I’ve spent the last week thinking about empire, as you do. It all started when I found myself watching BBC4′s “Shipwrecks” program which looked pretty interesting but ended up making me rage with it’s gung-ho nationalism. The moment when I knew that I had to stop watching it was when the presenter described the British Empire as “our global adventure”.
There are so many things so profoundly wrong with this that I don’t even know where to start. Not only have our imperial aspirations caused war, famine, and exploitation in the past, but it has a legacy of everything from continued bloodshed to skin-whitening creams. It’s taken me back to an interview I did with The Men That Will Not Be Blamed for Nothing during my stint as editor of SteamPunk Magazine. At the time, I’d not long heard ‘Blood Red‘ their bile-filled poke at colonialism and imperialism in the steampunk movement. It’s the kind of song that lights a fire in you. When I asked guitarist/vocalist Andrew O’Neill about it, he said:
“It’s weird, because there’s a lot of post-colonial writing about the Empire, but it doesn’t seem to have seeped into the consciousness of British people. We kind of think that we went there and gave them trains and roads. Yeah, and then we left with all their stuff. We were in charge of Zimbabwe and we took everything of value and then people say: ‘Oh, look, but we left and they’re killing each other’. Yeah, they’re killing each other because we took all of the valuable things out of their country. The Empire was essentially us raping the world, and anyone who is supportive of the Empire and racist needs to fuck right off. At the very least we owe the Commonwealth the ability to come and live in a country that is only rich because we stole everything of value from the places we invaded.”
- “Less Brass Goggles, More Brass Knuckles”, Steampunk Magazine #7
At some point while I was ranting about this on Facebook, someone mentioned the Romans. This kind of got me thinking about whether our own legacy of being a colonised country has something to do with the highly-toxic attitude that Britain as a nation has towards its “great global adventure”.
For hundreds of years after the Roman Empire collapsed, the accepted belief was that Rome had lifted Britain out of savagery, and set us on the path to righteous enlightenment. In short, it was a little bit like this:
This view only really began to be challenged in the Romantic Age, when the folklore revival left European citizens increasingly aware that their ancestors weren’t quite as primitive and savage as they’d been led to believe. Even then, this idea that the Roman Empire dragged us out of an Age of Ignorance endures to this day.
It’s somewhat beyond my remit here, but needless to say that pre-Roman Britain was far from an ignorant hive of scum and savagery. If nothing else, the wealth of incredibly complex prehistoric monuments, intricately-made artefacts, and astronomical calendars is testament to that. Pre-Roman Britain was a long way away from pre-technological, so why do we still hold this perception of our ancestors?
I think a lot of it has to do with the type of knowledge and technology that the Romans brought to Great Britain: written records took over from oral traditions, centralised governments from tribal ones, and (maybe most importantly) Christianity replaced paganism. These forms of learning aren’t necessarily any more or less valid than the ones we had before, but they came together as a whole package which we (as a people) swallowed wholesale. John Michael Greer has written numerous times (and with great insight and clarity) on how Christianity is innately tied to our modern attitudes towards civilisation, science, technology, government, and learning. It is basically the subconscious foundation our whole society has been built on, with its centralised authority, omniscient patriarch, hierarchical structure, and focus on the written word.
There is a damned good argument that it is an ultimately Christian ideology that underpins the great strengths and terrible failings of the world we have built for ourselves in the English-speaking West. And I find myself wondering whether holding such a dim view of our own pre-Christian ancestors… With ultimately feeling as though we had to be lifted out of ignorance by Rome and by the Church… Doesn’t have something to do with this horrific “we brought them trains and roads” attitude towards the Empire.
After all, if we believe that’s what was true for us, that the Romans came here and uplifted us with better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order, then why shouldn’t we believe that’s what we’re doing, when we set out to conquer an empire of our own?
I’ve been thinking a lot about chivalry these past few weeks. The seed was planted by a friend of mine, who had the misfortune of getting involved in a protracted argument about chivalry and feminism, and whether the two can co-exist. I’ve been reading/watching a lot of Game of Thrones, generally drooling at great length over the spectacular can-of-whoop-ass that is Brienne of Tarth. At the same time, I’ve also stepped in to do some editing work on Combustion Book’s upcoming Dragonpunk anthology. All of which has got me thinking about knights, chivalric values, and whether these things can be re-imagined to be more inclusive of those of us who don’t happen to be straight, white, ripped examples of manhood like Jaime Lannister.
(…I’m sorry, what was I saying?)
Sadly, all of this thinking led to me inevitably typing ‘feminist chivalry’ into Google in the naive hope of finding others who had been thinking along the same lines. Instead, what I got was page after page talking about how feminism has killed chivalry—all basically re-hashing the same arguments thrown in my friend’s direction the week before.
