can’t we just all be friends?

How many boyfriends and girlfriends have you got? It’s starting to look increasingly common to have at least two or three.

Only some of them aren’t really ‘girlfriends’ or ‘boyfriends’. They’re ‘partners’, or ‘husbands’ or ‘wives’. Or they’re ‘lovers’, ‘flings’, or ‘mistresses’.

Or they’re ‘friends with benefits‘, or ‘casual aquaintances’ or ‘affectionate friends’. Or exes we’re still friends with, and/or share a bed with. Or people we’ve ‘friendzoned’. Or people we slept with once, or twice, or three times and might sleep with again – “but it isn’t a thing”. Or, it is a “thing” but it isn’t a “thing, thing.”

Or people who we can’t actually sleep with because they’re a friend’s partner, or an ex’s friend, or we work with them, or because we’re best friends and the stakes are too high, or they’re out of bounds in some other way. Who we then spend most of our waking hours thinking about, and most of our sleeping hours dreaming about, and tell ourselves and everyone who asks that it absolutely isn’t a “thing” either.

It’s all very confusing.

The one certainty is that the old nuclear-family-track structures aren’t as certain as they once were, and it’s rare that anyone keeps all of their intimate feelings exclusively for just one person. Some of us might once have hoped for that; but then all those other people just insist on getting inside our heads (and our hearts. And sometimes, our pants).

There’s been a little whirlwind of internet activity recently, proposing polyamory as a solution to all this. The idea seems to be that you can cut through the Gordian knot of relationship confusion by simply accepting that one partner isn’t enough. In the writing of the most evangelistic polyamorists, there’s an implication that we can all have happy lives if we all get ten partners and all hold hands and skip through butterfly meadows, occasionally stopping for some free love.

The only comments I’ve made on non-monogamy before have been satire. But just for a moment, let’s take polyamory as a serious proposal.

Firstly, I don’t like the word ‘polyamory’. I think it’s silly. It’s particularly silly when people use it to describe themselves, as if it were some rebellious identity-defining queer sexual orientation, rather than a social relationship structure. It makes them go around saying things like, “Yes, I’m poly. Are you poly? Have you met Polly? Polly’s poly,” etc.

Not to mention how fucking smug it all is.

But I do think it follows from my comments on love before – both on this blog and at Stand-Up Philosophy (video here) – that there are many kinds of love, which can overlap in ways that needn’t be exclusive or finite, either of kinds or of subjects. We can feel eros and agapē and philia and storge, and so on, in any combination, for anybody. And we should be pragmatic about that.

So as far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing wrong in principle with having as many of whatever kind of relationships work for you.

But I think this only works on condition of a very important caveat, and it’s the point I’ve been trying to make all along. It’s this: the necessary condition of all good relationships, with anyone, is that we love others first as friends: that what we feel for them is primarily a combination of philia (we actually like them) and agapē (we care, and we want what is good for them).

So there is no such thing as ‘just’ friendship – friendship is the crucial factor. It is what motivates us to treat others with kindness. It’s the condition of everything which is good with others, and it can be the answer to anything bad. It can be deep and enduring and profound, and it matters. Friendship is the most important thing.

I don’t trust people who say they ‘can’t’ be friends with their lovers, whether it’s before or during a relationship or after a separation. Needing some space after a change in the relationship is understandable, but if you never cared for that person the way a friend does, then you probably never cared enough to have them in your life anyway.

And I say ‘change in the relationship’ rather than ‘break-up’ because, if people are primarily friends then the word ‘break-up’ doesn’t make sense. Nothing is ‘broken’; there is just a distancing between two friends who had previously been very close (and in practical terms, you might stop sleeping together). But however sudden or painful that distancing might be, people who are worth caring for will still care for each other.

So, friendship is the most important thing. But that’s not what you’re reading this for. You’re reading this because you hope I’ll say something that fits in with your opinions about sex and monogamy. It’s eros that you’re interested in, not philia.

So I’ll add another point: that there are (at least) two sub-categories of erotic love. There is one kind of eros (or desire) that simply wants to physically connect with someone, to gain access to their body for a moment in time. And there is another kind of eros, that wants to possess another person psychologically and emotionally.

