Events don’t changes things. People do. Part 2 – Do the middle class have a right to protest?

There have been several charges levelled against the One Billion Rising in Second Life. One was that it was invalidated by its refusal to address the issue of violence against men.  Or indeed, the issue of all violence everywhere.  So often was this repeated that in the end I actually wrote a post about it – which you can read here.

A second charge that was made against the event (in Second Life and in the real world) was that it was in some way invalidated by the fact that it was organised and attended by middle class women.  Several commentators made this point – including one who, in addition to stigmatising the protest as “middle class” felt the need to stress that they had working class parents.

Middle class women in Mayfair?
Middle class women in Mayfair?

Here I want to stress my perspective as a Brit so there shouldn’t be mis-interpretation.  For me, “middle class” is a term that refers to white collar, professional workers. It covers a wide range of trades and professions – ranging from company directors to shopkeepers, from university professors to office workers at management level.  It’s the widest class in the UK – the upper classes are a smaller part of the system, generally being seen as people who have inherited land and/or titles.  A company director, no matter how wealthy, would not be seen as part of this class – although he or she could marry into it.  The situation might be different in the US.

In the UK, the working class would be seen as people who work primarily in junior positions, manually (or jobs where manual labour is a core component).  It would also largely include the non-working population who are claiming state benefits – although some of those might generally be seen as unemployed middle class.  Again, this might be different in the US.

The middle class is the largest class in the UK at present.  In previous times, the working class has been larger proportionately; one of Margaret Thatcher’s ambitions was to ensure that as many people as possible should identify themselves as middle class, and therefore aimed at raising living standards and matching aspirations, with the intention that the new middle classes, their aspirations to – for example – own their own home, should then vote for her party, the Conservative Party. For about a decade, this strategy was highly successful.

Ironically, despite the fact that so many people aspire to join the middle class or would classify themselves as middle class, the name itself is frequently denigrated or used pejoratively – as it has been in discussions of One Billion Rising.

And I believe this is wrong in this context – for four reasons.

1) This event wasn’t just for middle class Westerners
Of the many, many exciting aspects of this event, one of the most exciting was its global nature. The Guardian newspaper live-blogged it, and reported what happened in the UK, the Democratic Republic of Congo, across the US, in Egypt, Ethiopia, Australia, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, India, Mexico, Philippines, Singapore, Germany, Albania, the Netherlands, Somalia, Israel, Hong Kong, Nepal, Iceland, Turkey, the Maldives, Italy, Poland, Indonesia and … oh yes, they featured an event in Second Life too.

This was not just middle class women – although middle class women were involved.  In Albania, for example, one arena featured a centre for Roma women – one of the most disadvantaged communities in Europe.  In some countries, where dancing is seen as shocking, women marched or watched films, or talked.  In some countries where dancing is frowned upon, women danced in their own spaces – Virtual Evangelical referred to having seen it on a Saudi Arabian blog. In Bangladesh, at least 1,000 acid attack survivors were planning to take  part in rallies across the country.

It goes without saying that there are middle and even upper class women taking part in all these events.  But they are reaching wider. Women of all classes are joining in, from the Queen of Bhutan to Indian street vendors.

Someone made the point on a blog that it would probably be more useful if women spent a week reading the newspapers than dancing.  But that presupposes a free press. It presupposes that women have access to newspapers, and the means to purchase them and that – once they do have them – they know how to read. The idea of dancing was chosen, in part, because it is a simple, low cost activity that is easily understood.

2) Violence against women affects middle class women too
This really should go without saying, but the abuse that women face crosses class boundaries. Middle class women are beaten up and raped too.

3) You shouldn’t limit protests to the people affected
This is actually a more general point – because, as I said above, middle class women ARE affected by the issue.  But even if they weren’t, even if no single middle class woman was sexually or physically abused, I believe passionately that it would still be right for middle class women to protest in support of their sisters – just as we welcomed men into One Billion Rising.

Because, if you impose that limitation, you are saying that unless you have experience female genital mutilation, you can’t protest on behalf of your sisters.  You are saying that unless you have been through the hell of a forced marriage, or an acid attack, you have no right to stand up and say, “This is wrong. This must stop.”