There are many things that bother me about this argument, but I think what troubles me the most is that the people (both men and women) who are moaning about the death of tradition and chivalric values,have at no point sat down and decided what they actually mean when they talk about chivalry.
Chivalry does not mean what you think it means.
Two options would seem to present themselves:
Option one: the form of ‘chivalry’ that’s been heartlessly killed by feminism is a set of traditional values that go back to ye olde days of knights in armour. It is, in fact, the way that things have been since time immemorial.
The first problem with this is that, while medieval chivalric values did indeed include a lot of the stuff you’d probably expect (like protecting the weak and being polite to the ladies), there’s also a bunch of other stuff that you should probably consider carefully before signing up for, such as:
- 1) Showing no mercy to ‘the Infidels’ and going out of your way to make war with them; or
- 2) Submitting absolutely to God, and to your liege lord… so… probably these days it’s your boss.
It’s also probably worth noting at this point that the aspects of chivalry that deal most with the treatment of women are pretty much tied up with the ideal of courtly love, and there’s a damned strong argument to be made that, if these principals were ever practised at all, then they were mostly used as a way for lower-class men to get a leg up in society (sometimes, ahem, literally) by flattering and submitting to high-born women. In fact, rather than being a system which began from the assumption that women were weak and pathetic and needed to be protected, the chivalric knight viewed his lady as a symbol of both the unobtainable sexual ideal and spiritual ecstasy—someone who was both respected and obeyed.
Needless to say, this involved a fair amount of actually figuring out how your lady would like to be treated, rather than complaining every time she wanted to open doors for herself or carry her own bags.
Option two: chivalry has changed and evolved over the years, and no longer means what it meant back in the High Medieval.
This is fine. Values and belief systems change and adapt all the time, so it makes perfect sense that chivalry as it is now is not the same as it was back when people wore armour, slew dragons, wore pointy shoes and shot fireballs from their fingertips.
However, once you acknowledge that something has changed over the years, it becomes vital to address the issue of how it has been changed, by whom, and for what purpose. And a cursory glance over how our perceptions of chivalry have changed over the years should make it pretty obvious that it’s not developed with inclusivity and diversity in mind. That, if anything, our ideas of chivalric masculinity have grown more dominating, oppressive, and controlling, whilst the image of the chivalric woman has slid steadily from the powerful head of the household (or even the kingdom) to the weak, vulnerable princess in the tower in desperate need of rescue.
So, what can we do about it?
Some women are happy as princesses, and more power to them. I’m not here to tell any woman what she can and can’t do, or for that matter, to tell a guy whether he can or cannot hold a door open. What I’m talking about here is opening up these narrow perceptions of male and female gender roles, and not telling the same old, tired stories over and over again. It’s about killing the parts of chivalry that are sexist, racist and hierarchical: filling in the spaces with whatever we can scavenge from the world around us, or the one we want to see in the future.
With this in mind, I would like to present the following list of punked chivalric values for the modern knight-in-armour, regardless of her race, gender presentation, sexual orientation, or physical ability:
- 1) Submit only to whichever master or mistress you choose, and then only for as long as it pleases you. Otherwise, serve no one at all, and be proud;
- 2) Defend the right of all voices to be heard, especially those that speak more softly than you do;
- 3) Be gracious. Listen. Empathise. And treat others as they ask you to treat them;
- 4) Be loyal to your fellows and your friends, and dauntless in the face of your enemies;
- 5) Know yourself, and seek to become stronger in your mind, your body, and your spirit than you are;
- 6) Be wrong sometimes, and know how to apologise;
- 7) Be humble. If there is work to be done: pitch in! Remember that you are never too important to pick up a broom, or a shovel;
- 8) Be courageous, and protect that which is sacred to you. There is much broken in the world and many things that need protecting. Fight for them with your whole heart.
- 9) There is more in the world then the human mind can hold, or can be learned in a lifetime. Remain a student, always eager to learn.
I’m pretty stoked to have had a story accepted over at The Future Fire, a long-standing magazine publishing progressive science fiction and spec fic. I’ve admired their work from afar for a while now, and it’s great to be a part of the fantastic work they’re doing.
My story, ‘Shadow Boy and the Little Match Girl‘ is a little fairytale set in a strange Victorian cyberpunk world of smokestacks and skyscrapers. It was born quickly, and pretty much fully-formed, from a lot of things that I’ve been thinking about for months and maybe years now: multiple personalities, gender dysphoria, grief, identity loss, and the intoxicating dangers of escapism. Should you choose to read it, it is available free online in a positive smorgasbord of formats.
I’ve also re-worked the ‘Bio‘ section of this website (because it was woefully out of date), and put together a new page page of published works to keep track of what I’ve had accepted where. If nothing else, it’ll help me keep track of where the hell everything is, and is nicer than a spreadsheet!