In other words, there’s the desire to get sexy with someone, and the desire for someone to be YOURS FOREVER. They’re both common feelings.

But there’s a lot of bullshit in romantic culture, intended to make us believe that the second kind is more virtuous than the first, or that it must be a condition of it. This is wrong, and in my opinion somewhat perverse. Wanting someone to be emotionally in thrall to you indefinitely is not ‘purer’ or more virtuous than just wanting to get their clothes off.

Lust in itself isn’t jealous, doesn’t threaten to trap anyone, it doesn’t stalk them or bully them or murder them. It just wants to rub up against you. Lust is pure; Disney-style romantic love is kind of creepy.

And it’s not just creepy; it’s a serious danger to personal liberty. The only time it’s necessary to put a limit on the number and variety of relationships we have, is when we confuse those two types of desire, or believe that they must exist and can only exist together. That is what the ideological commitment to monogamy is: it’s when we come to believe that sex must give us not just temporary access to the desired person’s body, but ongoing possession of their soul. And I don’t think this can be right.

Over the last few years, I’ve found it more and more difficult to understand the idea of being “with” just one other person indefinitely; to give your body and soul over to being just one other person’s possession and property, and to think of that as some kind of real, fixed and binding structure that is morally inviolable. It’s almost asking for trouble.

A lot of monogamists claim that they don’t think or act like this all the time. When they are ‘single’, they say, they have ‘casual things’. What they are saying is that when they can’t find anyone who they might eventually want to possess completely, they’ll fuck people they don’t actually care for or like that much. They use people; and then they are surprised and hurt when they are used themselves.

Plus, we are never “with” just one other person. Apart from the common confusion at the start of this post, we’re always also part of a community, part of a family, part of a society.

Of course we will often have a best friend, a closest friend, and we might also have very good reasons to want to keep sex as as something we share only with that friend who we trust and desire most. There’s nothing wrong with that at all, and I have to admit that I’ve personally often preferred it. Only those of us who are lucky enough to have had a best friend, with whom it is possible to share all the kinds of love there are, can know the value of that.

But no realistic commitment to just one other person can permanently exclude all the other people, neither emotionally or sexually. And we don’t need to; if we stop belittling friendship with words like ‘just friends’, recognise it as the highest kind of relationship that is possible, and recognise sex as something that friends can do if they want and if they really do care about each other, then we don’t need to construct imaginary walls around our relationships.

Why can’t we think beyond securing the possession of someone else’s heart and sex for ourselves? Why can’t we all be friends, in that necessary, profound way I’m trying to describe? Maybe we’d want to sleep with one or some or none of our friends – if you truly care about them, it doesn’t matter as much as you think it does. What’s important is that we like and care for our network of friends.

In fact, why can’t we think of ourselves like constellations of stars? We float in space, always ourselves, but always a part of a constellation; gravitating towards each other in twos and threes, sometimes more, shining our light and warmth on each other, but never in a vacuum and always with the constellation present.

Maybe I’ll be drawn towards you by a kind of gravity I can’t explain. Maybe we’ll drift apart, pulled by the gravity of other stars; maybe we’ll keep coming back again. Maybe for a time, I’ll be the brightest thing in your universe and you’ll be the brightest in mine. Maybe just for a few hours – maybe until our light goes out.

And if that fades, it doesn’t mean we failed; we succeeded in lighting each other for as long as we did. And if you turn your light on others and away from me, I’ll feel cold; but I never owned the fire in you, and I’d have been a fool to expect to orbit forever around just one sun. And you were never my only source of light, either. I’m never floating through space alone, and there’s always light to be found.

I am one amongst a constellation of stars. The light I give is unlimited and I won’t stop shining it on you, and all my friends, for as long as you’ll receive it. And when a star dies, its light and warmth remain.

Of course, many people cannot think like this. They feel alone if they can’t lock someone else up for life.

Perhaps they need friendship most of all.

why is pharrell so loved when robin thicke is so hated?

I wouldn’t be surprised if Robin Thicke was on suicide watch right now. His personal life is in tatters; the world – including his wife – apparently hates him; and worse, we’ve associated him permanently with rape and rape culture.

