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Reading between the lines

Wimmin are innocent?

Measures to excuse female violence risk treating all women as weak and irrational, argues Sally Millard

  • When She Was Bad: How Women Get Away With Murder,Patricia Pearson, Virago Press, £9.99 pbk

Men are perpetrators of abuse or violence, and women are victims. Patricia Pearson's book makes a brave attempt to challenge this mantra of victim feminism, now part of mainstream thinking. She argues that this assumption has become so ingrained in our culture that we find it difficult to look beyond it. Consequently, she explains, women are getting away with murder, and in doing so they are undermining their claims for equal treatment as responsible adults.

To make her case, Pearson tells us numerous gory tales of women who have murdered and abused. She amasses some compelling evidence to suggest that, due to the prejudice that 'women don't kill', the police have been blinded to evidence that should have led them to suspect violent crime. When the police do arrest, the courts have too readily accepted the 'vocabulary of motive' invented by victim feminists, which undermines women's culpability for crimes they have committed. 'The operative assumption is that the violent woman could not have wanted deliberately to cause harm. Therefore if she says she was abused/coerced/insane, she probably was.'

Pearson's argument is strongest when she draws out the consequences that defences like battered women's syndrome or pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS) have for society's broader attitude towards women. Battered women's syndrome was developed as a temporary insanity defence to give juries a basis on which to acquit a woman who had committed a violent crime against a partner, when her partner had beaten her over a period of time. Unfortunately, something that was motivated by a desire to give some women sympathetic treatment at the hands of the criminal justice system means, in effect, that battered women are seen as permanently on the brink of insanity. This calls into question their ability to act responsibly.

This view of women is epitomised by the concept of 'learned helplessness'. Through learned helplessness women are said to be rendered helpless and passive by the random nature of their partner's assaults. Pearson illustrates the dangers of this idea through discussing the trial of Karla Homolka. Homolka was convicted of manslaughter for her complicity in three rapes and murders for which her husband, Paul Bernardo, was convicted. 'Encouraged to attribute every move, every want, every look on her fiercely intelligent face to the machinations of Paul Bernardo, Homolka renounced her claim to be an adult. She infantilised herself, relinquishing spirit, will, passion, pride, resourcefulness, and rage.' By giving Homolka the language to relinquish herself of responsibility for crimes she had clearly committed, feminist arguments undermine the claim of any woman to be treated as an autonomous and responsible adult.

Overall, this book represents an interesting challenge to the victim feminists' prejudice. It usefully draws out some of the dangers of this approach, although even Pearson is unable to remove herself entirely from the victim feminist framework. She takes on the 'woman as victim' mantra by posing the polar opposite view - that women, like men, are dangerous and destructive, and that they use the most appropriate method available to them to express their violent tendencies. Sometimes this is physical violence and murder, but it may also include 'taunts, insults and threats, hitting and shoving, destroying household property, preventing each other from seeing friends, and stalking or closely monitoring with suspicions of infidelity'.

The message we get is that violence and abuse is even more prevalent than we currently imagine, especially in intimate relationships. In Pearson's eagerness to promote the view that women are purposive human beings who should be held culpable for the crimes they do commit, she ends up extending the definition of violence and viewing all relationships as somehow degraded.

Men at work

  • Heterophobia: Sexual Harassment and the Future of Feminism, Daphne Patai, Rowman and Littlefield, £15.95 hbk

'It is hard to imagine any other group of people who have been so crassly maligned in a public setting without arousing immediate protest.' Daphne Patai is not talking about lesbians here, or single mothers, or transsexuals. She is talking about men, and the contempt held by the 'sexual harassment industry' for men and their relationships with women.

The starting point of Patai's argument is the remarkable and destructive impact that America's sexual harassment industry has made on academia and the workplace, and relationships between people generally. The sheer number of sexual harassment cases and 'preventative' measures illustrates how far-reaching this impact now is, and the repercussions of harassment cases. Patai's critique shows that the problem here lies with the fundamental premise of the sexual harassment industry.

