'Education is not about filling buckets... It's about lighting fires.'
Last week was fuelled by ginger wine, overshadowed by a perpetual feeling of premature darkness leaking in. I waited for busses in dribble (and also drizzle), and conducted intense catch-up conversations, over Skype, with friends who live thousands of miles away in places that don't need radiators, or that have proper cold weather; the type one can ski in. This week my evenings have been filled with work: Filing; Housekeeping. But work-related housekeeping. I forget when the line between the two started to become blurred. Blurred lines and soft-focus. And it's all to do with identity, and this week, unlike other weeks, sex. As a student I used to think that a job was incidental and it didn’t matter what I ended up doing. I attached so much significance to who I was at university, rather ironically at a point when I was regularly exchanging ideas with people in a similar position, of the same age, and with the same interests, and was really very much like everyone else in my classes. It seemed easier to find something to espouse, belief-wise back then, because it was play-acting to an extent. I thought I was making choices of my own volition, although now I know that once you pick your institution, you really have a limited spectrum within which to focus your studies. It seemed easy to do as I was told and yet pretend I was being self-autonomous, I guess. It also seemed, from that relatively comfortable environment (barring the Faustian horror of essay deadlines and exams), that life would continue in the same way indefinitely; I could discover something to be excited about every day, whether I really felt like it or not. It was foie-gras education. Since then it seems that the lessons I have learned have been tougher and more difficult to swallow, but ones that are fundamentally necessary, nonetheless. My Edinburgh days of pink hair, drinking Buckie from goblets in the park, smoking utterly noxious Lucky Strikes(don’t ask me how I kept that up for 4 years), and spitting in the street are dead, gone, and no longer acceptable. These days I have learned that:
- Not everyone is positive or constructive.
- Whispering, and saying the right thing is often more effective than shouting; even if you have something to shout about.
- Spitting is still frowned upon, and it's port, (darling, ) and E-cigs, for the win.
Since I've worked for ThoughtOut, I've been thinking about how we make ourselves. How humanity, culture, and knowledge are fostered. ‘Humanity’ is a strange word; very hard to pin down in many ways. It’s the only discipline, in educational terms, that refers directly to our species, and our unique capability for abstract thought. Sure, science is referential in a way, but I personally find humanities are interesting as subjects because their mysteries are less definite. They are the grey space; look-at-it-directly-and-the idea-might-evaporate stuff. In the sciences you can proceed by empirical method and at the end of your experiment you have created proof, of sorts. But as we know with humanities subjects, (Law gives a perfect example,) the concept of proof, and the definition of proof, are both elusive. I love the discipline of Law for that reason, despite pleading borderline ignorance on the subject. It is both beautifully analytical, and yet totally relativistic in some cases, and of course, it also deals with humanity at its basest levels… A well-meaning, but utterly misguided friend told me the other day that people who work in the legal profession have no hearts and that they should be avoided at all costs: "bastards the lot of them". I'm ashamed to say that at first I believed him, but then I reconsidered; perhaps they are just slightly tougher than the average human being. They have to witness the depths to which the human animal can sink... Regularly, which must be hard, unless you harden yourself to it.
This week has been about coming to terms with myself, and the epic battle between biology and culture, science and humanity. The debate over Lord Rennard's alleged behaviour has given me much food for thought. Once again, the lady-parts have raised their ugly heads (wrong genitals for this metaphor, and now all I can think of is the Kraken rising up from the 'salty' depths… But I digress.) I've never considered myself a Feminist before. It always struck me as something that was shouted about by historical, hysterical loons with placards and bad hair; which is not my style. I’m far too British (or reserved German) for that. Just as I've never felt the need to shout about being a woman, because that's just what is, and what I am, I've never called myself a Feminist. But... After this week, I've think there's a sea-change in me (*muffled Kraken roar*). I’ve decided. I whisper it, but emphatically, and with *epiphany-face* on. "I am a Feminist"... I have the sudden impulse to apologise. I'm not sure if it's because I'm British (, again), or a woman.