When he featured at the Download festival he wasn’t looking great – he’s lost weight and he has a lonely, hunted look about him. Like a little boy who once played a prank on a kid more popular than he realised, and now spends his breaktimes getting beaten up for it.

And just to top things off, his new album really, really sucks.

To date, it’s sold just 530 copies in the UK. That is so small that if the director of his next video had anything like the acute sense of irony that the director of the ‘Blurred Lines’ video had, she would fill it with helium balloons saying “Robin Thicke has a tiny niche market.”

This is all somewhat justified, of course. His marriage is in tatters because, in the sudden flush of his initial success as a global sex symbol, he acted in really obnoxious ways that hurt his wife. That’s his own stupid fault.

And his new album really sucks because, in a frantic attempt to communicate with her when she stopped talking to him, he wrote and recorded it in three weeks, then insisted that the label put it out immediately even though it wasn’t very good.

Even on a charitable interpretation, that looked desperate and whiney; on a less charitable reading it looked like a cynical attempt to make money out of the breakup. It’s no surprise that nobody wants to buy it, and it is to the shame of the label that they put such a piece of crap on the market.

And then, of course, there’s ‘Blurred Lines’.

I’m not going to defend the song on moral grounds, although personally I never thought that the furore was ever quite proportional to the intent behind the song. Perhaps this is because I was in the minority who heard it before I read the blogs claiming it was “rapey”. As Dorian Lynskey has pointed out, “Blurred Lines is not about rape in the same way that Cop Killer is about the fantasy of killing cops, so it is a question of interpretation…[but] many listeners came to the song via the controversy and therefore had an opinion before they had a reaction.”

Which again, is not to defend it – it was horribly sleazy. TI’s ‘tear your ass in two’ lyric made me feel deeply uncomfortable, and were it possible to put trigger warnings on pop songs, it should have carried a huge warning for the number of times the phrase ‘I know you want it’ was featured.

But in fairness, it was far from being the most sexist song I’d ever heard. It was, after all, a song in which a man attempts to (pervily) offer a means of ‘liberation’ to an woman who has been trapped into domestication by the conservative values of a patriarchal man. The song very clearly attempts to challenge those ‘good girl’/’bad girl’ value-stereotypes, which patriarchy has imposed upon women for centuries.

The problem is, the “liberation” on offer comes only in the form of casual sex, specifically with Mr. Thicke. The song was expressing a kind of 1970s-Greer-ite Female Eunuch feminism, converted into a sleazy chat-up line; and as a result contained all the nasty phallocentric entitlement that 2013 feminists are very much attuned to.

As for the video, it’s very clearly a send-up of exactly the kind of thing it’s accused of being. It’s almost as if the (female, feminist) director has got fed up of the millions of sexist RnB videos that have come before, and said, ‘How can we undermine this culture in which scantily-clad models, without personality, drape themselves over male ‘artists’ while only the ‘artist’ can look at the camera? Right, let’s push it to a ludicrous extreme: we’ll just have them totally naked, and not ashamed of it. And have them look straight into the camera. And have one of them kick the singer in the face.’

Thicke, of course, didn’t seem to get the joke – since from the very beginning, it was on him.

I mean, he’s clearly an idiot. The song wasn’t about rape but it was definitely sleazy, and he did play up the creepy character act. And the mess he’s made of his marriage and his recording career is his own fault.

I thought it was a bit much that the Campaign to End Violence Against Women named him ‘Sexist of the Year’ in 2013, in a year when we learned what Jimmy Saville had actually done to hundreds of young women. But he clearly has been a sexist idiot, and if the world wants to hate him, they are perfectly entitled to do so.

The question I have is this: How has Pharrell Williams, the other man responsible for ‘Blurred Lines, come away from all this as apparently the most popular man in pop music?

‘Happy’, his follow-up to ‘Blurred Lines’, has become only the fourth song to go triple platinum in the UK in twenty years. Even the BBC are interviewing him to ask him why he is so popular.

And yet, Pharrell has a long track history of making obnoxious sexist songs. With his group N.E.R.D. (whose songs feature the hits ‘Lapdance’ and ‘Provider’) and in his collaborations (he produced Britney Spears’ ‘I’m a Slave 4 U’ amongst numerous others), he has been making creepy songs which objectify women for the last 15 years. For most of which, Robin Thicke was making smushy love songs about his wife.