And if you start to slice and dice in that way, you are left with one terrified girl cowering in the corner of a room … because her experience is unique and, if you have not been through it, you have no right to protest about it.

And that is so very clearly wrong.

Middle class women dancing in the tropics?
Middle class women dancing in the tropics?

4) The middle class – and middle class women particularly – are routinely stigmatised in a attempt to silence them
And other women should not be a part of doing this.

It is an age-old problem that where we should be uniting, women attack other women. They negate what women are doing. They belittle it.  This happens for a variety of reasons, many more complex than the one that is usually cited – that these women want to curry favour with men. I think we do see that, even in an internet age (the appalling attacks on Kathy Sierra involved other women, for example).

But to assume that is the case in every instance is wrong.  There’s a space for valid criticism and a space for valid critiquing, and that is important – indeed, essential.

But the use of stigmatising terms does not foster debate.  It promotes the skewed disparity in language that consistently sees words that reference women acquiring a lower value than words that describe men.

Don’t believe me? Run these pairs through your head and remember, once they were completely matched as a term for a male – a term for a female:
Sir – Madam
Master – Mistress
King – Queen
Bachelor – Spinster
Courtier – Courtesan
In every case, the female pair of the word has either become less of an honorific than the male term, or has acquired a secondary meaning that can be used pejoratively.

In the same way, “middle class” has become a pejorative term, occupying the space once held by “do-gooder”.  It implies people who, through economic stability, are out of touch with the “real world”.  It suggests that these people are patronising and (frequently) domineering, attempting to impose their own world view on others.

And yet …

If one looks at social history, it has frequently been middle class women who have brought about great social change in the world. In times when working class women had little leisure time to give to things such as protests and social change, it was middle class women who were in the vanguard with the male social reformers – from Hannah Moore to Elizabeth Fry to Florence Nightingale to Josephine Butler to Octavia Hill to Elizabeth Garrett Anderson to Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters. And that’s just Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the best known women.

There were, of course, far many more nameless middle class women involved in campaigns – sometimes as decorous as the slave sugar boycott. led (in Sheffield) by Mary Anne Rawson – but rapidly spreading across the country. Arguably the first political boycott of its time, the refusal of British consumers to be slave-produced sugar played a significant role in the ending of the slave trade in 1833.

Sometimes the campaigns were rather more dangerous.  Josephine Butler had to escape through the window of a hall where she was speaking to avoid an angry mob on at least one occasion. And one thinks too of the bravery of those women who campaigned for Prohibition. Nowadays we might find their campaign wrong-headed, but there’s no doubting the courage of those women who marched into beer halls and fin joints and knelt down and prayed.

The stigmatising of middle class protest has continued into the twentieth century too – it was one of the charges levelled at the women of Greenham Common and their protests against the nuclear weapons sited there, suggesting that their protest was, in effect, a “fashion statement” and that they would, soon enough clear off to their nice warm houses.

Well, the women have gone now, So too have the missiles.

And conditions in prisons, housing, medicine and nursing have all improved. The slave trade is long gone in the UK, women are not licensed and bullied as prostitutes, and women have had the vote for nearly a hundred years.

Thanks, in part, to the efforts of middle class women.

16 comments

  1. I see an attempt to establish some kind of moral equivalence and attempt to equate the effectiveness of the event where pixel people danced in SL and the dangerous events where brave women danced and protested in the misogynistic/patriarchal societies.

    No. Get your moral scale tared, please.

    -ls/cm

    1. Actually, I’d moved on from the Second Life event to the attacks on One Billion Rising in general as being a middle class event. Hence my references to real life middle class social reformers. And my points about language. It’s not all about Second Life in these posts.

      Yes, no way could we compare the danger in dancing in Second Life, and those brave men and women who walked in Afghanistan or Bangladesh or Pakistan – or a wide range of other countries.

      The Second Life event was a place for men and women who couldn’t make it to a real life event – for whatever reason.

      As for effectiveness – it’s about making people know what’s happening. That’s a head thing – and it can happen wherever.

      So no moral equivalence. But the effectiveness of the event may be measurable in terms of the response it generates in individuals.

      In blunt terms – it gets people talking and thinking. Awareness comes before action (and I’ll be talking about action later on).