Patai outlines how the definition of sexual harassment has expanded from a laudable desire to outlaw sex-based discrimination to a catch-all definition in which mere discomfort over a glance or an unwanted sexual advance can be equated to the violence of a rape. Many employers are now excessively vigilant in 'protecting' women from any possibility of harassment. In academic institutions, investigation boards almost always accept the woman's word - even in questionable and sometimes absurd cases - just so that they are seen to be doing something about sexual harassment. As a result, many men see all women in their workplaces as potential litigants, who will sue them for the slightest out-of-place glance or comment.

The campaigns against sexual harassment have, according to Patai, turned into a witch-hunt - not just against men, but against heterosexuality. Plain old sex is perceived as inextricably intertwined with sexual discrimination and sexual harassment. Sex itself is then ruthlessly expelled from the workplace. She points out that the late twentieth century not only has an obsession with sexual misdeeds, but also a 'bizarre propensity for reconceptualising personal relationships largely in terms of power'. And as men retain power in the workplace, the argument goes, women cannot have a consensual relationship with a male colleague. Therefore, all sex between work colleagues is a form of abuse. The corollary is that the phrase 'the personal is political' has been changed to 'the political is personal', 'which in turn has come to mean that where everything is political, nothing is'.

Patai has set out to disrupt the 'intellectual comfort' of those who support the sexual harassment industry. In so doing she has issued a timely warning to men and women everywhere about the consequences of the new 'heterophobia'.

David Nolan

Jones clones?

  • Come Together, Josie Lloyd and Emlyn Rees, Arrow, £5.99 pbk

  • Poor Kevin, Kate Margam, Serpent's Tail, £7.99 pbk

It's the usual story: boy meets girl, girl spends entire week thinking about nothing but whether boy will ring, boy calls. Hey ho, a relationship. Come Together is a novel in two parts, which gives the boy's version and the girl's version of the same relationship. An insight into the minds of the sexes? Not quite. The book is a painfully traditional view of the differences between men and women, with such groundbreaking insights as: women yearn for relationships not flings, men often fall asleep after sex, men are afraid of commitment.

Best known for being the book which afforded the largest-ever advance to unknown writers, one can't help but wonder why. The book is written in the form of the diaries of Jack and Amy. Jack and Amy are two ordinary people, in ordinary circumstances, brought together by...a party. Sadly, this is it. At the end of the day Jack and Amy are not very interesting people having an ordinary relationship. The old 'what do you think he meant when he said "you're nice"?' angst might entertain you with your best friend in a pub, but it doesn't make for very good reading.

Come Together is modelled on, almost a carbon copy of, Bridget Jones's Diary. From the style of writing to the petty obsessions to the sometimes-funny jokes, the book is a replicate. Because of this, it's just not that good.

I picked up Poor Kevin with similar trepidation, but it surprised me. Poor Kevin is the story of Louise, a sex therapist, and Kevin, her client. The bulk of the story is Louise's struggle to find out why Kevin keeps making appointments with her. Kevin won't tell her why he's there and, worse still, dominates their sessions, leaving Louise confused and humiliated.

Kate Margam maintains enough suspense to make her debut novel a good combination of comedy and thriller. In the character Louise, Margam has created the anti-Bridget - a woman whose life doesn't fall apart when her lover leaves her, who is in control of her sex life and does not live in fear of challenges. In an age of books about inadequate individuals, it is a refreshing and convincing antidote. Poor Kevin is ideal beach reading for the summer ahead - happy holidays.

Irene Miller

Reinventing God

  • All In The Mind: A Farewell To God, Ludovic Kennedy, Hodder and Stoughton, £18.99 hbk

Eminent broadcaster Ludovic Kennedy is scathing about Christianity and people's continuing willingness to believe in God. He chastises 'superstitious' Christians, asking 'how soon or long before they come to recognise that God is a fantasy figure...and learn to discard him?'.

