Can’t you take a bit of a joke /sexual assault ?

Nothing But Feeling « LRB blog

This was first posted on the LRB blog on 30 October as Can’t you take a bit of sexual assault 

To mark the 60th anniversary of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Michael Gove and Neil Kinnock were interviewed by John Humphrys about the experience of being interviewed by John Humphrys on the Today programme. In the live broadcast from the Wigmore Hall on Saturday, they were happy to go along with the myth of the 8.10 interview and show their willingness to play the game of politics hard and with good humour. ‘Coming into the studio with you, John,’ Gove said, ‘is a bit like going into Harvey Weinstein’s bedroom.’ There was laughter from much of the studio audience and applause from some. Not to be outdone, Kinnock said: ‘John goes way past groping – way past groping.’ Cue more laughter. Beyond the Wigmore Hall, there was outrage at Gove’s treatment of sexual violence as an opportunity for a chummy witticism; he soon apologised‘unreservedly’ for his ‘clumsy attempt at humour’. In the furore, the BBC continued to report that Michael Gove had made a joke about Harvey Weinstein.

It’s worth looking more closely at Gove’s queasy analogy (the remark clearly wasn’t off the cuff). Going a few rounds with Humphrys on the Today programme is something that high-status politicians choose to do. They hope not to get caught out, not to come out of it looking like a fool. But above all, they know what they’re letting themselves in for. It should go without saying that their experience is nothing at all like that of young actors being subjected to sexual harassment and assault by a rich and powerful film producer. But Gove’s comparison also brings us back to the familiar territory of blaming the victim for harassment and assault: she should know what to expect, she shouldn’t take risks and, failing that, she shouldn’t take things too seriously. Kinnock’s quip about the interview being ‘more than groping’ suggests he understands harassment in the same way as Gove, and a good part of the audience did too – the complicity was stifling.

Patting, squeezing, pinching, what’s the harm, can’t you take a bit of sexual assault? Kinnock’s joke suggests that there is a hierarchy of actions – part of a familiar discourse rehearsed endlessly over recent weeks. There are actions that are just a bit of fun, just ‘groping’, but there are other actions that a majority thinks unacceptable, sanctionable and, on occasion, serious enough to require legal redress – it’s a matter of degree. Within this discourse moreover there’s always going to be a familiar, tricky grey area: my version of events is always going to be different from yours.

But there isn’t a hierarchy of this kind. Rather, there are two languages fighting for interpretative authority over the same set of actions, the same set of events. The first language (‘a bit of a grope’, ‘just a bit of fun’, ‘I thought she’d be flattered’, ‘she can’t take a joke’) is colloquial, light-hearted, familiar; it’s what you say down the pub, or in the ‘locker room’, or in the editorial offices of the Sun and Mail, or in too many parts of the House of Commons. Its apparent everydayness fuses seamlessly with ‘men will be men’ and a thousand riffs of the same kind. It’s a gendered discourse, sure, but one that both men and women can and do use, and it has authority – Gove and Kinnock competed to use it. But it isn’t ‘common sense’, and it’s no more natural than any other language.

Sexual harassment and sexual assault are not different in kind from groping, squeezing and grabbing. Groping, squeezing and grabbing are harassment and assault. It should be simple but somehow it can’t be, and one of the reasons is that the two languages don’t have equal authority. The ‘trouble’ with words like assault or harassment is that they don’t seem to belong in everyday discourse, they sound technical, perhaps a little alien. And from here it’s a short step to seeing this type of language as unnatural: the unwelcome entry of officialdom into the private world – too much red tape and political correctness gone mad – because we all know what we mean, don’t we? Except, clearly, ‘we’ don’t. There is no ‘we’, and no end of ways not to believe women.

This facile ‘common sense’ needs to be countered with other ways of talking. One among others is to describe harassment and assault in chilling narrative detail, to defamiliarise it, sever it from the label of a ‘bit of fun’ or ‘things getting out of control’. Some of the most powerful witness from women has told in painful specificity exactly what happened. It makes for uncomfortable listening and reading, and rightly so. But patriarchy doesn’t suffer challenge, criticism or even discomfort lightly. All too soon, it’s time to move on. Gove’s ‘clumsy’ joke marks a moment at which Weinstein becomes a byword, starts to pass into folklore, and is neutralised. Jokes like this at moments like this are attempts at punctuation: full stop, end para, we’ve talked about this enough. Gove and Kinnock and all the others think it’s time to get back to ‘normal’. It isn’t. We won’t.

London Review of Books Blog On Grenfell Tower: Nothing But Feeling

Nothing But Feeling « LRB blog

19 June 2017

There was a moment in her interview with Emily Maitlis on Newsnight on Friday when Theresa May mentioned a woman who had escaped the Grenfell Tower fire in just a T-shirt and knickers. The woman stays with you. Very briefly, something broke through the repetitions and evasions of the official discourse being deployed by the government, Kensington and Chelsea council, and ‘interested’ corporate parties who insist that regulations were complied with and profess to welcome any investigation.