    2. As Saffia said, she was not addressing the medium of the protest in this post, but the criticism that it included the “middle class.” What you are doing, sir, is not addressing what she wrote, but what *you* say she wrote.

      I must say, you’d make a great politician.

  2. I have met people from Egypt, Morocco, and Greece. I know of one Italian who attended. All of those countries have serious problems with violence against women. If one of these women logs off feeling empowered, if one of these men logs off, thinking about this issue, it wasn’t useless.
    As for the whole class debate – that’s beyond me. I don’t do class struggle. I’m a social democrat, not a communist.

  3. I have a lot of random thoughts on this, and have mostly stayed out of this debate due to finite energy. But the one thing I feel I must say is, although it is good that you are using this as an opportunity to open up discussion, I also think it is a shame that criticism has put you in a position to defend your actions.

    A group of people (not even all women) came together to join an initiative to stand up for what they believe in. Maybe the approach wasn’t one which everyone could get behind – and that is ok too. But it wasn’t like you were drowning kittens! You were doing something positive. And now, when you and others try to explain your rationale in the face of criticism, you get ridiculously critiqued for your skewed morality as above, and even more absurdly, accusations elsewhere in the blogosphere of trying to silence others through expressing your views.

    If there is one thing I am NOT seeing, is any silence. Heh.

    As usual, I think people need a bit of perspective. You guys got together to be part of something that was a positive thing. For some people, it was powerful. For others, it wasn’t… but really, was there harm? No? Then chill out.

    And if some woman blogger out there suddenly feels ‘silenced’ because someone has a different point of view… perhaps they should have a short reality check and notice that they are in fact free to say whatever they want (particularly on their own blog), while living independently, having a vote, and even wearing a pair of pants (trousers), because at one time, some middle class woman stood up (and often encountered violence) for their right to do so.

    Bitching about the middle class is so middle class.

  4. Only someone utterly ignorant when it comes to political and social history would ignore the middle class’s contribution to the progress of political systems towards more democratic, inclusive and liberal models. And only someone with an authoritarian agenda would try to downplay it.

  5. The SL event was meaningful to me and I enjoyed it, mostly because I liked seeing a glimpse of people working together well in the virtual world and having an interest and energy level the likes of which I’ve seen little of in my year and a half in SL.

    I’m not middle class; my parents and grandparents weren’t either. I’ve been the recipient of violence as have my sisters. I’m disabled and wasn’t able to get out for real life events. I’ve certainly paid my dues when it comes to contributing to changing the world and must shake my head at being lumped together with people seen as wasting time and effort by people who know nothing at all about me.

    I was able to show the SL videos to people I know who aren’t middle class, who don’t have time for playing online and don’t have fancy computer equipment to do stuff with. All of them were just fine with the SL event and found it refreshing that people were out of their own personal selfishness and survival dramas long enough to show support that the status quo for the treatment of women and girls needs to change. They were aware of the real world events and thought it was great that people used their “play time” for something like this as they’re also well aware of the general apathy towards people in trouble.

    I can understand how the choice for participating in OBR in SL and real life isn’t for everyone. I’m like that when it comes to events for diseases because blah blah blah, but I’m not going to use my time and energy arguing against and criticizing the expression of those to whom that sort of thing makes sense.

    So I’m not as articulate and talented as many in Second Life but at least I get it that I have a right to make choices that make sense to me, that name-calling is ignorant and that live-and-let-live in all diversity of expressions is a good thing.

    This DOES make me less likely to put myself out there in any way because I don’t have the energy to defend and explain myself to nay-sayers and invalidators.

    Now I’m done and will move on to something else.

    1. Thank you for sharing this -and I think you’re pretty articulate AND talented – I read your blog posts.

      I think it would be a huge shame if you backed off from events like this because of the subsequent critiques.

  6. A while back someone on a SL forum tried to tell me my experience and opinion of hate crime wasn’t valid because I live in a supposedly well to do area. However, a few Silicon Valley millionaires in aeries on the ridge tops don’t cancel out the suffering of the more numerous families living in leaky shacks (or cars, or under a tarp) without running water or electricity. (Yes, in California, USA, and if you are shocked you probably need to take a closer look at your own community.) Despite skewing the local demographics, the lives of those few people in gated estates intersect little with the women in line at the nearest, overwhelmed women’s crisis center, or for that matter with the short life of the man who was found dead near my home in the hollow tree in which he’d been living.