Even Pharrell’s other big hit of last summer, ‘Get Lucky’, was not exactly devoid of sleaze.

They collaborated on one hit that was a lot more Pharrell’s style than Thicke’s, both morally and musically. And it went huge.

And yet, it was Thicke who got humiliated on twitter; Thicke who was named Sexist of the Year; Thicke whose name is now, thanks to a global movement which pushed the ‘rapey’ interpretation of that song, tied forever to sexual assault.

The reason, of course, is that Pharrell was smart. As the furore over ‘Blurred Lines’ began to subside, he put out ‘Happy’: as innocuous, harmless, and upbeat a song as you could imagine. The song was catchy, and the timing was flawless.

It wasn’t even a new song; it had already been relased as part of a film soundtrack six months previously. But that wasn’t important. The important thing was, it was far enough removed from ‘Blurred Lines’ that as soon as you heard it, that last hit, and all the controversy surrounding it, was forgotten.

And everyone bought it.

Robin Thicke had no such luck. His follow-up was crap.

Robin Thicke is a buffoon, and a sexist buffoon at that. But it seems strange that Pharrell gets to be so loved in contrast with the mental-health endangering magnitude of global hate that Robin Thicke has received. If Thicke kills himself in the next four years, or ends up a heroin addict, it wouldn’t surprise me.

None of this is to defend his irritating swagger, or his alleged adultery, or his awful album. Or the fact that the song he made with Pharrell was – almost certainly because of Pharrell’s influence – pretty creepy and contained a phrase which he should have realised might be a trigger phrase if he’d had the right kind of awareness.

But they were both involved in that song, and somewhere, we’ve focused our hate on only one of them.

There’s an old joke about two explorers in the jungle. A tiger appears, and one of the explorers quickly reaches down and puts on running shoes.

The other explorer says, “what are you doing? You’ll never out-run that tiger.”

And the first one says, “Hey, I don’t need to out-run the tiger. I just need to out-run you.”

On this occasion, Pharrell was the one with the running shoes.

on love – from stand-up philosophy

on the new a-level philosophy syllabus

— cross-posted fromThe Guardian

For A-level students in the UK, there is only one exam board that runs a real philosophy course. And that’s about to be changed into yet another religious education course.

For the last nine years, I have taught the AQA’s A-level philosophy course. It’s a good course, and the only one to represent the breadth of philosophy as a discipline in its own right. So I was somewhat surprised to learn that the AQA have this week, without warning or consultation, published a completely new draft syllabus, which is now just waiting to be rubber-stamped by Ofqual.

The new specification completely excludes the previous options to study aesthetics, free will, all European philosophy since Kant, and – most significantly – political philosophy. This will be all replaced with a compulsory philosophy of religion topic, which will make up 50% of the AS course.

The exam board will also reduce the marks given for students’ ability to critique and construct arguments, and more marks will be given for simply knowing the theories involved. Essentially, where young philosophers were previously rewarded for being able to think for themselves and question the role of government, the new course can only be passed by students who can regurgitate classic defences of the existence and perfection of God.

It would not be difficult to see, were one looking for such things, a rather sinister agenda in all this. Secular students who consider the question of God to be irrelevant to their lives will simply not have any other option if they wish to be philosophers.

Meanwhile, the areas that have been casually dropped are the very areas of philosophy that make it a dynamic, relevant and academically rigorous subject. Political philosophy helps us make sense of politics and consider the importance of freedom and justice; considering free will gives us an opportunity to consider our responsibility for our actions. Both of these are apparently no longer worthy of teaching – nor is the option of a detailed reading of philosophical texts like Plato’s Republic or Mill’s On Liberty. It is not merely that the course that has been dumbed down; philosophy itself is being misrepresented.

A representative of the exam board told me on the telephone that it was “too difficult” to comparatively assess students across the different topics which were options before, so they were changing it so that everyone had to do the “most popular” ones. This is a bit like a science examiner saying that it would be “too difficult” to assess both physics and biology, so it would be better to just drop physics altogether.