Kennedy's story about how he came to doubt God's existence will strike a chord with many for whom the questioning of religious beliefs was a coming of age. As a child he found the penitential prayers said in the school chapel (where children beg forgiveness for their sins) 'demeaning and untrue'. When his father, who had asked for God's protection, drowned during the Second World War, the young Kennedy realised that prayers were pointless and was well on his way to becoming an atheist.

Today Kennedy looks on all religious beliefs with disdain, arguing that every god is a 'human construct'. But he reserves particular venom for Christianity, writing that the 'truth of the gospels are an amalgam of art, artifice and sheer invention' and pointing to Christianity's 'malign' and destructive impact on humanity. I particularly enjoyed his attacks on the Roman Catholic Church, which holds the most 'rigid and illiberal beliefs'.

But is Kennedy attacking religious belief, or belief itself? He is most critical of those religions, like Catholicism and Islam, which are unflinching and which demand a high level of commitment to a specific set of beliefs. For Kennedy, these religions are the worst because they prescribe a 'rigid' way of living and require strict adherence. By contrast, he sympathises with liberal theologians like David Jenkins and Don Cupitt because, as Piers Paul Read points out, they 'try to make sense of the inherently nonsensical Christian belief'. Such theologians are concerned with making Christian values relevant to the 1990s, by emphasising the ethical over the ecclesiastical - which, it turns out, is what Kennedy wants to do as well.

'The great majority of us share what I have come to call the collective conscience', writes Kennedy. 'With a few exceptions, we all know what is right conduct and what is wrong.' He goes on to suggest that such knowledge of right and wrong (replacing outdated notions of good and evil) should be taught in schools, not through the invented and ridiculous idea of God but through lessons in 'human values' and citizenship. Here Kennedy is on the same footing as government ministers who, concerned by the decline of morality once provided by religious education, want to teach ethics, citizenship and anti-racism as a means of whipping Britain's faithless youth into shape.

Many atheists celebrate the fact that we live in an increasingly godless age, but it strikes me that there is a widespread attempt to reinvent God for a new audience, by repackaging the virtues and values that were once shoved down our throats in the name of religion. The danger is that the emphasis on ethics and citizenship is even more insidious than the old religions. At the Catholic school where I was educated, God was presented as an outside force looking down on us all and watching our every move. This abstract morality at least allowed space for critical young minds to doubt what they were being told - the very process that Kennedy says he experienced in his youth. But lessons in citizenship and anti-racism, which focus on everyday life and attitudes, give little opportunity to question anything.

The conclusion to Kennedy's atheism is to call for new and improved ways of establishing 'common values'. I would prefer an atheism which rejects Christian values as obscurantist and degrading, and puts the case for individual conscience.

Brendan O'Neill

Mutant veg

  • Engineering Genesis: The Ethics of Genetic Engineering In Non-Human Species, Donald and Ann Bruce (eds), Earthscan, £12.99 pbk

  • Genetic Engineering: Dream or Nightmare? The Brave New World of Bad Science and Big Business, Dr Mae-Wan Ho, Gateway, £9.95 pbk

Since Crick and Watson first discovered the DNA (DeoxyriboNucleic Acid) molecule that contains the genetic code in every living cell, the major advance in genetics is understanding the process of 'reverse transcription'. It had been thought that the expression of the DNA code in the genes as outward features was a strictly one-way process: genes dictate the character of the organism. But the discovery that some specific organisms - viruses and bacteria - transcribe genetic information back on to the DNA molecule in living cells has revolutionised genetics and made possible the new advances in 'genetic engineering'.

The existence of reverse transcription in nature means that scientists can reproduce the process, so introducing foreign DNA sequences into cells, by hitching a ride on the bacteria or virus. These agents are called cloning vectors because they are used to introduce new DNA. But as well as being the basis of the breakthrough in genetic engineering, they are also the focus of much of the anxiety about this new science.