“The path trodden by wayfarers and pilgrims followed the railway and then turned into the fields. Here Lara stopped, closed her eyes and took a good breath of the air which carried all the smells of the huge countryside. It was dearer to her than her kin, better than a lover, wiser than a book. For a moment she rediscovered the meaning of her life. She was here on earth to make sense of its wild enchantment and to call each thing by its right name, or, if this were not within her power, then, out of love of life, to give birth to heirs who would do it in her place.”
The quote above, from Boris Pasternak’s 1957 novel Doctor Zhivago, was also used in the 2007 film Into the Wild: a biopic about the life and, ultimately, the death of the twenty-four year old Christopher McCandless. McCandless, for those who haven’t heard of him, walked out into the Alaskan wilderness in 1992 to live apart from the rest of civilisation. His body was discovered four months later, emaciated and huddled in a sleeping bag on an abandoned bus in the Denali National Park. To many, he is seen as a Romantic and a visionary. However, I’ve never been able to get past the nagging idea that McCandless was part of an almost hyper-masculine approach to Nature: an attitude that views the wild world as something to be conquered rather than understood. That judges Nature for its worth as a commodity, rather than for the value it has in its own right. Christopher McCandless walked out into the wilds without a compass, with almost no experience in living in harmony with the land, and with seemingly little respect for the power and the rhythms of the landscape that he was walking into.
No, there are doubtless many reasons why Christopher McCandless was worthy of admiration, but I cannot count his attitude towards the natural world among them.
The quote, however, has stayed with me and has only echoed louder and louder through the passing of this year: pulsing through the space between my thoughts like a mantra. The past few weeks have taught me that I am anything but alone in feeling this way. But, before I can talk about that, I need to tell you about a book…
I don’t know how this book ended up on the shelf in my bedroom when I was a young girl. The inscription just inside the front cover, “From Mick and Paula. Christmas 1972”, dates it from almost ten years before I was born, and doesn’t do anything to shed any light on the matter. It bears the names of my parents, but isn’t in what I recognise to be their handwriting. The hand looks far more like my paternal grandmother’s, but that doesn’t do much to explain how it ended up back in our house when I was a girl, or why the date on the inscription is the year before the publication date on the imprint. What I do know is that it has been with me more or less since I was able to read, and that it was both an enigma and a joy to me throughout my childhood.
It’s covers have always been tattered, faded, and printed with stalks of seeding summer grass and the big, bright heads of daisies that were probably once white, but have now faded to a gentle sepia. The spine, now peeling away from the binding, bears the words “Book of the British Countryside”. It was printed by the AA, probably in 1973, and as far as I can tell it has never been reprinted.
I grew up in the suburbs of a town on the commuter-belt between Brighton and London that was almost entirely devoid of any history of its own. What it did have, however, were green and open spaces. Looking back on it, so much of my childhood was spent out in the open: climbing trees, catching butterflies, digging through thick, musty compost in the allotments behind my parents’ house for the skull of a fox that was peeking its nose out of the rich, turned earth. We didn’t have a computer of any kind until I was around twelve, and I did not use the internet at all until I came to university at eighteen. So, when I was a child, this book became my roadmap to the entire world. I remember leafing carefully through the pages of drawn and printed birds and butterflies—sometimes trying to identify something I had seen or found, or else just looking for the sheer joy of it. I pressed dozens, if not hundreds of leaves and flowers between its hefty covers, the shadows of which still discolour the insides of the title page. Sometimes, I even read the words.
I’m not entirely certain what changed for me around the age of thirteen, when I stopped searching meticulously through the pages of this book or walking through the long grass in the fields near my house. Perhaps, in truth, it was a combination of things: the emotional and hormonal turmoil of puberty; my parents divorcing and my mother moving away; the slow arrival of electronics, computers, digital music. Although, I will admit that I have begun to consider whether the change in schools (and the way that I was taught science at that age) had anything to do with it. Before that point, much of my learning had been hands-on. I remember having school books filled with pressed and preserved flowers and leaves, sketches of butterflies and animals. After I started secondary school, the enduring memory that I have of my biology classes is of staring into text books, or being taught that anyone who disagreed with interfering with the genetic make-up of our food plants was ignorant, and needed to be looked down on.
I slowly moved away from the long afternoons that I spent scratching through the undergrowth with my nose pressed close down to the earth, or tearing through dirt tracks through the woodland on my bicycle with the wind blasting in my eyes; feeling just like I could fly. But those memories must still have nagged at me, somewhere in the wet dark of my mind, because when I left home to go to university, the Book of the British Countryside came with me. It sat, untouched, on shelves in student halls and in the damp, rented rooms or buildings that were little more than embodied fire hazards. It was shunted from place to place when I graduated, and came back to the south of England to try and make a go of having a ‘proper life’, and was packed up again a year later when we abandoned that idea and came back to Wales to live among the mountains, write stories, and struggle to pay the bills. In every move, a few more things were lost, mislaid, or given away. But this book came with me. It endured. Like that little whispered mantra at he back of my head, waiting for me to come back to it.
