“Oh for god’s sake,” I think, as someone unpacks how a seemingly innocuous trope in my favourite TV show is discriminatory, actually. Oh for god’s sake. Get a grip. Get over yourself. Not everything has to be over-interpreted. *rolls eyes*
I’m not proud of it.
I was asked to do a piece about “how to be an ally” at work recently. My immediate reaction was that this was laughable on a number of levels, perhaps most importantly that I don’t know how to be an ally. Oh, I advertise myself as an ally in my social media bio. Ally for hire. No windmill too large. And I flatter myself that I do — sometimes, but increasingly — go out of my way to speak out when I see someone being racist, sexist, homophobic or transphobic. I try to use whatever traction I have to amplify voices that stamp fewer boxes on the bingo card of life (cis ☑ straight ☑ white ☑ neurotypical ☑ male ☑ parent ☑. House!)
For example. I went on BBC Points of View a few months ago to talk about the Doctor and Yaz’s (veeery low key) gay romance in Doctor Who, and how joyfully normal it seemed to my highly-invested ten year old daughter. I did this because a) Points of View asked, and b) it seemed like an, ahem, ‘point of view’ that needed to be put. It was far from clear that anyone else would be asked if I didn’t step up.
I worry about being an ally. I worry I’m doing it wrong, that I’m probably not as enlightened as I fondly imagine. I worry my voice might replace rather than amplify the voices of LGBTQ+ people (as it arguably did on Points of View). (I worry that those were the wrong letters. Is it LGBTQIA+? What about QUILTBAG, is that better or did we all decide that was silly?)
The answer, it seems to me, is to listen.
“Oh for god’s sake” is the opposite of listening. It’s the enemy of self-reflection. Not everything that makes us say “oh for god’s sake” will turn out to be worthwhile. But when someone who is directly in the firing line is speaking up, it’s an instinct we should at least learn to question.
We’ve all arrived at an intuitive sense of what is normal, a rule of thumb about how the world works that most people would call “common sense”. The problem with common sense is that it may be common in the sense of being frequently encountered; it may even be common to a group of people with whom we identify; but it’s not common to everyone. It’s not universal, and we go wrong when we assume that it is — either because we don’t interrogate how our lives differ from other people’s, or because we make the value judgement that our way is the best, most normal, most sensible way of being and everyone else is peculiar. (Poor. Uneducated. Prone to criminal tendencies. Weird taste in food. You know, foreign.)
Our common sense is full of things that would stink to high heaven if we hadn’t gone nose-blind.
I think it’s like an accent. Everyone has one, but we basically assume that we’re the ones talking normally. (If we’re privileged enough that our accent happens to be the one that opens doors, maybe we even think that other people are not enunciating properly. 4/10. Must try harder.) And again, we all know that accents are not universal, but in our daily lives we don’t need to think twice about it because most people talk the same way.
Common sense feels like a universal absolute but is really a measuring stick we’ve whittled for ourselves over the years, the statistical average of the biases we’ve accumulated in our lives. It’s a short cut that avoids the things we have no practical need for, like other people’s pronouns, so we can prioritise more vital things, like cake. When someone comes along and prioritises something trivial (and, fatally, non-cake related) it flies in the face of all our accumulated life hacks. Instead of using this perfectly obvious short cut that I and countless other people I know — very sensibly — take every single day, these people want me to stop and look at the map. How inefficient. How infuriating.
For me, that’s why “Oh for god’s sake” and “common sense” are often the reaction to progressive ideas. ‘Look at all these liberals tying themselves up in knots, and for what? To pander to people whose lives I never directly encounter, in ways that don’t apply to to me or anyone I care about.’
As I write this Conservative leadership candidates Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss are scrambling to out-common-sense one another with policies that are 100% distilled “Oh for god’s sake”. Sunak has called the 2010 Equality Act “a Trojan horse that has allowed every kind of woke nonsense to permeate public life.” The key word here is not “woke” but “nonsense”. What nonsense it is to use pronouns, to respect other people’s gender identity, to teach the history of the country in a way that reflects the experience of both black and white people, to allow gay teachers to talk to kids about how their identity matters to them. What nonsense.