(The reason philosophy of religion questions appear “popular” with students is actually that many centres ill-advisedly get an RE teacher to teach the course. Not being philosophers, they tell their students to do the religious questions whether they like it or not.)

But there is a broader danger than this. Philosophy – the vibrant, engaging, and often controversial practice of subjecting all concepts and ideas to rigorous logical scrutiny – has struggled for many years to be properly understood as a discipline apart from religious studies. And yet, philosophy is absolutely crucial for a proper questioning of the assumptions we make about government and about our lives in general.

In a climate where university philosophy departments face closure, the very survival of philosophy in the UK depends on philosophers being able to make clear to post-16 students what secular philosophy is and why it is worth studying. It is difficult to see how the new specification will make this anything other than impossible.

Not only will future students not get a representative grounding in philosophy; it is likely that schools and colleges will eventually cease to run a discrete philosophy course, and will increasingly staff the course from RE departments – if they run it at all. The implications for the discipline in general are likely to be devastating.

why i am a feminist

Some time ago I started calling myself a feminist. I’d always been one, but resisted the label; now I’m happy to accept the label. In response to being asked a few times recently what my thought process was for this, here’s what happened.

To begin with, my previous position – a kind of ‘I’d-rather-call-myself-a-humanist’ cop-out – was due to a combination of factors. I misunderstood what the goals of feminism could be and the extent to which they had in fact already been achieved.

I also felt excluded from feminism on the grounds of being male. I once had an English teacher who explained to me that as a feminist, she thought men couldn’t be feminists because feminism was necessarily bad for men.

It’s not like I wasn’t told that feminists are just people who resist gender discrimination. I was told that plenty of times (by one person in particular who really deserves an apology for my stubbornness in acknowledging it).

I also had, underlying the labelling thing, a philosophical commitment to simplifying political language by using -ism terms in their most literal and straightforward sense. That meant I took any word with the suffix ‘-ism’ to straightforwardly mean an ideological position which prioritises the value or concerns of whatever it is that the ‘-ism’ is a suffix of. (so eg, a racist values a race and prioritises racial factors when making judgements; a socialist values society and prioritises that, etc).

So I made a common mistake and took ‘feminism’ to mean the prioritising and valuing of women when making judgements, to the exclusion of other concerns. And certainly some radical feminists do that, but they aren’t representative of all feminists.

In combination with this, I compounded my mistake by thinking that the legal and cultural progress made in the UK and the USA was sufficient for women to now have the same opportunities as men (for the first ten years of my life, a female Prime Minister had governed the UK), and legal recourse for the occasions when they didn’t.

I also observed a number of situations where it appeared that specific women were in fact able to gain advantages over men by virtue of their being able to, for example, make cynical use of their looks or sexuality, or give an appearance of vulnerability. (I’m aware now that this is patriarchal too).

As a result, I thought that while an ideology which prioritised the value and importance of women may have been valuable at other points in history, it was no longer necessary. I considered that gender equality was still a good thing, but preferred a more vague tag like ‘anti-gender-discrimination’ or something like that.

This analysis was extremely naive.

The year before last, a number of things happened.

Firstly, I found myself in close contact with a number of people who considered themselves feminists but who held positions which I found pretty objectionable. Once, for example, I came up against the idea that childcare should be entirely state-socialised from birth because mothers shouldn’t be expected to provide any care for their children, and there was no way you could ever expect fathers to do it.

Sometimes I came across versions of radical feminist claims about the evils of ALL men, or the claim that ALL men secretly hate women and should be punished accordingly. (Essentialist identity politics like this just ends up in ridiculous ‘not all men…’ debates when that is absoultely not the point – the point is that patriarchy and misogyny exist at all.)

There’s even a version of feminism (particularly prevalent amongst young feminists in Brighton) which regularly seemed to take the position that it was legitimate to treat individual men extremely poorly, particularly in the areas of sex or dating, on the grounds that ‘it’s what a man would do’ and that there was, after all, a ‘war’ going on.

It just so seemed inconsistent with the principle of gender equality that I started to despair. I realised, perhaps for the first time, that I was really genuinely concerned with the fate of an ideology that I valued a great deal more than I thought I had.

