out the bigger picture. It’s very important to know the fundamentals, certainly – I would argue that a knowledge of basic human biology is a necessity for everyone, considering you own and live in a body, and Newtonian physics gives you the physical laws within which you work (until you take up lightspeed travel as a hobby). It is fairly soporific, though, if you don’t understand why you’re learning all of this.

If, on my first day of secondary school, someone had Total Perspective Vortex-ed me (“Hello! You are the universe understanding itself! You’re made of stuff from the hearts of stars! You’re an astonishingly complicated evolved mechanism! Now you’d better get to work on figuring out HOW!”), I’m guessing I would’ve dug in with a bit more relish.

This is the balancing act that popular science must perform, then: educate, entertain, and arouse curiosity. Good popsci should leave you, at the end of the book/programme, standing at a crossroads: do you want to leave this topic where you are and just enjoy what you have experienced, or do you want to learn more in-depth? That accessibility is the key, in my opinion. You let down your audience both by overloading them with the nitty-gritty, and by failing to render the reader able to own the topic and relate it to herself.

I started this post with Carl Sagan; there is a reason he’s known as the foremost ambassador of popular science. Reading Sagan is like being spoken to by a warm, knowledgeable friend. He understood that education is important, but that inspiration to learn only comes from the ability to retain a sense of wonder. He, and your Feynmans, Attenboroughs, Moores, and the rest, became or have become in their lifetimes the doyens of gentle guidance into science education. It’s a fine line to walk between show and tell.  Both facets should leave a little to the imagination.

Certainly no-one should think that every day in the life of a working scientist is a spot of proton collision in the morning, driving Curiosity around in the afternoon, and dinner at Stephen Hawking’s place. Every job has its day-to-day requirements and its frankly boring sides.

I just don’t know any doctors who chose their profession because of all the paperwork.

If science writing doesn’t make you feel you are in touch with something greater than yourself, it’s bad science writing.

Oh, I don’t mean God, or a god or gods. I’ve had more than enough of gods and religion to do me a lifetime. I’m talking about matter and about history. I’m talking about that which drives us to wonder about the world, which makes us the most inquisitive and self-aware of creatures. That which lies beyond our tiny, transient lives. It is a fundamental ingredient in the human condition that we feel this wonder and seek to understand it. Some people find their answers in religion. Some people find their answers in science. These are not mutally exclusive – I have friends who are empirical, logical thinkers when it comes to questions of the tangible world, but who retain their faith in God.

If you think that scientists are trying to keep people in unseeing ignorance by trying to make a religion out of science, you are either misguided or wilfully misunderstanding. This is one of the most beautiful things about communicated science: the writer isn’t a minister, isn’t imbued with special supernatural powers, isn’t infallible. They are a person with an aptitude for science who has chosen to share their work. You or I could have the same knowledge with a bit of luck and a lot of hard graft.

Think of sitting in a university lecture and fuming that the professor is trying to make him/herself seem like the possessor of esoteric knowledge by detailing the import in the world of the subject as a whole. Ludicrous.

Two childhood scenes:

1) I am about 8 and still very, fearfully Catholic. My grandmother has given me a book about guardian angels. The book assures me that my guardian angel sits at the end of my bed at night and watches over me. There is no further explanation offered. I read to the end of the book and am still without an explanation of this stranger who turns up invisibly and hangs around in my room all night. I don’t ask questions, though. If I do, God might think I’m being cheeky. I put away the book.

2) I am still about 8. I get an encyclopaedia for my birthday and start reading about the solar system. It is incredible; I am incredulous. How do they know all of this? Why can’t I see the planets and moons when I look in the sky? I turn the page. I learn about Voyager and Hubble and Mir. I think this is brilliant. I have questions and I get answers. No-one tells me I’m wrong for asking questions.

A seed is sown.

Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars – mere globs of gas atoms. I too can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more? The vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination – stuck on this carousel my little eye can catch one-million-year-old light. A vast pattern – of which I am a part… What is the pattern, or the meaning, or the why? It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little about it. For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined it. — Richard Feynman

do right

I keep writing about the internet. The internet is fascinating. I love the maps of its trends, its squalls and storms. I love how opinion shifts and changes, and how, Hydra-like, cutting off one head immediately springs two more into action. It’s like the sea, relentlessly enduring despite its different waves.

I love the internet as an objective observer.

At times, and completely subjectively, I loathe the internet fiercely.

Lots of internet communities, on a large (the entirety of Twitter) or a small (a collective of blogging friends) scale are intensely concerned with being ‘right’. I say ‘right’ in quotation marks, because I’m not quite sure what ‘right’ means in that context. I like being right. I love winning arguments, and I love looking things up and feeling vindicated that I’ve recalled correctly. My boyfriend is a maths student. He loves being right. He loves working out a proof and winding up at a logical conclusion – QED. Those are the ways I understand ‘right’ – you could probably more accurately call it ‘correct’.

This isn’t how I’ve experienced the internet’s version of ‘right’. A lot of the time it feels like internet communities understand ‘right’ to mean ‘not wrong’. You are right if your behaviour or beliefs is in diametric opposition to those you consider to be wrong. You are right if your community agrees with you, and you are right if you can score points off an opponent to your benefit and their detriment.

You are right, and you can continually believe yourself to be right, if your thought plan fits with this, no matter how you go about demonstrating it. You can hurl abuse and bitch or gossip about Those Who Are Wrong, and it doesn’t matter how harsh you are or whether your opponent sees it, because you are right and they are wrong and therefore they deserve what they get.

There is no room for grey areas in the internet game of right and wrong. There is no room for understanding or trying to see things from the opposite point of view. There is no room for stepping back and attempting to reason with those who either don’t agree or can’t express their opinions in a way that pleases you. There is no room for trying to educate gently in a culture that demands proof of your devotion to your cause – your rightness – by shouting as loud as you can and looking around you for pleased reactions.

It doesn’t matter the size of the community doing the shouting: eventually any society that demands agreement becomes nothing but an echo chamber. You become afraid to end up the object of derision, and so you give anything the benefit of the doubt. You start defining yourself by what you’re not: I am not a racist, I am not homophobic, I am not ageist, etc. You become consumed by what you’re not, not what you are.

You are considered as bad as the opposition if you give them any quarter at all, and so battle lines become drawn and peace talks look like appeasement.

I don’t see the point. Quite frankly, I have gone from being one of a community like that to being a party of one, and here I think I shall stay. I don’t see the point in being right if the only benefit of my rightness is not being wrong. I want understanding, not demonising.

I’m not saying everybody needs to become a teacher or an Obama figure, bringing hope and change and co-operation and all that. I’m not saying you need to go find a member of the Westboro Baptist Church and invite them for tea. I’m not saying you need to do anything active at all, actually, because quite a lot of the time, I don’t. I’m not an expert on everything – anything, some might say – and often I learn for learning’s sake. Not to educate and spread the good word, but so that I can tuck some bit of knowledge away in my hindbrain and use it to treat someone better or watch how I express myself. You don’t have to be a frontline soldier. You can just be a compassionate citizen. A few more of those would be very good for the world.

One last thing. I have a good friend with whom I have a tacit agreement that when the world gets too stupid or aggravating or incomprehensible, we can email one another and vent and have it go no further. This is a wonderful situation and I advise everyone to acquire such a friend. However, coming out of a day thinking well, I had a good shout with my friend, that’s done something good for the world is delusional. That’s obvious, no?

So why is it not obvious that doing exactly the same thing out loud on Twitter also does utterly squat for the world?

There is no point in considering yourself right if you don’t do something constructive with it. Write something explanatory. Try making peace overtures to your opposition. Try to see where communication has broken down. Just treat somebody better. Even if you disagree with someone, make your point respectfully without hurling abuse.

