The importance of being offensive

The title of this blog – and the impetus to actually get on with it – emerged from my recent reading (and crystallized at about four in the morning as I sat on the bog before the start of play in Hyderabad).

First came an article in the Guardian by Ellie Mae O’Hagan:

[…]Feminism’s most basic function should be to emphasise that sexism is not an accident, but an inevitable consequence of a society structured to favour men. Jokes about vaginas and reassurances that we won’t have to give up lipstick are not enough. To put it bluntly, a new feminism should not be afraid to piss people off.

Sexy, funny feminism is inspired by the fear that feminism will never get anywhere unless it is likeable. For a long time now, feminists have been told that their message will never spread to the masses if the messenger appears to be an angry man-hating lesbian shouting the odds from a gender studies seminar room. But we need to realise that popular, non-threatening feminism is destined for failure as well. In a patriarchy – and if you are a feminist, you accept that we are living in one – what is popular and non-threatening is what men deem to be acceptable.

The next day, George Monbiot stepped up to the mark, punching crisply as ever:

Without public protest, democracy is dead. Every successful challenge to excessive power begins outside the political chamber. When protest stops, politics sclerotises: it becomes a conversation between different factions of the elite.

But protest is of no democratic value unless it is effective. It must disturb and challenge those at whom it is aimed. It must arouse and motivate those who watch. The climate change campaigners trying to prevent a new dash for gas wrote to their MPs, emailed the power companies, marched and lobbied. They were ignored. So last year 17 of them climbed the chimney of the West Burton power station and occupied it for a week. Theirs was a demonstration in two senses of the word: they presented an issue to the public that should be at the front of our minds. Prompted to act by altruism and empathy, one day they will be remembered as we remember suffragettes and anti-slavery campaigners.

Last week the operator of the power station – EDF, largely owned by the French government – announced that it is suing these people, and four others, for £5m. It must know that, if it wins, the protesters have no hope of paying. It must know that they would lose everything they own, now and for the rest of their lives. For these and other reasons, EDF’s action looks to me like a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation – a SLAPP around the ear of democracy.

SLAPPs are attempts to bully people into political submission through inordinate demands. Their purpose is to terrify and enmesh. Even if they stand no chance of success, they ensure that campaigners who might otherwise have been trying to protect the environment or to defend workers’ rights are instead snarled up in the courts. Often, whatever the merits of the case, people will agree to leave the company alone if it drops the suit.

Then Chomsky reminded me of the systematic way in which politicians and big companies have always gone about reducing citizens to compliant consumers. He even has a marvelous quote from Thomas Jefferson:

I hope we shall … crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations, which dare already to challenge our government to a trial and bid defiance to the laws of our country. […] I sincerely believe that banking establishments are more dangerous than standing armies.

Put that one right up there with Eisenhower’s warning about the power of the military-industrial complex. Neither of them, unfortunately, was heeded.

So – money rules, OK? And polite protest – going through channels – is not going to change anything. Bums on seats ain’t gonna do it. What we need is feet on the street.

Wikipedia tells me:

Lord Justice Sedley, in his decision regarding Redmond-Bate v Director of Public Prosecutions (1999), described Speakers’ Corner as demonstrating “the tolerance which is both extended by the law to opinion of every kind and expected by the law in the conduct of those who disagree, even strongly, with what they hear.” The ruling famously established in English case law that freedom of speech could not be limited to the inoffensive but extended also to “the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome, and the provocative, as long as such speech did not tend to provoke violence”, and that the right to free speech accorded by Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights also accorded the right to be offensive.

So listen up, people. Do not – I repeat, do not be violent. OK? Don’t break their toys or (perish the thought!) their windows. But climb their chimneys and be rude to them. Fill the streets and call them names, even really, really rude names. In fact, as Ellie Mae puts it, really piss ’em off. All weekend, every week, clog up the city centres again and again. Remember the mass demos in East Germany in 1989. Peaceful protest can work, but it has to be massive and determined. Get the bastards down from their pedestals and make them listen.

Then we can get global warming sorted. But not before.

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