    Unlike income demographics, human suffering doesn’t average out.

    People who write off this SL event as just avatars dancing are being ostriches. Just as on the Internet you don’t know who’s a dog, you also don’t know if the avatar dancing next to you is middle class or just borrowing computer access, if they’re a fashion model or a victim of mysoginistic hate crime or both. Blurting out a bunch of dismissive comments like I have seen in various public forums about this event is guaranteed to be seen by and accidentally hurt unrecognized sufferers of PTSD. I doubt any of those posters would want to kick a victim or rape or stalking while she’s down, but they have said plenty of hurtful things. If you intend to criticize the event, before you set fingers to the keys, please pause and remember to be compassionate.

    Thank you for creating a safe space for this discussion. I have been the victim of mysoginistic crime, I live in a middle class community, I have an avatar that dances, and if anyone thinks any of that lessens the weight of my opinion they’re part of the problem.

  7. Part of the motivation for my middle class self to take part in OBR Second Life was wanting to do *something* to show my support and outrage about violence against women..I heard about One Billion Rising and was pretty excited at the idea of a worldwide day of protest, education and yes, a show of strength and solidarity. And in Second Life too? Fantastic. So I did what little I could to promote, volunteer, and participate.

    To be put on the defensive by the insulated privileged, the naysayers and the ignorant is a bit of sleight of hand. Under which cup is the actual issue– the reason for a worldwide campaign? Middle class histrionics? Feminist anti-male hysteria? Let’s divert to those “issues” and not the need to end the systematic brutality directed at women and girls.

    This fearful resistance to change will take a long time to remedy, I think. Thanks for your posts.

  8. Hmm, Saffia, what you wrote about Margaret Thatcher is an opinion. One with which I disagree. I think that Thatcher wanted people to be able to rise within the UK class system, to improve their lot in life.

    Thatcher came from a middle-working class background, and she wanted others to be able to overcome the economic restraints that are associated with class. I don’t think her goals were to garner votes, although that may be counted as a plus, if it happens.

    I don’t attribute uncaring values to someone, or their actions, because I disapprove of their politics. You might consider taking on that stance.
    ——————————————————————————————

    Saffia, you wrote this: “It is an age-old problem that where we should be uniting, women attack other women.”

    May I suggest that you look to the supporters of the SL OBR if you want to see grievous examples of “women attacking women”. Because, some of the OBR supporters have written slander, insults and all manner of character attacks about others, for merely stating why they did not support the OBR.

    You’re on the defensive here. But, no one has actually attacked *you*. The same cannot be said, in reverse, for the supporters of OBR. I do believe you are sincere in your efforts. But, unless organizations make it clear to their volunteers, that civil manners and behavior are expected, then I see no end to the backlash that you’re experiencing.

    1. I have seen attacks on several fronts, Celestiall, and I have moderated some on this blog, as I have said I would do. There are rarely just two sides in an issue like this; this is more nuanced – as I hope you have seen in the range of comments made here.

      I have seen heated words and trenchantly expressed opinions. I have seen people hurt on various sides of the argument – and have been made furiously angry by things I have read myself. Slander is spoken – I’ve not seen anything that I would consider libellous. I have seen things written that have been intended to hurt – and people responding, hurt, to things that were not intended to hurt.

      This is the internet. All we can do is to set our own standards and, in our areas, ask that those standards are kept.

      You speak of organisations. But there are no organisations here. There are people who come together as volunteers, who are very much individuals. If one organised events in Second Life with a corporate mentality that everyone must present in the same way, precious few events would happen. Would Second Life be a richer or poorer place without them?

      As for my opinion of the Thatcher government, led by Margaret Thatcher – yes, I do attribute uncaring values to them. Clause 28, to take but one example, caused a great deal of misery and suffering. The devastation of the manufacturing industry in the 1980s was brutal. Did restructuring need to take place? Undoubtedly. I suspect where you and I would disagree would be on the way that it was imposed.

      Let me be clear – it’s not the politics (you’d probably be surprised by how many friends I have who are Conservative MPs, although I’m a Labour voter). It is the values that the Thatcher government, under Margaret Thatcher, espoused.