Downing Street had clearly decided that May’s performances on Thursday hadn’t worked. It was feeling that the prime minister was sent out to communicate the following day; her repeated use of the words ‘horrific’, ‘terrible’ and ‘horrendous’ was the obvious index of this. And her repeated reference to the £5 million emergency fund, with its connotations of practical immediacy, was intended to make up for the lofty distance suggested by the public inquiry she had announced the day before. By Saturday morning, direct speech had been abandoned altogether, with Damian Green, the first secretary of state, insisting that ‘she’s distraught by what happened as we all are.’

It’s easy to charge May with a lack of empathy, a personal psychological failing. But her evolving language after the Grenfell fire is part of a bigger official discourse, which is itself in crisis. It is an axiom of popular knowledge that politicians never answer the question that’s put to them; a cliché that most political representatives don’t listen. Conversely, political parties never seem to tire of telling their constituencies what they are thinking or what they ‘really’ meant when they voted for Brexit or Ukip or Labour or the Lib Dems. And when they don’t respond predictably or conveniently, when they respond with anger or contempt, or propose an alternative version of events or proposal for what should be done, it is conventional for politicians to represent this not as conflict or divergence but as a communication failure: we just didn’t get our message over clearly enough.

The work and pensions secretary, David Gauke, gave an interview to Channel 4 News on Friday evening. As he tried to step deftly between ‘regulations’ and ‘guidance’ while saying nothing that would implicate him or his government in anything at all, it was almost inevitable that Gauke would slip. The speed at which he self-corrected ‘simplify the regulations’ to ‘simplify the guidance’ was remarkable. There was a startling lack of concrete nouns in Gauke’s language, and had it not been for the interviewer, Cathy Newman, you would hardly have known what events Gauke was talking about. He used the word ‘fire’ only twice in the six-minute interview, and despite Newman’s repeatedly asking whether the residents of Britain’s 4000 tower blocks could feel safe, Gaufe avoided using the words ‘safe’ or ‘safety’. He wasn’t speaking to the moment but to a probable future; his words had been chosen to withstand the scrutinies of inquest, investigation and enquiry. He said nothing that attributed responsibility to anyone or anything. The Downing Street statement that support for victims in the immediate aftermath of the fire ‘was not good enough’ is comparable:

The response of the emergency services, NHS and the community has been heroic. But, frankly, the support on the ground for families who needed help or basic information in the initial hours after this appalling disaster was not good enough.

This crucially obscures the question of where the support might have – should have – come from.

Gaufe’s replies were part of a catch-all disaster script, stuck together with boilerplate phrases: ‘we must get to the bottom of … we must understand … we mustn’t jump to conclusions.’ The ‘we’ of government is a problem in this crisis, raising a raft of questions about responsibility. May, Gauke et al. can adopt a ‘we’ quite comfortably if it is the ‘we’ that makes money available or instructs other agencies (fire services, local councils etc.) to make checks, follow guidelines and, by inference, bear responsibility for the fire and what follows. This ‘we’ also does vaguer stuff such as offer condolences, ‘get to the bottom of’ things and ‘try to fully understand’ them. But it quickly finds itself in tricky territory. ‘We’ mustn’t rush to conclusions or pre-empt investigations, and it can soon look as if ‘we’ isn’t doing much at all except standing on the sidelines and exhorting.

Responsibility is a double bind. The government, Kensington and Chelsea council, and the companies they outsource to, must appear to be agents who are in control and capable of dealing with what May called ‘an absolutely horrendous tragedy’. But they also want to deflect from themselves any responsibility for causing it, with the effect that they sound distant, defensive, repetitive and on occasion paralysed. Discursively they cannot win, which is one reason the fetish for feeling is so critical.

In May’s Newsnight interview, the fire was a ‘tragedy’, an ‘event’, an ‘incident’, at one point, agonisingly, a ‘circumstance’, nouns nearly always preceded by such epithets as ‘horrendous’, ‘terrible’, ‘terrifying’, which were themselves sometimes preceded by ‘absolutely’. Painful as this discourse is, it is uncomplicatedly intransitive: it promises nothing but feeling, and sidesteps hard questions about responsibility and agency. So if there is psychological failing, there is also, more importantly, political strategy. Virtues and their opposites have historically specific forms and perhaps it isn’t surprising that empathy and understanding, the demonstration of feeling for others, have assumed such significance in such a fundamentally unequal society.