Then go bitch with your friend. After all, even entirely correct beings like us need an outlet.

mass communication

The thing about being in a position of knowledge or influence on a particular topic is that at some point you had to go from ignorance to experience. At some critical juncture in your development, you became interested in your discipline and you decided to pursue it further. Looking back, your first tentative forays into reading or research or education seem to be as naive and simplistic as a child learning their ABCs. That’s the point, though – if you never take the baby step, you’ll never get to take the bigger ones.

This is something I think about a lot when taking part in discussions about politics and feminism. It seems so obvious to me now that the dominant media voices primarily focus themselves on women somewhere near the top of the intersectionality* ladder. It seems obvious that there’s a massive world of literature out there, and that you can view pop culture through a feminist lens and see things you’d never noticed (and that sometimes you wish you hadn’t noticed (she says, glumly)). It didn’t always.

[* intersectionality: the principle that your place in society is affected by your gender, your race, your age, your sexuality, etc, and that the benefits and disadvantages conferred by each of those factors is modified and operated upon by each of the others. Basically, society as a big game of Top Trumps.]

To me, one of the primary aims of involvement in an area you care about and consider important is to promote it to others. Makes sense, doesn’t it? You’re a feminist because you want society to give women equality, and the best way to get there is to make more feminists. You’re a scientist because knowledge is vital, so you inspire people to take up scientific careers and thereby progress our understanding of the world around us. Sometimes people tell you you’re doing it wrong. Sometimes they’re right. Often, though, they aren’t – and I see a strange possessiveness articulated by experts/’experts’ when it comes to the general public playing in their garden.

Obviously the Cox/Ince/geeks business is in the forefront of my mind here, but the couple of recent discussions about Caitlin Moran’s writing are playing into it too. Full disclosure: I like Caitlin Moran. She’s not perfect and sometimes she’s entirely wrong, but for my teenage self, finding her writing was one of those watershed moments. You could be a feminist and be funny and care about music and media and non-academic interests! Holy crap. Where has this been all my life? So I carry a residual affection for her from that, yes, but I also think the criticism of her writing can be a little off the wall. Last time I read an argument about her, I spent ten minutes staring at a comment box attempting to reply to an accusation that she’s not a proper feminist because she uses comedy and frivolity in her self-expression. I ended up closing the page and walking away because I didn’t know how to explain to another adult human that people like jokes.

That’s just it, though. People like jokes. Humour is an excellent way to make your audience feel like they have some ownership over your subject, like they’re in the club. Academic feminism has many virtues, but it does often feel like a circle of closed doors – and I’m speaking as someone who’s read the books and had the arguments. If you want to engage people, you have to let them in. You can no more take the average member of the public and set them a reading-list on feminist intersectionality, as you could teach them to enjoy astronomy by giving them an astrophysics PhD dissertation and telling them to get their heads around it before they go buy a telescope.

Everyone has to start somewhere. This is the problem with dismissing articles speaking to laypeople: there is no way to make a layperson an expert if you confuse and isolate them first. Argue that Moran has used offensive wording somewhere or that Ince and Cox could have explained the phrase ‘the scientific method’ better, if you want, but saying that simplistic writing for an inexpert audience is wrong is entirely counter-productive. I would much rather someone ended up at bell hooks by starting out with Caitlin Moran than that they never find either. To be honest, I don’t mind if someone ever makes their way to the academic end of feminism as long as they start questioning the misogynistic standards of society when it comes to what we’re paid, what we’re allowed wear, our freedom of choice, and so on ad infinitum.

Because I want more feminists. I want more people who understand science, too, and I want more people who understand law. I want people to make informed political decisions and I want people to engage with history. But mainly, I want your voice and my voice and everybody else’s. I want gay feminists and transgender feminists and feminists with mental illness and feminists of colour. I want everyone to be counted. And I want teenage girls to understand that you can look at your life with a feminist slant without needing a college education or membership in some esoteric club.

Some people write this off as populism, but I prefer to think of it as accessibility. We’re building Rome – it won’t get done in a day, but that doesn’t mean we’re not progressing by taking one hour at a time.

Dear Science: it’s not you, it’s me.