I cannot tell you what is different this year. Whether the change is within me, or without. What I do know is that this year, for the first time in half my lifetime, this book has come off the shelf, and my fingers have re-learned its pictures and its pages.
All year, the nagging urge has been germinating inside of me. To call each thing by its right name. It started with the birdsong. Another move a year and a half ago brought us down out of the mountains and into the Welsh foothills with their square fields, seeding grasses and syrup-coloured sunlight. Acting upon some instinct that I couldn’t name, as soon as it was warm enough this year I opened up the windows. They have been open ever since, and the first thing that I noticed was the great, sweet waves of birdsong that ebb and flow through dawn and dusk. It burst out of the trees and fields as soon as summer struggled out of its womb of late spring snow. I have never found sleep quickly, and through April and May this year I have lain for hours in the growing dark, and listened to the birds. After the first few weeks, I felt a yearning to know the names for all these voices that kept me company into the night—singing rich and deep into full dark. Blackbird. Robin. Tawny Owl. And other creatures, too. House cat. Hedgehog. Fox. I learned, and slowly got to know each of the night-dwellers and their voices.
Next, it was the clouds. I have walked out beneath the heavens early and often for years now, but this year is the first that I’ve found myself walking in the hills, driving into work, or staring out of my window, and wondering what words to use to name the shapes and colours of the sky. What atmospheric conditions cause clouds shaped like dapples over flanks of blue, or great, billowing towers of slate-grey. At some point in my wonderings, I took the Book of the British Countryside down off the shelf. I could have typed it into Google and been done with it, of course, but something in me yearned to have that musty, yellowing paper underneath my hands again.
Since then, it has been used to call moths, trees, butterflies and flowers each by their right name. When it hasn’t answered my questions, I have sought out other sources. I have entertained myself with its little anachronisms—with the way it talks about elm trees as though it expects me to have seen them.
Spending hours carefully plucking the weeds out from between the cabbages and onions I’m growing in my garden (because now I am no longer on a mountain, things can grow without being immediately shredded by the wind), I’ve felt the slow realisation that each of these little plants I am pinching out of the earth is different. That the things which we call weeds are phenomenally varied, industrious, and beautiful. Where I can, I have read their names, learned their uses and their properties. I have ordered myself a little book of herbalism that will sit beside the venerable old soul of the Book of the British Countryside on its shelf beside the window.
Slowly, surely, I have fallen into a fascinated orbiting of all things that live and grow. And, through accident or synchronisity, I have begun to seek out others who are doing the same: from Cryptoforestry’s attempts to document every flowering plant along their street to Rima Staines beautiful ‘Weed Wife’ painting and reflections on how loudly the plants are calling us back home to them.
Learning to call things by their right name has value far beyond the use of names to categorise, separate and dominate the world around us. These days, our lives are often muted to the wild, ferocious act of creation coming into being all around us. We numb ourselves to the visceral, uncomfortable and diverse beauty and brutality of nature with central heating and air conditioning. We scour away our natural ebbs and flows through day and night and light through dark with artificial light—forcing our bodies out of the gentle rhythm of sleeping, waking and then sleeping again in preference for one long block of eight hours where we twist and turn restlessly in the blinking electronic gloom. Our food is delivered onto supermarket shelves and then into our fridges and freezers as regularly and predictably as the roll of a production line, regardless of the weather, the seasons, or the things that grow best in our soil and our climate. We buy recipe books and ingredients from across the globe instead of using cooking to its original purpose: to make use of the things we have available, and to provide variety.
Learning the names for the birds, trees, weeds and cloud formations around us will not completely undo all of the damage that we have done to our souls in isolating ourselves from our landscape, but it is a start. It roots us in the here and now and provides us with a sense of place. It encourages us to pay attention to our surroundings and how they change throughout the year, and it gives us an appreciation for the place that we are standing in—so that we may fall into a rhythm with the patterns of its weather, and know the living and unliving things that share the space with us. For only then can we begin to know their value rather than their worth.
For those of us who give way to the natural, human urge to create, calling our landscape by its right names allows us to bring precision, detail, and an incredible, intricate sort of beauty to the things that we make and do: sweeping away anyone who shares in our act of creation, and placing their bare feet in the soil that has created (and continues to create) us.
More than that, this sort of curiosity encourages us to explore, to get our noses back into the rich loam of the soil and into the undergrowth. To find what else is out there, and be fully present in our lives, our bodies, and our world. Then, perhaps, we can walk out into the wilderness—safe in the knowledge that we know the earth beneath our feet and it will not lead us to our ruin. That the land, in turn, knows us.
