Archive for March 2016

Bored on a tram

March 31, 2016

Yesterday I was on a tram and heard a kid trying very hard to annoy his parents. (At least, I assume they were his parents.) He kept singing: “I’m… sooooooo…bored!” It worked. They got annoyed. They both started telling him off in quiet, grumbly voices that undercut the singing.

After a while, presumably as an experiment, he changed the words to the song to: “I’m sooooooo…happy!

His parents didn’t react to the change in words. They both just carried on talking non-stop in low voices about how he was going to be in trouble, how he could stop that nonsense right now, etc, etc.

Hypothesis 1: his parents spotted the lyric change, spotted that he was testing them for a reaction, realised that he was still trying very hard to be irritating despite the superficial change in lyrical subject matter and decided to respond to the intent rather than to the actual words.

Hypothesis 2: they didn’t actually notice the lyric change.

I’ve written about this before: when you think someone has seen through your attempt to deceive and you credit them with insight for ignoring it, but in fact they never even spotted your attempt to deceive in the first place. The example I originally gave was of a mother trying to trick a child, but I actually think it’s way more common the other way round. Because when you’re a kid, even after you’ve got out of the phase of thinking your parents are omniscient, you still think they’re way more observant and interested in the minor things you do/say than they really are.

On IWD and “just getting on with it”

March 16, 2016

Vintage lingerie vendors What Katie Did got a few knickers in a twist on International Women’s Day when they tweeted:

what katie did screenshot

#InspiringWomen – yes! But do we really need #InternationalWomensDay? At What Katie Did we’re to [sic] busy #WomenJustGettingOnWithItDay

Great point! Why don’t the women in sub-Saharan Africa who don’t get taught to read and write just get on with it and open a boutique on Portobello Road? Why don’t the women who spend five hours a day fetching water just get on with it and do some 1950s-style lingerie design?

There were a few more tweets along those lines, all deleted once they realised they’d annoyed more people than expected. The screenshot above is courtesy of illustrator @MurderofGoths, who then asked people to suggest names of women who’ve done the work that makes it possible for others to just “get on with it” so she could celebrate them with drawings. (Melitta Bentz, Leona Chalmers, Elizabeth Smith Miller.)

In this context, the privilege behind the concept of “just getting on with it” spills out like cleavage from an ill-fitting “vintage” bra. It means ignorance of the hidden (or not-so-hidden) labour of others. It means ignorance of the structures that some people have in place and others don’t: water supply networks, courts, human rights, healthcare…(I could go on. I could go on for a long time.) It means ignorance of the sad fact that some basic rights have to be fought for, not just once but repeatedly. It’s not just an acceptance of the status quo, but an inability to imagine that things could ever be any different.

So yes, many of the people who use this phrase about themselves are expressing their privilege. But it’s also used to silence the powerless and discourage action. Remember the warthog in The Lion King who “solves” his problems by shrugging them off? On the subject of that damn warthog, I once wrote:

So much of what’s wrong in the world is perpetuated by people who put up with bad stuff instead of trying to change it. I’m not necessarily blaming people who choose this course of (non-)action; if you’re powerless and focused on survival, maybe it’s your only option. But that doesn’t mean we have to think that endurance or denial are good strategies for dealing with bad stuff.
[…] If you think that denying problems is the happy-go-lucky approach, people who actually face up to problems look uptight and boring in comparison.

Yep. The concept of “just getting on with it” frames the people who want to make things better and fight injustice as trouble-makers. The problem-solvers are magically recast as problem-creators, in contrast to the people who “just get on with it”. There’s a false dichotomy being set up between the two groups. That false dichotomy rests on the false idea that raising problems is incompatible with doing your work well or caring enough. Of course, I would actually argue that the people agitating for better things care a hell of a lot more than the people “just getting on with it”. “Fitting in” is not the same thing as actually being invested in your community or workplace (or whatever).

But mostly, when I hear people using the “getting on with it” line about themselves, it’s not about their privilege at all. I hear it a lot from people working in industries that are hostile to them, and it’s a way of rationalising their powerlessness rather than expressing any privilege. Yes, really the boss should give you ear-defenders when you’re using that equipment, but you just get on with it. Yes, it would be nice if the site had a toilet for women so you don’t have to use the men’s and run the gauntlet every time, but you just get on with it.  In this kind of context, “getting on with it” might mean damaging your hearing, or developing a urinary tract infection, or developing PTSD, or doing unpaid overtime, or working for below minimum wage, or trying to laugh off unwanted sexual comments. In other words, “getting on with it” means that your health or safety or self-respect takes a hit in order to keep someone else comfortable.

Maybe it’s now clear what a loaded term it is. There are two real meanings: benefiting from the unacknowledged work of others, or putting up with a situation you think you can’t change. If you find yourself using that phrase, ask yourself: am being clueless about how other people’s hard work benefits me, or am I eating shit?