cats - almost as nice as dogs

The Lost Art of Disagreement

Our opinions are formed over a lifetime, a set of beliefs, principles and preferences that we continue to tweak and hone every day. Political persuasion, religious conviction and how to raise our children, through cats versus dogs and cheese course versus dessert until we get to the tiny decisions, should jam be kept in the fridge or the cupboard, should the dishwasher go on in the evening or wait until after breakfast. The wider importance of the issue does not always correspond to the fervour with which an opinion is held; the causes that prompt our passions or enrage us the most may even seem petty to others who are inflamed by very different issues. Some people support their football team or their love of cats with a passionate evangelism, others spend every free minute campaigning for reducing plastic waste, animal welfare or women’s rights, yet others may feel their strongest convictions relate to cheese and wine, collecting antique clocks or accuracy in punctuation or grammar.

Some strongly held beliefs will stand unchallenged regardless of any outside influence, others seem to shift direction with the breeze and are always open to reconsideration in the light of new information or argument. Which stance is praiseworthy seems to depend on the convictions of whomever is judging; where a like minded judge sees a steadfast and committed supporter, one with conflicting views might see a dogmatic bigot who simply won’t listen to reason. Where a fellow believer sees a flimsy lack of dedication, an opponent may welcome an open-minded debater who will listen as well as speaking. The perceived merit of the underlying argument seems the key factor in whether devotion is laudable, which becomes rather circular.

One might think that the most passionate believer would make the most successful advocate and sometimes that can indeed be the case, for there is something inspirational about the truly devoted that can sweep the uninitiated along in a sea of enthusiasm and fervour. But sometimes those who are most dedicated to their cause can alienate those who are open to hearing about it because they may simply dismiss even the notion of an alternative viewpoint. To the undecided or the questioning there is something much more attractive in considering the possibilities and reaching a reasoned conclusion for themselves than in submitting themselves for indoctrination.

I have been fortunate over the last few years to find a range of political views across my social media bubble, perhaps a sign of my own indecision about how the world ought to work, but nonetheless a potential asset in trying to form some sort of worldview. But engagement is very difficult when arguments descend into ‘them and us’ and ‘good versus evil’; very few people cast themselves as a villain and the debate is quickly lost in point scoring and name calling, leaving those who want to follow any thread of rationale frustrated and both sides more entrenched than ever. I’m often desperate to find rounded debate, that explains the issues within their wider context. Very often a view on one particular political issue will be heavily impacted by one’s view of how the world ought to work. Very often compromises have to be made that satisfy neither side, leading to frustration all round.

Take, for example a group of four students sharing a house. Two are politically ambivalent and open to persuasion, they are dressed in grey. The third dresses head to toe in blue and has a right wing bent, believing that each housemate should be responsible for themselves and that only essentials, such as heating bills ought to be funded through a common account to which each contributes, that way each can prioritise for themselves where to focus their resources. The fourth is politically left wing, wears red and believes that the cost efficiencies and time savings of combining resources will help all of them, both financially and practically, with a common fund being useful for a wider list of everyday essentials, toilet paper, cooking oil, bread, milk, butter and cleaning products, with people choosing where to prioritise their funds over and above those which are common to all (or most) of them.

A house meeting is called because of a toilet paper situation. After a debate and a vote, toilet paper was included as a house wide expense and the grey students have each taken their turn purchasing a large multipack of soft, strong and puppy embossed roll for their facility. Now that it is the turn of the blue student, a cheap and uncomfortable single ply has been provided. The grey students would not have called a meeting over such a small matter, as they can still use the toilet adequately, although they are mildly irritated about the poorer quality paper. Red is outraged and rants about the cruelty and selfishness of blue, who has the deepest pockets and yet has been stingy in selecting the communal paper. Blue points out that red is by far the biggest consumer of loo roll, being both the most lavish user and because red’s partner regularly stays at the house and makes use of their bathroom. Blue considers it outrageous that the others in effect subsidise red, particularly given that blue would never choose to spend money on luxury paper and sees no reason why red pays only a quarter, whilst being the one who benefits the most. Red is outraged because hemorrhoids mean that the paper provided by blue is unusable and argues that really they all ought to buy luxury quilted roll to soothe this affliction. They declare each other selfish and storm off leaving the greys at a loss.

The greys don’t really care who is right or wrong, they just want everyone to stop shouting at each other. In blue’s ideal house, everyone would buy their own paper, allowing blue to purchase a value option and exercise frugality in its use to save up for things blue considers a bigger priority. In this scenario, blue would be happy for red to buy super soft quilted, use a roll per session and invite a partner to do the same. Blue just doesn’t want to help pay for it, as each housemate has limited resources and each would be happier if they could decide on their own priorities. In red’s ideal house, most things would be communally funded, everyone would be spending less and having to shop less often and even if blue is benefiting less than others, overall blue should still do better than buying things alone because of the overall efficiencies in clubbing together, not to mention the improved atmosphere of equality and sharing in the house. The greys could live relatively peacefully in either house, but they are upset when red accuses blue of deliberately inflaming red’s piles because blue is a selfish and cruel housemate and blue accuses red of trying to sponge off the rest of them to fund red’s partner, an obsession with quilted rolls and a four pint a day milk habit, even though he knows one of the greys is vegan.