      Am I on the defensive here? I hope not. What I want to do is to take some of the issues that have been raised and explore them with people who have a variety of different and interesting viewpoints to share.

  9. i am agree with everything you say about this

    i get involved in activism RL on quite a few issues. i went to this one planning meeting and i learn something off a seasoned activist

    was this group of young white students from middle class families came. they was really passionate about how was wrong that they was privileged and how it wasnt right that they were. some of them want to renounce their seeming privileges and drop out of university and get down with the real people. the underclass and oppressed

    the activist say that the worst thing they could do. like we got too many oppressed already without you volunteering for it. if truly want to help then use every blessing that life has given you and use it to help bring about real and lasting change

    like we dont need any more dropouts in the world. stay in university and when you leave school then get a job in the welfare office. bc we rather see your face on the other side of the desk when we must come in bc we been laid off. a desk we cant obtain for ourselves at this time. bc we do not have the advantages and blessings that life has given you

    that is not just about marching in the streets or walking in my shoes and share my pain. i know what pain is and how much it hurts. and i will not share it with you or anyone. or allow you to inflict it on yourself by your own choice. in some misguided attempt to somehow help me. you are of no use to anyone when you do this

    is about making real change. like lasting change. one day you can be the Head of Department. one day you can be the Attorney General. one day you can be a Judge. one day you can be a School Principal. one day you can be a Captain of Industry. a Dame of the Realm. one day you can be Police Commissioner. one day you can be a Government Minister. the Prime Minister even. so be smart and do that

    and btw here is your map. your sign and your leaflets and we see you on the lines. and one day when you are all in these positions then we wont have to be on the lines like today bc there wont be any oppressed underclass anymore. when you all running the world in 30 years from now. bc somebody always runs the world simply bc of the positions they hold. i rather it be you guys in 30 years from now than someone else

    and if there ever do need to be a line in them times then you be on it and in that position. not this one you in now today

    bc to truly change we have to eliminate the underclass and the oppressed from society. by raising everyone up to your level. not by bringing everyone down to ours

  10. I want to say a thank you to Saffia who headed me off from making a silly fool of myself the other day. When I first read about the criticisms (but not the actual words) I presumed that these were men doing the whining. She gave me a much needed heads up and saved me from myself. I have read the comments form Whiskey Monday and have responded on her blog (if you want to read what I said drop in over there.)

    For now I want to say that none of it is valid. I have read nothing negative about OBR yet that is on point or exhibits a profound understanding of the real political processes or of human nature. None of the detractores appear to have honest empathy for what other abuse survivors might be feeling. Generally they seem to be very wrapped up in their own journeys, which is completely understandable but not very helpful to others.

    After a traumatic experience, it takes some time to heal and reach a place that allows you to have fun. I wish them all a safe journey back into a life that can embrace joy.

    But I stand by my original contention that the detracting comments reflect more on those who make them than on those to whom they are directed.

  11. Saffia, there’s something else I need to point out w.r.t. the importance of the much-maligned middle class. Every regime (be it a bankster-backed kleptocracy or a dictatorship) that wants to ensure its proliferation destroys the middle class and divides society in two: the very poor and the very rich, with nothing in between.

    The very poor have no access to education and liberal ideas, are bullied by the suppression mechanisms (riot “police” equipped with weapons that are illegal even in real wars, and parallel state mechanisms, such as racist groups and various branches of the secret services that bomb random places – see the bombing of Piazza Fontana in Italy – to make people feel insecure), have no financial security and live in fear of starvation and/or execution.

    The very rich, on the other hand, are fed generously by the regime and cooperate very willingly with it.

    On the other hand, a middle class, armed with education, liberal ideas and economic freedom (i.e. freedom from the slavery of mortgages and multiple loans, and freedom from the fear of losing one’s employment for political reasons), always exerts pressure for freedom, human rights and equity. However self-serving each class may be, the middle class is (obviously) far more likely to act in a manner that complements and assists the dreams of the working class for a better job, better wages and greater freedom than the kleptocrats.

    A strong, in numbers and in economic and political power, middle class, is – at least to my eyes – a guarantee for a better society. There are plenty of such examples in history.

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