The Guardian: Other Lives – a piece I wrote about my father

 Originally published, 3 April 2013

Naeem Malik obituary

Naeem Malik as a student in the 1950s in London, whose cosmopolitanism he loved
 Naeem Malik as a student in the 1950s in London, whose cosmopolitanism he loved

The working life of my father, Naeem Malik, who has died aged 83, was characterised by restlessness. He worked as a tutor, a restaurant reviewer and as a broadcaster for the BBC’s Urdu language service, supplementing these jobs with import-export. He was asked to set up a margarine factory and a fish farm; there was also an ill-starred adventure with a rotating advertising sign.

He was born in Amritsar, north-west India. His father narrowly escaped the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar ordered by General Reginald Dyer in 1919. Amritsar was just 15 miles from what became, unexpectedly and violently, the line of partition between India and Pakistan in 1947. Naeem took to the streets that year armed with a molotov cocktail, which exploded before he could throw it. At the railway station, on a stretcher, his red-stained arms nearly provoked a riot – although it was “only” the red of the antiseptic mercurochrome.


When he and my English mother, Marion, got engaged in the early 1960s, her family thought he might be an Indian prince – a rumour he never quite denied. Officially a republican, he loved the spectacle of monarchy. A committed anti-racist, he was convinced (wrongly) that he had never suffered racism. He loved England, but his England, like everyone’s, was selective. He had his flashes of national feeling: watching the FA Cup final, hating Mrs Thatcher.

He fell in love with London: Italian coffee and European cinema, exclusive department stores, a then-shabby South Bank, Hampstead Heath, the theatre, concerts and opera. He also developed an encyclopedic knowledge of the city’s bus routes and tube lines.

For his nephews and nieces going west – mainly to the US – he became a model of a different life, secular and cosmopolitan, and he will be remembered by all as a great cook. In his later years, illnesses put paid to his vigour, but he loved being Grandpa with his grandson, Luca. His failing eyesight made him miserable, but he got great pleasure from his talking books, finally reading Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and Shame, after years of procrastination.

He is survived by Marion, me and Luca.

LRB online: Universities under Attack or Why I left

Universities under Attack

Rachel Malik

For a long time I believed that being an academic wasn’t just the best career for me – which it clearly was, I loved it – but one of the best it was possible to have, especially within a university system committed to expansion. Yet recently I took voluntary redundancy after teaching in the humanities at Middlesex University for 18 years, and for the foreseeable future I have no desire to work in any university in this country – or, I imagine, elsewhere.

The attack on universities takes many forms. My focus here is on attacks from within: attacks on staff, academic and administrative, and attacks on knowledge that come from inside universities themselves. ‘Universities’ is not a simple plural. The ‘academy’ is a messy conjunction of increasingly conflicting elements and interests and these cut across the familiar oppositions between old and new, rich and poor, deserving and undeserving. Thus Middlesex is not just or most importantly a struggling post-1992 institution. Its management worked out a long time ago that survival and success did not lie with domestic students. The university has two overseas campuses – in Dubai and Mauritius – and is actively searching for a site and partners for a third, probably in India. Like many others, it has attempted to commodify as many of its assets as possible: courses and programmes in the form of franchises; research; and various types of higher educational and pedagogical expertise.

It wasn’t always like this. When I arrived in 1993 and for a good number of years after that, it was a wonderful place to work. Demand in the humanities was buoyant, and this was crucial to the opportunities we had to build teaching programmes from scratch and rebuild others, and to do our own research, encouraged both by the intellectual culture in which we worked, and by something else that has become increasingly rare: sabbatical leave.

Today the most reliable communiqué from the institution is the corporate newsletter. By ‘reliable’ I mean that it arrives regularly and contains no bad news. It is the familiar story of visions delivered, research impacting, champions championing. This corporate version of the institution is completely at variance with the lived reality of the staff and most of the students. These representations, like much else, exist for the benefit and reassurance of foreign partners, actual and potential. Meanwhile, on another part of the website, the voluntary redundancy scheme is now permanently open, punctuated by frequent compulsory redundancy operations. Both are designed to erode morale and force staff to accept increasingly degraded conditions of ‘service’.

Discrepancies of this kind are a part of everyone’s working life, but at Middlesex they were particularly jarring. In nearly all respects ours is an institution with no past. I do not mean by this that it does not have 500 years, or 150 or 50 years of history and tradition to look back on. I am talking instead about the managerial embrace of a particularly degraded form of the modern. The management speciality is ‘radical’ reorganisations: of teaching programmes, organisational structures and research priorities, all of which must be achieved at absurdly accelerated rates. Such revolutions are always justified as a necessary response to external conditions and to a future whose only certain quality is its uncertainty. Emergency is our everyday: it is always wartime.