I just thought I should write and apologise. It’s not you, it’s me. Apparently. I’m interested, and I always have been, but that’s not enough any more. I’m from the wrong side of the tracks – the arts and humanities side. I thought it was okay, you know? But now I’ve been told that I’m part of a detrimental Movement, and I’m just not up for that. I’m sorry, Science. If that’s how you feel, I’ll stay away.

Alright, I’m taking the piss. Sort of.

I actually am a bit more nettled than I thought by this geek-related kerfuffle. I’ve been waffling on whether I should bother writing about it, but then again – I am the Jo Soap being talked about here. I’m an atheist. I read pop sci books. I’m the audience for the Infinite Monkey Cage. I’m a geek, certainly, and I mean that both in the teenage perjorative sense, and the adult descriptor sense. And I’m not a scientist. I just find it interesting. So I’m either the best or worst person to do so. Let’s go.

This concept of ‘the Geek movement‘* is, to be frank, complete bunk. A movement is a coherent group of people, most likely with a leader, and with some idea of what their common aim is. You could call skepticism a sort of movement, I guess, but you’d be stretching a bit even there. Geekdom is less a movement than it is a meander.

To me, the word ‘geek’ describes someone who loves learning, whose curiosity is constantly piqued by new ideas, and who delights in the intricacies of their particular interest. I know people I’d describe as ‘geeky’ who are scientists, certainly, but also lawyers, sociologists, techies, writers, historians, philosophers – and so on. Some of them are atheists, some aren’t. Women and men and some who identify as neither. Some of them have an interest in politics, some couldn’t care less. Almost all are intelligent, questioning minds, and great conversationalists.

So it’s a bit jarring to be characterised as a socially awkward, belligerent, superiority-complexed man.

I mean, at least one of those attributes is totally untrue.

Yes, there are people who fit somewhere on the Venn diagram of {geek}, {skeptic}, {atheist}, {argumentative}, who are absolute fuckwits**. Sometimes they’re very loud fuckwits. But they’re not the majority, and they’re not somehow in charge of this very nebulous crowd of people. That’s a complete misrepresentation with no goal except scoring rhetoric points.

It’s also odd that this post was spawned by a bit of a fracas over this New Statesman editorial by (two of) the Infinite Monkeys themselves, which basically says ‘science does good things for society, don’t forget that, and we should probably depend more on scientific evidence than unverified opinions in areas of science-related policy.’ To which I can only add: and so say all of us. I have absolutely no idea where people got a desire for technocracy, or scientism, or a superiority complex, or a self-nomination as the adjudicators of Where Science Should Go, out of the article. You have one scientist and one writer/presenter/comedian, writing in a mostly political magazine for a mostly non-scientist audience, and their task is to make their point without alienating people who may not read a science-based book from one end of the year to another. Is that really the arena for a searching inventory of the people populating the scientific professions?

Here’s the thing: science is important. Scientists are important. Public engagement with science is also important. Getting people to vaccinate their kids or reduce their energy consumption or write to their representatives to encourage them to pursue science-based policy is important, and the only way to do that is for those in the know to instruct the rest of us in best practice.

I’m a little gobsmacked at this reaction in particular because I think The Infinite Monkey Cage is a great show, whose strength lies in its collaboration between a scientist and a non-science professional. Robin is the audience avatar: he’s a well-read enthusiast, not a working scientist. Brian provides the scientific background. They’re both fluent storytellers and generally funny writers, and they bring the best out of their guests. However, they do understand that speaking to the general public as opposed to a scientist-only audience means drawing a careful balance between the need for nuanced scientific discussion, and the need to engage and retain the interest of their listeners.

And so it is, I think, with the editorial – and not a lot of people have pointed that out. It’s interesting to me that the backlash seems to have come mostly from communications fields – I haven’t seen many scientists who’ve spoken against it. Perhaps most scientists understand that the detailed nature of their work is not immediately transmissable to the public, and know that sometimes you have to blunt the edge a bit.