Truth be told, I’ve needed to write this post for a long time now. But I’ve been putting it off. Mostly, I’ve been putting it off because it requires admitting something that I somehow think no one will notice if I don’t draw attention to it: that I am fat. Not only do I have to confront that, but in writing this post I have to risk a deluge of the kind of insults and attacks that have plagued me for my entire life. However, what I am about to say is important, and it bears saying despite all of that.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been overweight. I genuinely cannot remember a time in my life when that was not the case. And, all through my childhood and early adulthood, I was shamed for it. People on the street routinely treated me with disgust and derision. I have been shouted at, insulted and sworn at by entirely random strangers simply because of the size and shape, and it’s left me incredibly over-conscious of my own body. Basically, it’s become a way of life for me to avoid situations in which my weight is an issue, or I otherwise risk drawing attention to my body. Within the last week I have declined an invitation to go abseiling, not because I get vertigo and am afraid of heights as I told the person who invited me (I do, and I am, but I would very much like to face my fears despite that) but because I didn’t want to take the risk that none of the harnesses would fit me. I routinely take the stairs to work in the morning, and every time I do I try and judge it so that I won’t run into anyone else on my way up for fear they’ll see me out of breath and smirk and shake their heads at the lazy fat woman making another futile attempt to lose weight. The people I work with are all wonderful, by the way. They’ve given me no reason to think that they would even consider judging me like that, but they don’t have to. I’ve heard it enough times that I do it for them.
I’m not sharing all of this because I want any of you to feel sorry for me. Honestly, pity is almost as bad as venom and hatred. I’m sharing it because these are my experiences: this is the world that I live in, and I’m not sure how intuitive any of it is to people who are (and have always been) thin.
If Being Fat is Such a Big Deal, Just Go On a Diet
It’d be nice if things were that easy, wouldn’t it? It’s something that’s been said numerous times before, but it bears saying again: if there was any way to shame fat people into being thin, the you can bet your ass that everyone would be skinny as a rake. So, here’s the skinny (pun entirely intended): I have spent almost all of my life on one kind of diet or another. I have tried pretty much everything that’s going, especially when I was in my late teens and early twenties, when I felt the pressure to diet most intensely. Occasionally, through pretty much outright starvation, I’d succeed in getting few pounds off here and there. But starving yourself is miserable, demoralising work, and the second I stopped doing, it the weight would always pile straight back on again.
Also? Shaming and hating yourself for anything is the absolute best way to ensure that you give up. It’s genuinely not possible to force yourself into doing anything, long term, if you are miserable in doing it. Believe me, I’ve watched people try to write novels that way, or learn guitar, or keep up with various resolutions, and they will always, always end up failing because the desire to do what their doing doesn’t come from the love and enjoyment of life–it comes from shaming and self-hatred.
But Fat People Are, Like, Really Unhealthy
As I said above, I’ve always been big. However what I didn’t mention was that when I was younger I was also incredibly active. I played football pretty much every day with my friends. We’d cycle 40 miles in a day for the sheer joy of it. On the weekends, I would walk the mile across town and swim a couple of hundred lengths of an Olympic-sized swimming pool. I did things that would be beyond impossible for me to do now.
So, why did I stop? Well, mostly because at about the time I started to reach puberty, people (almost universally men) began throwing abuse at me for daring to be a fat girl visibly out there and exercising. For a while, I tried to find away around it: I shifted from swimming and cycling to taking a half an hour run first thing in the morning when the streets were mostly empty. However, after a few times of being yelled at from the windows of passing cars at 6am, I began to think that maybe it wasn’t such a good idea for me to be out on my own so early. It is one of the most perplexing double-standards of our society that we shame people for being fat because they’re ‘unhealthy’, and then shame them all the more when they dare to do anything to improve their physical health.
At the moment, I’m nowhere near as fit as I have been. But I’m working on that (not that it’s anyone’s business but my own), and my diet is probably better than at least 90% of the rest of the population. I’m vegan, and cook pretty much everything that I eat from scratch from fresh fruit, pulses and vegetables. The only fat that goes into my diet is a couple of teaspoons worth of vegetable oil to cook things in.
Also? Let’s throw it out there at this point that the myth of Fat=Unhealthy and Thin=Healthy is seriously fucking dangerous to all of the skinny people out there who have bad diets, live sedentary lifestyles, and are edging closer and closer to a heart attack–all in more or less blissful ignorance because everything they see around them tells them that if they’re not fat then there’s no problem. Fat-shaming doesn’t just damage the lives and sanity of fat people–it screws with us all.
But Fat People Cost the NHS (and the Tax-Payer) Money!
Yeah, and so does everyone who smokes, or drinks too much. So do people who do extreme sports, or young men who drive their cars too fast and too aggressively and end up in accidents. Go and shame them for a while, would you? I’ve had pretty much enough of that shit. As I’ve said, there’s pretty much nothing that I can do about the shape of my body, and even if I could, that’s no one’s business but my own.