This is very much an appeal to those who don’t need to worry about such things, have never needed to worry about them, whose streamlined, efficient lives are optimised to ignore such things. People who don’t benefit directly from “woke nonsense” and who can’t put themselves in the position of those that do. People for whom being asked to listen to marginalised voices has no practical value. ‘We’ve never had to do it before, and now it’s all we ever seem to hear about.’
The fact that so-called “culture wars” topics have gone from privileged people grumbling to a central pillar of our ruling political party is a little scary to me. I can only imagine how scary it feels to someone whose life is directly being debated, like a gay or trans person. It’s scary because I got past “oh for god’s sake” just long enough to stop and think. Let’s take pronouns for example. If I’m completely honest they don’t matter to me day to day. Like my accent I don’t have to think about them so my brain has edited them out, and when I’m expected to consciously modify them it takes actual effort. Effort is hard. I make mistakes. Mistakes are embarrassing. OMG. But what am I weighing that moment of cringe against? Another person’s whole sense of self.
Or let’s take a historical example that now seems trivial. When I started work, it was normal to talk about meetings and committees having a “chairman”. When I was first told that this was gendered, that we only picture a man when we hear “chairman”, that we should say “chairperson” instead, my brain went “oh for god’s sake”. At the time “chairperson” sounded borderline parodic, a linguistic contortion. In the intervening twenty years it’s become so normalised I don’t think twice about it. In fact, more often than not we just say “the chair of the meeting”. There was a brief period of adjustment when it felt a bit awkward and people got it wrong, and then… it became normal. It did no harm to anyone. And in my opinion the slow transformation of language genuinely does contribute to a culture shift where the default person is not assumed to be male.
Another high profile example is when, in 1987, Star Trek: The Next Generation modified Captain Kirk’s famous “Where no man has gone before” to “Where no-one has gone before”. At the time this felt quite self-conscious, maybe even a bit silly. Now we don’t bat an eyelid. And that’s the point. So many of the things we now take for granted at one stage seemed weird and ridiculous and unnecessary, but instead of rolling our eyes (or perhaps more accurately in spite of rolling our eyes) we did it anyway and society shifted, just that little bit. Ever so slowly we broadened our definition of common sense.
US Vice-President Kamala Harris recently created a brief flurry of eye-rolling when, at a meeting focused on disability issues, she stated not just her pronouns but gave a brief description of herself: “I am Kamala Harris; my pronouns are she and her, and I am a woman sitting at the table wearing a blue suit.” Now I don’t know if audio-captioning yourself makes a difference to other people and I guess I’ve never had to think about it. But if people with a visual impairment say that it makes them feel included, centred and heard then I think my task is to ask myself “Is what’s being asked of me unreasonably difficult, does it do any harm, and on balance could it do sufficient good to justify trying it?” In short, to listen. I can’t currently see this becoming the norm in all meetings, but perhaps I’m wrong about that. I can absolutely see it becoming the norm in meetings where someone has a declared visual impairment. Perhaps I’m wrong about that too, perhaps some bit of technology will take the strain, perhaps we’ll alt-text ourselves on Zoom instead. But it’s really not that hard. At worst it briefly makes me feel a bit awkward, at best it transforms someone’s experience of that meeting for the better.
The truth is our lives are not efficient and streamlined. To varying degrees we all spend big chunks of our time chewing over inefficient things; like what that person over there thinks about us, why this door is too heavy, why that little step in the doorway is going to kill us one day, why this room is too cold, why that person always forgets our name, why we can’t unmute ourselves, why that person used that offensive word, why our neighbour has loud parties until 1 am when we have to go to work in the morning, We can all see the ways, both small and large, in which the world could be made easier for us to live in, and we’d all be grateful if someone else would help. We’d all be hurt if everyone else reacted to the things that make our lives harder by rolling their eyes and saying “Oh for god’s sake”. These things matter to us.
The least we can do is listen when other people tell us what matters to them.