I’d be sad if this row turned lay-people off enjoying science for fear of being characterised as a brash, shouty, atheism-pushing know-all. I’d be sad if science writers were less likely to appeal to the public because they might suffer an evisceration from sci-comms colleagues. Sometimes the arena of internet arguments is a dodgy place to tread.

Keep the geek flag flying high, friends. Or don’t. I’m not the boss of you, either.

* please see here for an excellent piece-by-piece skewering of that post by MJ Robbins.

** a very technical term, do excuse me.

misogyny: not so rational

Before you read this, you probably should have read Rebecca Watson’s article in Slate yesterday. I’m going to give you a brief run-down, but her article is really worth the full read.

The gist: the skeptic community is not a particularly welcoming, pleasant, or even safe place to be if you’re a woman.

Skeptics are people, like myself and presumably a lot of you reading this, who believe in challenging irrational beliefs and scams: anything from psychics to homeopathy to organised religion, depending on your limits and your own areas of interest. If you think communing with the dead is a load of rubbish or that energy healing is useless and time-/money-wasting, you’re probably at least a bit of a skeptic. Welcome on board.

As a well-known skeptic writer/speaker who’s been involved in a few high-profile conflicts, Rebecca Watson is something of a lightning rod for misogyny. This is a shame, as she’s also a smart, outspoken woman with a lot to share.

But she is a woman, and therefore she bears the toll inflicted on most women who go around Having Opinions In Public.

You get sexualised. You get told not to worry your pretty little head about things. You get spoken over. You get treated as an ‘other’ – as not quite part of the club, even when you have the same right to be there as any man. And not all of this happens to every woman, and not all of it happens all the time, but enough of it happens to enough women to be a problem across any particular sector of society you care to mention.

That is something I know, and it’s something I’ve experienced, and yet I feel more disappointed to see it happening among skeptics than in most places. As Rebecca says in Slate,

I started checking out the social media profiles of the people sending me [hate] messages, and learned that they were often adults who were active in the skeptic and atheist communities. They were reading the same blogs as I was and attending the same events. These were “my people,” and they were the worst.

Generally, the demographics of the skeptic community skew young, liberal, and well-educated (this is my observation, but I’d be interested to see if there’s data on that). It makes some sense, anyway. Those factors usually – not always, but usually – mean that an individual is societally progressive: for my purposes here I’m going to read that as ‘in favour of granting equal rights to historical minorities’.

I don’t know if this assumption comes from my background here in Ireland, where most of the barriers to women’s rights down through the years were put in place by the Catholic Church and its influence on the legal and legislative powers-that-were. Young, educated, liberals are the most likely to have turned away from Catholicism and the folder of conservative societal views attendant thereon.

(I should add here, by the way, that when I talk about religion in Ireland, I mean organised religion and doctrine, not faith itself. I have no problem with people believing in God. I have a very big problem with people thinking I, and my body, need to believe in him too.)

To me, skepticism and feminism are two sides of the same coin. I believe in women’s rights, and I express that within the context of my country by arguing against religious influence; I don’t belong to organised religion, which leaves me free to fight for women’s rights. Two sides, one coin, no bull.

I don’t understand, then, how skeptics can understand ‘I am bereaved, I feel scammed by the person who told me they could speak to my dead auntie, and I wish they’d stop that,’ but not ‘I am a woman, I feel threatened by this set of behaviours from men, and I wish you’d stop it.’

I am [X]. I dislike [Y]. I wish it would stop. Why does it make more sense to skepticism, as a whole, in the former case than in the latter?

So that’s why it bothers me on a number of levels to see the abuse that gets directed at a writer like Rebecca. Such blatant misogynist vitriol is nauseating, and would be anywhere.

Seeing it from people who claim that they’re intelligent, rationalists, general cutters-through of society’s bullshit, is even worse.

berks to the left of me, wankers to the right

I will be the first to say it: my relationship with the internet is not entirely a healthy one. This is no-one’s fault but my own, really. Sitting around at home feeling like a hermit, a nuisance, and a drain on society all at once, I use the internet for distraction and socialising, as well as a good outlet for my grumpy old lady side. (24-going-on-85, you know what I’m saying?)