I also found myself in a position where I was teaching my A-level politics class about feminism, and for the first time I had to do some serious studying of its history. I had to actually read Wollstonecraft and Friedan and Greer (all of whom I liked very much) and Dworkin and Firestone and Millett (who I didn’t like quite so much) and I saw how incredibly rich the debates within feminism are, and yet how all of these people could still call themselves feminists.

And my attention was drawn to some contemporary liberal feminists and campaigning groups, people for whom it naturally followed that because they were liberals, they must be feminists: if you believe that everyone should have equal liberty and opportunities regardless of the chances of their birth, then you have to stand against things which do harm to people or their liberty and opportunities as a result of their birth sex or socialised gender.

Feminism is absolutely not a monolithic ideology with a fixed set of positions, nor is it a closed group; anyone who is opposed to gender discrimination, who thinks people should be considered as individuals regardless of their gender, can be one. Is one.

I also came to see how there’s a deep tradition of men making contributions to feminism ever since my big philosophical hero John Stuart Mill published On the Subjection of Women, and how he stood in Parliament and argued for women’s right to vote, and I didn’t feel excluded any more.

And so when some feminists made claims about ‘all men’, I could finally go beyond just trying to defend ‘some men’, and make a better argument – that their feminism didn’t look like my feminism – which is about refusing to let gender get in the way of people having all the respect and opportunities they deserve.

The problem is, gender, and people’s assumptions about it, still get in the way of too much. Having had a woman Prime Minister doesn’t mean it isn’t harder for people who happen to be women to succeed in politics, or in business, or in philosophy; and it shouldn’t be. And it is still harder for people who happen to be men to succeed in nursing, or teaching in girls’ education, or being fathers and househusbands, and it shouldn’t be.

And there is still too much gendered violence which wouldn’t happen to people if they weren’t women or girls, and it’s repulsive and of course it’s men’s problem and it needs to stop.

And that’s before we even start on transphobia or social and media perceptions of women and girls and a whole heap of other bullshit that I can’t believe I didn’t think was a big deal before.

So to be honest, I don’t care so much now about the accurate naming of ideological positions. If people who are opposed to these things are called feminists, then I’m going to call myself one, and that’s more important.

Having said that, there’s a further realisation I made since calling myself a feminist. It’s that actually, the word ‘feminism’ isn’t even wrong. It is named accurately. Because it isn’t just women, the biological sex, that need defending and liberating.

What patriarchs really demean isn’t women per se, but femininity.

Patriarchs expect women to exhibit traits which they think of as feminine, and then expect feminine people to be subservient. Supposedly ‘feminine’ traits include the ability to empathise, to compromise and show compassion, and be physically slight and beautiful. But also, in the minds of patriarchs, to be passive and deferential. They want feminine people to be submissive, just look pretty, be able to take abuse and neglect and not talk or hit or fuck back.

This is because ‘feminine’ traits are still considered as being of less value than ‘masculine’ traits: aggression, determination to compete, taking the ‘active’ role, stubbornness, avarice, desire.

All of this goes against the principle that as long as it doesn’t harm other people you should be able to have whatever the fuck kind of personality you want.

But patriarchs do harm people. They mainly harm women, because women are very deeply socialised to be feminine. Women who do not fit this expectation are shouted down, threatened, abused. But patriarchs (whether men or women) harm people who aren’t women, too.

Patriarchs expect and despise femininity in women, and fail to comprehend it in men – and despise it just as much.

Patriarchs want women to be ‘feminine’, and ‘feminine’ people of either sex to be weak; they cannot abide the thought that empathy and compassion can be every bit as powerful and courageous as competitiveness or aggression.

The reason Thatcher was loved by patriarchs is because once she had insisted that they see through her having being born female, she made them see her bullish determination and ‘rugged individualism’, and recognise her as one of their own.

They despise Nick Clegg, a politician who looks for compromises and doesn’t mind earning less than his wife.

This is not to say that the traits associated with masculinity are intrinsically bad; there is a time for them (no doubt Clegg could have done with being more stubborn and bullish at times). But there are also times for strong ‘feminine’ traits, and patriarchy will not allow it. It stands between feminine people (the vast majority of whom are women) and the respect and opportunities that they should have.