Fat, Environmentalism, and Anti-Capitalism
So now I begin to get to the point of me writing this article in the first place. You see, I’ve mostly learned to live with the trials and tribulations of being a fat woman in mainstream society. I’m slowly re-learning to love myself and my body, to take care of myself, to strive for health instead of thinness, and to brush off a lot of the shit that gets thrown at me by the media, the newspapers, and random strangers who nevertheless feel entitled to police my body for me. It sucks that all of that shit gets inflicted on fat people (and particularly on fat women), but I’m old enough and ugly enough now that I can cope with it. However, something that I can’t deal with is the tendency amongst activists to buy into the myth of fat-shaming.
I genuinely cannot count the number of images I’ve seen blithely shared around in anti-capitalist circles where ‘capitalism’ or ‘progress’ is depicted as a person who’s horrifically gluttonous and overweight. Images that repeat over and over again the message that I am part of the problem. That my body represents everything that’s wrong with the world. That I literally embody everything that we are meant to be fighting against. And don’t give me that shit about it being a shorthand, and there being no other way of conveying the concept of greed–satirists have been drawing the greedy for centuries without the need to just draw endless fat people. It’s not just unnecessary–it’s lazy. It’s lazy, and it immediately tells me that I’m are not welcome in your discussions.
Equally, I see an awful lot of articles trashing the processed/junk food industry–and rightly so, our modern methods of food production are horrific and disgusting and should be challenged in the strongest possible terms. However, I don’t even get to the end of many of these articles. I stop reading about the second or third time that they encapsulate the problem by talking about the ‘obesity epidemic’. I am not an epidemic. I am a person. I have a voice, and what’s more I have a right not to be judged as lazy, or gluttonous, or part of the problem, just because of the shape of my body.
The reason why this makes me so angry is because I expect activists to know better. Most of the time, sadly, they just don’t. Instead, I end up just as shamed and ostracised amongst other environmentalists, anarchists and anti-capitalists as I do by switching on the TV or walking down a busy street on a Friday night. None of us, activists especially, should be seeking to police the bodies of others based solely and entirely on what they look like. If we must wade into the issue of judging other people’s lifestyles at all, then we should want them to be healthy, not want them to be thin.
There are plenty of places where things are beginning to change–from campaigns such as Health at Every Size to mainstream magazines like SliNK. However, as long as activists continue to be complicit in shaming, degrading and excluding people because of their physical appearance, we still have a long, long way left to go. So long as those of us who want to change society for the better are still propagating the idea that you can judge a person’s health and lifestyle simply by looking at them, we are still a long, long way away from building any kind of better world for anyone.
So, if you’re an activist reading this article, and you want to take one thing away from it then let it be this: the next time you’re talking about consumerism, or junk food, or capitalism, or the meat industry (or anything else you happen to be writing a blog post for, or chatting with your friends about), and you feel the need to make your point by stigmatising fat people–don’t. Do me a favour and talk about good diet and well-being if you must talk about public health at all, use other metaphors to represent greed, or just plain let your arguments stand on their own two feet without shaming fat people to back up your point.
Then, maybe people like me can read your awesome thoughts and comments and agree with you, instead of being given yet more reasons to hate our bodies and be reminded of the fact that we aren’t welcome.
I know that I’ve (once again) not been as great at keeping up with this blog as I should have done. This time, however, it’s actually for a pretty good reason! Hooray!
Some of you may remember that when I was primary editor over at SteamPunk Magazine, I set up an itsy-bitsy publishing company called Vagrants Among Ruins to handle the UK printing side of things. Well, the good news is that Vagrants has now been re-vamped and re-launched as a publisher of post-civilised retrofuturist Romanticism–which basically means that we will be publishing all things post-civ, steampunk, dreampunk and activist-inspired.
We have a couple of really cool projects in the pipeline, and our very first publication, ‘Journeys in the Winterlands‘ has just been released! The end result is a collection of three short stories by myself, Dylan Fox and John Reppion, all set in the same world as the awesome ‘White is the Color of Death‘ collection by our friends over at Combustion Books.
The stories tell the tale of Callista, the Flowergirl of Crossbones, who is searching the frozen wastes for her lost mentor. Along the way, she does her best to avoid the attentions of the Affected–sky-mad cannibals who are all that’s left of most of the human race–and the monstrous engine-animals that they have built.
‘Journeys‘ is available in both digital and hardcopies, and if you’d like to review it then drop me a line and we’ll get you a PDF for free.
Extinguish every light but candles,
And breathe out slowly, very slowly,
As you step into the silent water
Made pure with fire and snow.
The window hangs in its wooden frame above you–
A Mondrian painting
Shaped from three suspended blocks
Of dim, refracted streetlight.
Open each of them in turn,
And let the winter in
As you would let in something sacred.
As you would let in your lover.