Those are good days. On bad days, everybody (including me) hates everything (… including me) and opening your mouth in an argument feels like sticking your head out the top of a trench and shouting ‘looks like they’ve all gone home, sarge!’ in a particularly carrying tone.

Why? Well, for a start, there’s the Internet Fuckwad Theory – or, to give it a slightly classier name, the Online Disinhibition Effect – which tells us that anonymity provides a convenient cover for people to shout all the things that they wouldn’t say to one’s face. It works for good and bad: obviously, people use their internet soapboxes to sling mud in all directions, but you’ll also find that people are more willing to stand up for themselves and what they believe in on the internet too. It’s a great leveller.

Mind you, it’s also a great pile of rubbish, sometimes.

This weekend everybody on the internet watched the Olympics Opening Ceremony, myself included. I wrote about it earlier today, but suffice it to say: it was excellent. Dramatic, heart-warming, moving, and all that good stuff. Months of planning and effort and time on the part of the organisers and the volunteers, which all went off perfectly on the night. Well done everybody.

Which is fair enough, right? Even if you don’t support the Olympics themselves, if you don’t approve of the money they’re costing or the way the British government is handling things or the influx of foreigners to London (look, I’m trying to cover all sides here, including the batshit racist angle), you can credit those people with a job well done.

Wrong! THIS IS THE INTERNET. YOU ARE WRONG. It’s written by the door.

Nobody was happy. The Right thought… well, I’ll let this charming gentleman speak for himself:

(damned if I can find the source of this screenshot – if it’s yours, let me know)

– while the Left argued that we shouldn’t let ourselves bank the fires of our general outrage for an evening to watch a pretty show.

(I feel duty-bound to mention here that although I’m  an equal-opportunity taker of the piss, I’m also a dyed-in-the-wool leftie, and far more sympathetic to the waste of money/misuse of resources argument than I’m letting on. I just don’t think it was Danny Boyle’s, or his performers’, fault that seven or eight years ago the British government – still in the green fields of economic success – thought it would be a good idea to apply to host the 2012 games. I also think that there’s an awful lot of Awful out there in the world, and maybe things that make people happy and inspired are worth more than just their economic value.)

That was far too sincere. Back to piss-taking.

The Onion sums it up very nicely in this mini-article: Man Who Enjoys Thing Informed He Is Wrong. It feels like that, a lot of the time, especially if you spend a lot of your time around people with very strong convictions: it’s fine when you all agree, but every so often an issue comes up where you feel more moderate than your friends, or more strongly, and suddenly you’re facing the wrong side of the high wall that stands between Us and Them.

There’s a Kingsley Amis quote about grammarians, paraphrased here by Nick Cohen:

Just before he died, Kingsley Amis wrote that two dismal groups fought over the use of English: the berks and the wankers. Berks were permissive types who rejected all rules. “Careless, coarse, crass [and] gross … they speak in a slipshod way with dropped ‘Hs’, intruded glottal stops and many mistakes in grammar. Left to them, the English language would die of impurity, like late Latin.”

By contrast, wankers were authoritarians who wanted to impose every possible restriction on speakers and writers. “Prissy, fussy, priggish [and] prim … they speak in an over-precise way with much pedantic insistence on letters not generally sounded, especially ‘Hs’. Left to them, the language would die of purity, like medieval Latin.”

I think of this quote almost every day on the internet, except in place of linguistic argument I’m thinking of who’s offending whom on any given issue. From whatever your standpoint, the unthinkably rude and freewheelingly offensive are one step to your left (berks), and the overly uptight and righteous censors of socially acceptable vocabulary/ideas/happiness are one step to your right (wankers).

And the extra fun bit is that those two categories redefine themselves with every new reader of every new post… which is why you really can’t ever please all the people all the time.

You just have to live with it. You’ll always be somebody’s berk and somebody’s wanker.