I’m aware there will be some feminists who object to this analysis on the grounds that like all men, I’m whining about how men suffer too and trying to make it all about men. I’m absolutely not. I’m in no doubt at all that women get harmed significantly more than men, in all kinds of ways.

But the thing which patriarchy demeans is femininity, and it harms everyone. For the most part, it harms women; and it harms all but the most masculine men; and eventually, it harms those masculine men too. A society which fails to give every individual the best opportunities because of mere chance-of-birth features like the set of reproductive organs they were born with, or the fact that they were socialised to be compassionate and empathetic, is not going to succeed as well as it could.

From this perspective, it is easier to see not just why liberal feminism is necessary; but just what a huge task it has ahead of it. Patriarchal thinking infiltrates almost everywhere and harms almost everyone, often without anyone seeing.

The more people start calling themselves feminists – men included – and defending women and femininity from the ridiculous assumption that the feminine are weak and less deserving, the better we will be.

And this is why I am a feminist.

stand-up philosophy: the academics’ edition

WOW.

On Tuesday night something a little weird and very special happened: about three hundred people turned up, at six-thirty on a Tuesday evening, to hear a bunch of academics talk about philosophy.

There were so many people that we had to run two shows simultaneously because there were just far two many people to fit in the 130-seater lecture theatre.

And I was the lucky, lucky fellow who got to compere it all.

—–

There is some backstory to this. Last autumn, I was talking to Dr. Gordon Finlayson of Sussex University about the idea of Stand-up Philosophy. We were discussing how it could work, who could do it, what its purpose would be, etc. Gordon suggested that since the emphasis would be on serious (but accessible) philosophy rather than comedy, it could be called ‘Philosophy Stand-up: No Joke.’

And then Gordon said that he thought it would be a good idea to talk about it to the rather prestigious and brilliant Forum for European Philosophy based at the LSE, which organises public philosophy events and of which he is part of their planning committee.

And then a few months later, as I was trying to organise my little experimental night in the Jeremy Bentham pub, Gordon said to me, ‘It’s happening. You should come to the next planning meeting of the Forum.’

Crikey, I thought. And then I went along.

The committee of the Forum for European Philosophy convene in a rather ornate meeting room, high up in the Old Academic Building of the LSE. The board is packed with various professors and senior lecturers and is chaired by the Forum’s director, Simon Glendinning. I hadn’t met Dr. Glendinning before, but I knew of him. He is something of a big deal authority on J.S. Mill. On that day he came in wearing a very smart suit with a waistcoat and tie, looking extremely distinguished and – for me – quite intimidating. And there I was – as a comedian – at a table with them all.

I was quite taken aback by how much they seemed to like the idea of Stand-up Philosophy; they had already scheduled an event, and Gordon seemed to have persuaded them to let me compere it.

Simon and the other philosophers were, perhaps unsurprisingly, somewhat hesitant about my suggestion that we invite some stand-up comedians to take part too. But that didn’t matter: the point was that they were interested in the idea.

Afterwards, I worried. Was anyone even going to come? The event had been booked at six-thirty on a Tuesday evening, after exams had finished and outside of term time. It was booked for the Wolfson Theatre, a quite fancy new lecture theatre which seats 130 people and doesn’t allow people to take drinks in. There were no comedians on the bill, and most people outside of the very small world of academic philosophy wouldn’t have heard of any of the philosophers who had been invited to perform.

Surely we would be performing to about ten or fifteen sober postgrads in a room which was too humiliatingly large?

—–

Then, it seemed, philosophy made a comeback.

This summer, the ‘How The Light Gets In’ festival of philosophy and music at Hay-on-Wye seemed to really take off.

I started my night at the Jeremy Bentham pub, and the room has been consistently full (much fuller, in fact, than most comedy nights at this time of year).

A few weeks after that, an event called ‘My Night With Philosophers’ ran a night of public lectures at the Institut Francais; I went to see what was happening and there must have been close to a thousand people there.

And then we put on our event at the LSE on Tuesday.

I arrived at six in the evening, and there were already about ten people sitting in the Wolfson Theatre. That’s our ten, I thought. They’re keen.