See the houses lined up
In the breakers of the motorway–
Waves of sound that fold themselves
Like steam over pitched rooftops
And spend their strength into the windless dark,
And know: beyond the haze,
A sky like split goldstone
Pours out its spiny light
For a while now, I’ve been noticing a worrying trend in certain environmental activist circles here in the UK. Namely, the attempts to exclude and silence feminists, anti-racists and other ‘social justice’ campaigners (the reason for the sarcasm quotes will shortly become clear). I don’t have any interest in naming names and pointing fingers, but I will say that I have been speaking to an increasing number of people, predominantly women, who feel excluded and isolated from environmentalism, and have had their concerns dismissed as unimportant rather than engaged with.
A few days ago, environmental activist Paul Kingsnorth wrote an article for ABC that I think shows us exactly why this is happening. I have a degree of respect for Paul. He has done some fantastic things, and written articles that have completely blown my mind, however he raises certain issues in this latest piece of his that give me cause for concern.
The wider point of the article is something he and I can agree on: that the co-option of environmentalism by the mainstream political left is hugely problematic, predominantly because it makes the issue ‘safe’ and neatly glosses over the fact that our attitudes towards industrial and technological progress (and the sickening levels of consumption it has created) are at the very root of what we’re supposed to be fighting against. This is the sort of attitude that leads us to green capitalism, and does precisely nothing to address the deeply unhealthy relationship we have with the world around us, in favour of selling us more stuff and making us swallow yet more mainstream political agendas.
However, Paul goes on to make an argument which explicitly states that ‘social justice’ (by which I presume he means feminism, anti-racism, and other forms of social activism etc) is the same as, and equal to, the mainstream left agenda. And as a woman who is both a feminist, and environmentalist, and an anarchist, I can’t agree with that.
In short, lumping issues of ‘social justice’ in wholesale with the political left is just as problematic and destructive as equating the left with environmentalism—which is more or less exactly what he is arguing against. It makes the way we treat each other as human beings, how we discriminate against and oppress each other, an issue that is solely the preserve of the political mainstream, as opposed to what it actually is: another issue that has been adopted by political parties in order to preserve the status quo.
To my mind, social justice and environmental activism are two sides of the same coin: one addresses the deeply problematic relationships that we have with the world that we live in, and the other addresses the problematic relationships that we have with one another. Both are ultimately caused by the same things: greed, and the concentration of power among the few.
In fact, Paul seems to get this sort of argument a lot:
“The common response to this is to claim, as many environmentalists do, that ‘environmental justice and social justice go hand in hand’ – or even that ‘you cannot have environmental justice without social justice.’”
However, he never really seems to articulate why he doesn’t agree with that. Or, if he does, then it’s only to say that social justice is a ‘human-centric’ issue, and that environmentalism is about moving away from that, towards a more eco-centric standpoint. And this is at the root of the problem that I have with this article, the unfortunate (and I’m sure also unintended, or at least unconsidered) subtext that flows beneath it: that by engaging with issues about how we treat each other as human beings, we are actually hurting environmentalism—that we are, in part, responsible for making environmentalism about people instead of about the wild.
As a feminist, I can’t help but see this sort of thing and read: “If you are a woman involved with environmentalism, and you are concerned about the way that you, and other women, are being treated? Then you need to shut the hell up and keep it to yourself. If you don’t, you’re hurting the cause that we’re all supposed to be fighting for.”
This argument has been used pretty much since the dawn of social activism as a way of dismissing and silencing people rather than engaging with their concerns, and it troubles me immensely to see it unconsciously perpetrated by someone I respect.
The problem, of course, is that eco-centric viewpoint or not, we are all human beings, and how we engage with each other as such doesn’t just magically disappear from our interactions with one another just because people like Paul Kingsnorth say so. Groups of eco-centric activists are going to be as riddled with the same sexism, racism, homophobia, and other forms of discrimination (conscious and unconscious), as any other group. The only point that’s served by refusing to acknowledge that is that the people already on the fringes of our society are further alienated and excluded.
In fact, he pretty much explicitly says this:
“Sometimes, circles have to be squared, and sides have to be taken. Sometimes the desires (sorry, the ‘needs’) of humans need to come second, not first. The greens exist to make that case. But the green left rarely, if ever, does.”
So, if you’re one of the unfortunate people who isn’t privileged by our society as it stands at the moment? If you feel discriminated against and cut off, if you feel talked over, frustrated and furious because you cannot make yourself heard amongst all the white, middle-class men? Suck it up. Sometimes what human beings want has to come second. And by human beings? I mean you. I’ll still continue to reap all the benefits of being in the cultural majority, of course, but that’s just a coincidence. It has nothing to do with what we’re doing here.