What the greys really want is for blue to concede that the majority want decent quality communal toilet paper, because having four loo roll holders is impractical and for red to accept that nobody else likes quilted paper and that perhaps red’s partner ought to chip in every now and then if staying regularly. But neither of them dares to speak up because of the insults and anger flying around the house. Having the conviction and the energy to fight for your beliefs is an amazing gift, but in doing so, the passionate need to remember not to disenfranchise the undecided and the greys stuck in the middle by castigating their opponents, for it halts every hope of reasoned debate. Those of us who are afraid to speak up need to do so; if we all disappear when the debate turns to hatred, how will any of us move past it.  

Today is International Women’s Day and I must confess to a fear of sharing my feminist views online because of the backlash I so often seen when people do. To me feminism is about equality, it is not about hating men or promoting an exclusive and angry agenda full of blame and hatred. It is about working together to make sure that a child can fulfil their potential regardless of their gender. And at the moment, the main gender barriers in our society predominantly impact women, and we all ought to work towards addressing that.

There are many things that feminism is not about. The fact that it does not seek to address every injustice in the world really ought not to be held against it. Nobody criticises a charity for dogs for failing to help injured whales. Feminism is about gender equality, advocating for women’s rights to bring them up to the level enjoyed by men. Most feminists would happily acknowledge that there are issues that impact disenfranchised men, but feminism is simply not a cause set up to address their concerns, it is there to address the numerous ways in which women have been disenfranchised for years. That does not mean that we are trying to trample the rights of those men; wanting women to be paid the same as men for doing the same work does not do those men a disservice, unless you consider that they ought to be paid a premium simply for being male. Nor does it mean having no sympathy for causes such as addressing the high male suicide rate or bias against men in the criminal justice system and in family law; one can be a feminist and support addressing these causes too, much like you can donate to the British Heart Foundation whilst applauding those who do the same for Anaphylaxis Campaign or Macmillan.

I do not want my eight year old to feel that she cannot stand up for herself because it isn’t ‘ladylike’ to be decisive or insightful. I don’t want her to sit quietly to one side and ‘let the men talk’ because her views are seen as somehow less valid because she has two x chromosomes. I don’t want her to see countless adverts that tell women that they ‘deserve’ skin that has been drenched in expensive moisturisers, foundations and concealers, highlighted with bronzers and blushers and photoshopped until it is no longer skin at all. I don’t want her to see TV shows where women are decorative or where their only conversation concerns men and how to look beautiful to earn them. I don’t want her to be ashamed of her body hair or to anguish over her blemishes instead of running on the beach and playing in the water. I don’t want her to hate her body, her own physicality, because of how society tells her she ought to look; I want her to enjoy her life, to eat good food, drink nice wine, to dance, to feel no shame in physical pleasure and feel no pressure to indulge somebody else’s if she doesn’t want to. I want her to live her life an equal with men, to choose a career because of her talents and her passions without even considering that her gender might be a hindrance, to walk down the street without fear of being objectified or dismissed because she has breasts and a vagina.

So many inspiring and dedicated women have done so much to further equality for women, and often against backlash that seems unbelievable to modern eyes. When I first heard of feminism I thought it was historical, that women had got the vote and access to the contraceptive pill and now had the same opportunities as men. I was informed that it would be ‘political correctness gone mad’ if people were told that ‘man up’ or ‘grow a pair’ suggested strength and courage were a male preserve and that ‘crying like a girl’ or using ‘woman’ as an insult might belittle women. Little girls are routinely greeted with ‘oh, don’t you look beautiful’ while boys are complimented on their fast running or their bravery. Girls are praised for sitting quietly and showing nurturing behaviour, while boys are forgiven more boisterous play, even if another boy is hurt by it, and encouraged to challenge themselves. This gender stereotyping causes problems for everyone – girls are taught that their value is in their looks and in being compliant, boys are taught that they should hide their feelings and that their value is in their strength and leadership. None of these qualities is itself bad, but I think it is damaging if we are measured against a stereotype to assess our individual worth.

The very word ‘feminism’ can seem off putting and part of me wishes that the word itself were more gender neutral to make it more appealing. But feminists do have an agenda, and I believe that it is justified and that we oughtn’t to have to apologise for it. Is feminism the most important of all causes? Not to me, no. If I could choose between curing Alzheimer’s or cancer and resolving gender inequality, I’m afraid they would definitely trump feminism. But being a feminist does not mean championing women’s equality at the expense of everything else, nor does it mean fighting for every cause that every feminist has ever mentioned. It simply means working towards equality for women. And although my opinions are still very much a work in progress, I am firmly behind that. Happy International Women’s Day to all the incredible women in my life, you inspire me and give me strength.

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