When yet another one of these restructurings is declared, what we do – teaching, thinking, writing, marking, planning – is never taken into consideration. It counts neither as activity nor as value. Anyone who expresses reservations about the direction chosen for the future is, by definition, inflexible and disloyal. This is a particularly cynical version of modernity. No one wants to be on the wrong side of the future, and that future is achievable only through a complete cancellation of the past.

This revolutionary tempo sits uncomfortably with the rhythms of teaching and research. Last year Middlesex closed down its philosophy department, which has since moved to Kingston. It was an excellent department. It also had all the contemporary indicators of ‘research excellence’. When I asked my dean about the decision, it was obvious that excellence hadn’t been enough to save the department, so I asked him why the extensive funding the unit had earned from its RAE scores and various other funding sources had been no protection against immediate closure. He was (for once) perfectly clear: ‘But that’s over, that’s finished,’ he said, meaning that what was already earned simply did not count.

Within this ‘logic’, it is virtually impossible for an individual or group to accumulate intellectual value or capital, much less trade on it. This may sound – and it obviously is – cack-handed and incompetent, but something of the same logic is at work in the short-termism that is currently remaking the academic workforce.

Many university departments simply could not function without the energy, talent and goodwill of part-time lecturers, but the pattern of a skeleton permanent teaching staff supported by part-timers and those on teaching-only contracts has become a model for staffing in many institutions, and not just because it is cheaper. Those small numbers of permanent staff are increasingly going to be employed to develop, write and monitor courses that they will not teach and that exist primarily as units for sale or rent to a variety of markets, national and global. Little, if any, thought has been given to the impact of this on teaching and learning by the universities adopting this model. This commodifying of a course or a degree programme or a set of quality procedures is bad news. For one thing, the majority of academics and students are becoming ever more remote from the places where knowledge is produced. It is now seen as naive to insist on the natural connections between teaching and research.

Further, the global market, rightly or wrongly, is seen as a very conservative place: the role of self-censorship, the weeding out of anything that might prove controversial, is a necessary consequence of the edu-business model. The result is courses that become ever more anodyne as they compete to imagine the inoffensive. In various departments at Middlesex, course content is already indirectly determined by partner institutions, national and international: it can’t be taught here, unless it is taught there.

There has been a good deal of discussion about the direct pressures put on academics to produce work that sits comfortably within the research assessment criteria. However, I would suggest that as the financial situation worsens, institutions will need to apply less pressure on researchers to go where the money is. Academics will make their own adjustments, will internalise the priorities of the funding councils, and adopt them as their own. Soon they will become adept at second or even third-guessing them. Such pragmatism probably doesn’t make for very good research. But that pragmatism is likely to be strengthened as the nature of research itself is redefined.

In various forms of higher educational discourse, research is already starting to float free of ‘content’, that tricky, highly specialised, fancy knowledge that presents such a challenge to institutions such as Middlesex. Education is becoming a training in learning. Students learn a good deal about how to ‘do’ team-work and assess their peers, but rather less about the Victorian Novel or the Role of Literature in the Contemporary. Similarly, research has come to mean one of two things: the quantifiable thing that needs to score well in the Research Excellence Framework, or a set of transferable practices or methods.

These practices, increasingly generic and cross-disciplinary, are being taught to postgraduates, and increasingly to undergraduates, particularly those in what are now called ‘research-rich institutions’ looking for ways to justify their fees. Just as the good manager takes pride in being able to manage anything, so the good researcher will take pride in being able to research anything. Not knowing much about a subject area will present no difficulty, rather it might be considered an advantage, for the researcher will be untroubled by disciplinary loyalty – just like the manager who comes in from outside.

This may seem hyperbolic, but there are already strong precedents for this sort of approach in both management and teaching. And perhaps it isn’t so very far away from happening in academia. I recently chanced upon a website that provides students in humanities and social sciences at a UK university with information about the various types of research training available to them. Some of these were valuable – training about writing for publication, conferences, the profession and so on (we would be fools to reject professionalisation) but I was brought up short by a workshop on ‘the literature search’:

This second interactive workshop will provide an opportunity to find out how to identify the most important and influential literature from the literature search. Participants will use measures to identify journals with high impact factors, articles with large citation counts, and influential authors. Strategies for reading will also be discussed, as well as understanding how much to read, when to stop, and options for taking effective notes from reading materials.

This doesn’t call for elaborate interpretation. However, I find the unthinking correlation between ‘influential literature’ on the one hand and ‘high impact factors’, ‘large citation counts’ and so forth, rather worrying. Even before the first REF has run, its metrics have been adopted as the primary indicators of value and esteem. This research programme is offered, I might add, by a Russell Group university. Of greatest concern, perhaps, is that the training offered here is totally divorced from any particular body of material. Faced with such a free-floating model of what knowledge is, perhaps we should all think a little more carefully about the future of that proprietary ‘my’ in ‘my research’.

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