Then more people came. And more. And more. They filled all the seats in the theatre by 6.20. And then they just kept coming.

Eventually, Gordon and Simon – who had both volunteered to perform – suggested that we were either going to have to run a second show, or turn away at least a hundred people. So we found some space and ran a second show – simultaneously with the first – with me frantically running between the two rooms, welcoming acts on to the stages, charing mini-Q-and-A-sessions and generally trying to give the whole thing the impression of orderliness.

It was brilliant.

After about an hour and forty minutes, everyone was exhausted but both rooms had seen all six philosophers speak, and they seemed very happy.

There was even a podcast made of the show in the Wolfson Theatre. It’s at http://www.lse.ac.uk/newsAndMedia/videoAndAudio/channels/publicLecturesAndEvents/player.aspx?id=1939

—–

I’m starting to get the impression that many, many people have been interested in philosophy in a much more serious way than most academic philosophers like to think; they just find academic philosophy pretentious and inaccessible.

Philosophy has been concerned for its own survival for a while; academic philosophers are terrified about department closures, and cuts in teaching budgets and research funding. But at the same time, we’ve been gradually making our discipline so completely opaque to outsiders, especially in the language we use, that what we do is often impossible for any normal person to get their head around.

Too many academic philosophers complain that Alain de Botton can sell a million books, while doing almost nothing to make their own arguments available or accessible to the public. Instead, they obsess about whether they can get an article published in tiny niche journals that only about two hundred people ever read. These philosophers are right, I think, to be worried for their survival. And if they don’t survive, who will miss them?

But I think philosophy which makes itself as accessible and unpretentious as possible is capable of thriving. A few academic philosophers are starting to get this: that the general public of non-philosophers contains a huge number of people who are intelligent, curious, and want to know about philosophy. They do want to know what philosophers are doing, and do philosophy themselves, and know how philosophy can be fun and useful and important to them, too.

They just need ways in.

I want Stand-up Philosophy to be a way in. And I am finally starting to think that I am not the only one.

stand-up philosophy #2: ‘justice’

Well, Stand-up Philosophy is definitely working. The audience for last night’s show at the Jeremy Bentham were a strange, slightly mixed bag of philosophy postgrads, comedy fans, people I used to teach…and my family.

But the show was really fantastic – perhaps because we had a line-up of acts who were pretty much perfect in terms of them all being extremely proficient comedy performers, as well as all having interesting and different takes on the question of Justice…

– Dougie Walker opened the show pretty much perfectly with a thing called ‘What’s so fucking great about fairness anyway?’, in which he argued that a lot of the principles of fairness which we associate with the notion of ‘justice’ (ie treating people the same, etc) don’t really work. He nevertheless argued (with some success, I think) that justice would have to be in some way connected with empathy.

– Lindsay Sharman talked about a variety of problems associated with Justice, but in particular (or at least, this was the bit that was most interesting to me) raised some really interesting points about whether a person can be just or unjust to their future self. (She was also very funny – out of all the philosophers involved in the show, she the one about whom most people came up to me afterwards and said, “she was really funny”).

– Tony Dunn approached the problem with an analysis of how justice might apply to psychopaths, considering the fact that it doesn’t make sense to punish psychopaths because their inability to empathise with others means that they often can’t really believe that they’ve done anything wrong. Added to the difficulties when it comes to identifying psychopaths, and the fact that they nevertheless have to be prevented from doing harm to others, he claimed (quite convincingly, I thought, if somewhat depressingly) that perfect justice is impossible in any world which contains psychopaths.

– Andrew Watts headlined the show with a new and fascinating spin on the question, pointing out that the principle that legal judgments must set precedents in order for later cases to be just, had thrown up all kinds of bizarre anomalies when it came to the practical application of justice; he illustrated this somewhat brilliantly with the problems surrounding the legal status of necrophilia.

And the audience seemed to love all of it, and somehow I wasn’t even too embarrassed to talk with Andrew about necrophilia in front of my Mum…

HOORAY.

  • Calendar

    • September 2016
      M T W T F S S
      « Aug    
       1234
      567891011
      12131415161718
      19202122232425
      2627282930  
  • Search