In Genetic Engineering: Dream or Nightmare?, Dr Mae-Wan Ho writes the scariest scenario, with alien transgenic material infecting everybody through rogue cloning vectors. Her book is decorated with scientific facts but these hide an underlying new-age mysticism that disguises itself as science. Her dogmatic belief that species exist in harmony predisposes her to see all human intervention as dangerous. Dr Ho does not give due weight to the fact that horizontal gene transfer is a natural process, and that genetic engineering only reproduces it. Specifically she gives far too much credence to the fear that cloning vectors will spread promiscuously. For all her warnings, her one example of food poisoning, the trytophan disaster that killed 37 people, turns out to be unrelated to genetic engineering, but a consequence of chemical treatment. Unfortunately this intelligence did not prevent one Labour MP from using this very example from Dr Ho's book in parliament.

Engineering Genesis is a more intelligent book than Dr Ho's. Prepared by the Scottish Council of Churches it wears its religious convictions on its sleeve. The authors pay homage to the contemporary prejudice that scientific issues must be hedged around with ponderous 'ethical' statements - but at least these are presented as such, not passed of as Dr Ho's dubious science of 'biophysics'. The involvement of scientists like the Roslin Institute's Ian Wilmut mean that this volume is a useful introduction to the difficult topic of genetic engineering.

James Heartfield

Letting your garde down

  • Behind the Times: The Decline and Fall of the Twentieth-Century Avant-Gardes, Eric Hobsbawm, Thames and Hudson, £7.95 hbk

In the blurb for this book, Eric Hobsbawm - a renowned historian and a former guru of British premier Tony Blair - is described as 'an unrepentant Marxist'. Strange, then, that he nowhere reminds us of the radical origins of the expression 'avant-garde', which apparently has declined and fallen this century.

Avant-garde, or 'vanguard', was a former military term introduced into art criticism by the radical socialist Gabriel-Désiré Laverdan, who wrote in 1845: 'In order to know whether art was fulfilling its true mission... whether the artist belongs in fact to the vanguard, one must first know where mankind is heading, and what is the destiny of the species.' But Hobsbawm's notion of avant-garde art is entirely different. He prefers the opinion of Laverdan's more cautious confederate, Pierre Proudhon, who proposed that the mission of contemporary art should merely be 'an expression of the times'. But for contemporary art to limit itself only to 'expressing the times' is to stymie its creativity, whereas a dynamic artistic vanguard always hopes to give a lead to the times.

Hobsbawm believes that self-indulgent creativity is to blame for the decline of the artistic avant-garde in the twentieth century. He offers one way for artists to 'break with this crippling tradition of art as the production of irreproducible artefacts by artists pleasing only themselves'. Ever since the days of Pop Art in the 1960s, contemporary art has been virtually bankrupt, according to Hobsbawm, because the visual arts are technically obsolete compared to new media like film and television, which are so much better at expressing the times. Consequently, the more astute artists have 'recognised the logic of life and production in industrial society' and decamped en masse to the worlds of advertising and industrial design. It is ironic that Hobsbawm professes such cynicism about the creative potential of art, and yet expresses remarkable naivety when he commends the mediocre standards currently upheld by these new cultural industries. Why should avant-garde art be shoehorned into matching such narrow expectations?

Hobsbawm views contemporary artists, who are supposedly crippled by their fanatical affinity for creativity, as casualties traumatised by modernity and in dire need of finding themselves by making their art relevant to the times. Behind the Times imagines that creative art has become redundant to this day and age because its operating assumption is that art is only required to express the times - not engage in any futile project of trying to challenge them.

I suppose another reading of his Behind the Times title might be 'Behind the Status Quo'. Avant-garde artists are alive and well and technically proficient. It is just that whenever they have the temerity to propose something novel and experimental, it is invariably greeted with howls of rage from 'unrepentant' socialists who demand that the cash be better spent on something more relevant, like a hospital. If art were confined to the level of NHS painting and decorating, how much drearier these times would be.

Aidan Campbell

Reproduced from LM issue 120, May 1999



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