In hindsight, I think I must always have been a Feminist, since, growing up I never expected anything other than to be treated the same as my male counterparts. It might be the result of my upbringing on a farm, being practical from a young age, and having what I thought was a childhood that everyone had: penknives, sheep-shearing, tree-climbing, apple-picking; splitting wood with a massive axe like a lumberjack (I’ve EARNED a fucking beard!), buying my own tool-kit; learning how to weld and drive a digger; appreciating the seasons for what they are; being woken at 3am and venturing out, clad only in pyjamas, wellies and a sheepskin flying jacket, into freak-Spring-whiteout blizzards to rescue lambs stuck in fences, or ewes with birthing difficulties; and realising that, apart from the wind, the temperature in my bedroom was much the same as outside... Falling asleep with my feet tucked in the Rayburn oven to banish the numbness, and waking up before anyone else; scraping the embers of the fire together with sleep still in my eyes, chucking another log on and making the coffee.
That said, it could equally be the result of going to a boarding school, all-girls, curfew, no smoking (apart from in secret in the WW2 pillboxes that were scattered across the cross-country course, smelled faintly of mould, and had the aura of mustard gas and urban legend about them. Or at dawn, after climbing out of the dormitory window, and gazing over the Blyth estuary in the mist). The best thing about school for me, was that no one gave a shit what I looked like, or how I behaved. They somehow knew I was going to be amazing. My teachers had an obstinate confidence about them; behaviour probably reserved only for boarding school staff. After my parents split up I spent nearly two years, in 6th Form, almost completely mute, and with a scarf covering the bottom half of my face, but my French, English and Drama teachers still appeared to know something I didn’t, and my hockey coach miraculously had a confidence in me that I couldn’t seem to find in myself. I spent days in the darkroom working on photography projects, not talking to a soul, and emerged reeking of chemicals, blinking, still mute but soothed by the focus of education.
To this day, I'd rate boarding school as one of the best experiences of my life. Especially the all-girls aspect of it. I made friends in that strange building by the sea that are better than any I have known or made since. And not talking to boys until I'd developed thoughts of my own?? Well, now, that was just perfect. Superrr. I remember vividly, playing in a hockey match at a school in Woodbridge, noticing a boy around the same age as me trying to psyche out our goalie by making nasty sexist comments to her (she was crying). I walked up to him and told him to "fuck off". He was a bit shocked. Maybe he thought girls didn't swear... So really, patriarchal dogma has little effect on me, now. I don't buy it. I’m probably less obviously aggressive about it nowadays though…
In adulthood this attitude has caused me problems. I'm not entirely sure that men are used to me. It's not that I think I'm anything special; probably the opposite is true, if anything. I enjoy mens' company and they seem to enjoy mine although the reciprocity often comes with difficulties, complications, misunderstandings; When Harry Met Sally, eat your heart out. I sometimes think that men hear only what they want to, but then I remember that "mis-speaking" and "mis-hearing" are really human traits and understandable; an understandable misunderstanding. Lack of gender differentiation sometimes does the men I interact with a favour, though, in the sense that I see them for what they are and not what I want them to be. A lot of unhappy relationships around me seem to cover the journey from unrealistic expectation, to disappointment, to resentment. This all takes place in a communicational vacuum, by the way; that much should be obvious. In my case, romantic or generous gestures delight me more than I can express in words, precisely because I don't expect them. Perhaps singledom has saved me from that uncertainty and heartache? Company is more pleasurable because I can't take it for granted? It's a tightrope act. I'm teetering along the rope - occasionally a hand is offered and I can steady myself. But falling in love is still falling...
It strikes me that men and women, if you separate them into gender camps, don't really like each other all that much. Liking someone is not the same as considering them to be fuck-able, or putting up with them for the sake of necessity. There's always been an uneasy tension, because we have different goals, and corresponding minds-sets keyed into those goals. What blurs the lines is when women are forced to emulate men in order to function in public life. It's the suspicion of the Other, and invasion of masculine gender territory; imperialistic invasion and cultural assimilation. Where sexism is concerned, everyone behaves badly, and some of the worst perpetrators of sexist bullying that I’ve seen have been women. I’ve heard my compatriots cry “Where is the sisterhood!?” (Now... I LOVE my sister very much, but I could quite happily gag the fucker and kick her over the side of a ship when she’s being sanctimonious. Sisterhood. Seriously?) Sexism is, simply put, a lack of respect, a lack of manners, and a lack of culture. In government, you would expect those attributes to be pretty important. The Rennard debate is significant, but I'm more interested in whether the general bad treatment of women is actually a subset of a wider problem about how human beings treat each other, and how sexual politics govern our actions more deeply than we think they do.
Manners are manners. Gender has absolutely fuck all to do with it…