In response, I want re-iterate the argument that Paul seems to be hearing so much of:
Both ‘social justice’ and environmentalism are important. They both deal with the consequences of human selfishness and greed, with the centralisation of power amongst the few and the silencing and disempowerment of everybody and everything else—from women and queers, to rivers, forests and mountains. They both arise from the knowledge that the system we are living under at the moment is broken, and we can and should be fighting for them both.
Wanting to do that does not make me the enemy, Paul, or mean that I’m trying to co-opt or water-down your message. No more than it makes me part of the political left, which you seem to believe is the only place where we should be allowed to talk about about treating human beings, as well as the environment, with respect and equality.
I’m going to make an admission: Yesterday, when I started the petition calling for BioWare to come out publicly in support of the beleaguered Jennifer Hepler, I didn’t expect them to listen. I’ve been involved in activism and the fight for social equality for a few years now, and the process has made me into a terribly cynical person.
It’s not that I thought that BioWare weren’t essentially good people—I did, and I still do—but I had nevertheless subconsciously presumed that the financial interests of a large games company would override their desire to take a stand on these issues, when push comes to shove. So when we started asking for a thousand signatures in support of Hepler, I wasn’t sure that we would get anywhere near that many.
A day later, and I’m absolutely delighted to have been proved wrong on both those counts.
Not only did we manage to get almost four hundred signatures in the eight hours that the petition was open, but I could then quite happily close it early—long before the droves of misogynists got wind of it and made moderating the comments into an increasingly depressing experience—when Ray Muzyka, one of BioWare’s co-founders, released the following statement on their forums, and through their official Twitter feed:
Jennifer is a valued, talented employee who has been with BioWare for many years and we hope will be with us for many more. It is awful that a few people have decided to make her a target for hate and threats, going so far as fabricating forum posts and attributing them to her, and singling her out for projects to which she has not contributed (i.e., Jennifer is not even a part of the Mass Effect writing team). All of us at BioWare support and will continue to support Jennifer fully, and are happy to see so many people out there are also supporting her during this difficult time.
At the same time, BioWare also announced that they would be donating $1000 in Jennifer’s name to Bullying Canada: A charity working to stop the physical and emotional bullying of young people.
This is an incredible example of what a community can do when it draws a line and says “This is not acceptable” and is a testament to BioWare as a company, regardless of what else we might think of them. It is also living proof that petition sites like Changes.org (who generated an email and sent it to BioWare every time someone put their name against the list—something which I suspect had some small influence over the speed of their response, if nothing else), and the communities that drive those sites, are most definitely capable of achieving real, measurable change.
Some of the comments we got in response to the petition were genuinely moving, and served to restore some of my faith in humanity, and the speed and unambiguity of BioWare’s response was a truly wonderful thing to see.
BioWare’s statement does not erase the magnitude of the wrong that has been done to a member of their staff, but hat a company of their side would choose to come out and condemn that kind of behaviour has to be an important step along the road to making it a thing of the past. This is not to say that the world is fixed and everything is perfect and sunshine and flowers (I would, for example, strongly recommend not reading much past the first page of responses to BioWare’s statement), but it nevertheless makes me admire immensely what places like the Border House are achieving in showing women like Hepler that they are not alone, and I feel genuinely honoured to be a teeny-tiny part of this community.
As a final side-note, I would strongly suggest that anyone who is interested in the matter take a look at Quinnae’s article discussing the relative merits and flaws of what it was Jennifer Hepler actually said in the first place, which is pretty much what should have happened all along.
I got up this morning to find an article on the Border House, about how BioWare writer Jennifer Hepler has been subject to some pretty vile abuse based on her weight, gender, and for her feelings about promoting inclusivity for women and gay characters (and players) in the gaming industry.
As a fat, female gamer (not to mention one who gets a lot of flack for playing games on ‘Easy’ so I can just enjoy the stories), I can honestly say that I haven’t dared to look at any of the comments that were made about her. In short, I’m not sure I could cope with how angry, impotent and upset it would make me feel. I genuinely cannot imagine what it must be like to have torrents of that kind of abuse targeted directly at you. And so instead I started thinking about what I could do to show her that she is not alone, and that she doesn’t have to feel as though the whole world thinks that she should kill herself just for being who she is, and for standing up for what she believes in.
I didn’t know much about Hepler before I got up this morning and saw Alex’s article, but from what I’ve read since, it look as though she’s had a hand some of the things about the Dragon Age games that genuinely gives me back a little bit of my faith in humanity.
Although I’ve written before about how BioWare can make mistakes, I still pretty much consider them to be ‘one of the good guys’. So, I figured I would start a petition calling on them to release a public statement supporting Jennifer, and condemning the putrid, disgusting sexism and homophobia that’s been directed at her by some of their so-called ‘fans’.
I’d ask you all to consider signing it, and passing it on through places Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter. If enough of their consumer base starts shouting about it, hopefully BioWare will start thinking seriously about taking a public stand against this kind of prejudice and discrimination.