Be angry, but play the ball not the man

Just before it all got a bit grim, I was writing a piece on women’s equality.

I was thinking about women’s justified anger over our sorry sexist history, how we need to embrace that anger then get beyond it if we are going to tackle inequality properly.

“Play the ball, not the man” is an unfortunately sexist saying, but I think it fits. Anger in a just cause is natural and right, but when we let it take over our actions we risk losing sight of what the cause is really about.

As the global battle against Covid-19 has gone on, it has struck me that the same applies to our current crisis, not to mention those other, temporarily side-lined issues which keep the Internet fizzing with fury.

There is so much anger out there. If we keep meeting it with more anger, it just spirals  and starts to get in the way of progress.

Being human, meeting anger with anger is what we naturally do.

There is an overwhelming impulse that makes us believe hitting back at what makes us angry will make things better, even when our experience shows us it rarely does.

We can’t just suppress this drive. To get past it we first have to find ways to acknowledge and embrace the anger, even if it means doing things which may seem illogical or unfair.

It was Lucy Kirkwood’s excellent play ‘The Welkin’ which got me started on all this.

The play tells the story of twelve women assembled as a jury to decide whether a woman convicted of murder is pregnant. This in turn will determine whether she is hanged or allowed to live.

It’s a powerful commentary on the historical role of women and their perennial subjugation by men.

There’s a scene where one of the women accuses another of stealing a nutmeg from her pantry, and this leads to banter with the only man in the scene about how his wife left him because he too had ‘lost a nutmeg’.

My first reaction to this was to feel offended and angry, not just because, having had testicular cancer, I’m particularly sensitive to ‘one ball’ jokes.

My knee-jerk reaction was to think “how would a woman feel if it was 12 men mocking a woman about her mastectomy?”

I’m sure they would feel more deeply offended, and I realised that I would too.

Why should this be, when the roles are simply reversed? The difference is that the male mockery comes from a position of power, the female from a subjugated position where it’s one of the few ways to hit back.

It’s a bit like Anatole France’s observation that there is one law for rich and poor alike, which prohibits them equally from stealing bread and sleeping under bridges.

A woman making a joke about mono-orchidity isn’t the same as a man making a joke about women’s breasts, because men and women aren’t yet treated as equals. Only when they are will sexism become a two-way street.

We need to accept this, embrace it, then get past it so that anger doesn’t overwhelm action and tilt the balance the other way.

The excellent Susan Calman pointed out that a female James Bond would not be a victory for feminism if it simply reversed traditional roles.

It would just replace a load of repulsive misogyny with a load of equally repulsive misandry (that’s fear and hatred of men, and yes, I did have to Google it).

South Africa’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Committee was a worthy if flawed attempt to respond to a massive injustice with a process which embraced anger but did not let it take over.

That’s the kind of model I believe we should follow, yet I fear that our populist, social media driven society is at risk of moving further away from it, letting anger win.

Getting past our anger is not about fudging justice and accountability. People still need to be held to account for what they have done, and to pay the appropriate price when they do wrong, without us slipping into an anger-driven thirst for vengeance.

Harvey Weinstein spending the rest of his life in prison for his abhorrent crimes is justice; wishing him dead from Covid-19 is letting anger win.

Which takes us to Covid-19 in general, where I see worrying signs of us playing the man not the ball at all levels of society.

The crisis makes us scared and vulnerable, we see behaviours that make us feel more scared and angry, and we channel our anger at these behaviours into stereotyping and vilifying individuals and groups.

Those individuals and groups hit back and we create an escalating spiral of anger.

A claim that cyclists are not observing social distancing rules provokes a torrent of social media response split between ‘cyclists are arrogant’ and ‘joggers are worse’.

Alleged comments from Dominic Cummings suggesting ‘if a few pensioners die,…too bad’ provoke equally abhorrent comments about him when he contracts the virus.

In one corner, Donald Trump christens Covid-19 ‘The Chinese Virus’. In another, animal rights campaigners use the opportunity to vent their valid anger over live animal markets which are undeniably cruel as well as being the source of the infection.

In a situation as serious as this, one of the most terrifying risks of this kind of spiralling anger is that it gets in the way of us doing the right thing.

Demonising cyclists or joggers online erodes the community spirit we need to get everyone through this.

Arguments over whether Boris Johnson is a Churchill or a Chamberlain obscure the essential process of holding him and his government to account for their actions rather than their personalities.

Reference to the ‘Chinese virus’ obscures the real and politically sensitive issues we need to face up to in dealing with this kind of outbreak in the longer term.

Covid-19 and other recent outbreaks started with transmission from animals to humans, and live animal markets are undeniably a source of this transmission. Many of these markets are in China, where agricultural policies may be marginalising small farmers,  forcing them to use such markets to survive. At the same time China’s economic health is increasingly critical to the wider global economy.

It’s a complex set of issues which won’t be solved by demonising China, any more than demonising Islam helps solve the ISIS problem, demonising Palestine or Israel is a basis for peace in the Middle East, or demonising men helps achieve equality for women.

Beyond the virus itself, my biggest fear is that we see a return to the politics of insularity and anger when we come to dealing with its aftermath.

When we finally get through this, we need to learn all we can from the pandemic, call individuals and governments to account for their actions during the crisis, then get past our anger and work together globally to make sure the next outbreak is less devastating.

Withdrawing funding from the WHO or calling for reparations from China is letting the anger win.

Lockdown gives us the opportunity to get closer to other people, even when we’re a minimum of 2 metres apart. I certainly speak to loads more people on my permitted daily exercise than I ever did before, even if it’s only ‘good morning’ or ‘thanks for getting out of my way’, shouted from a safe distance.

I’ve also heard it said that some of us are using our daily allowance to go to the park and take pictures of people not social distancing, so we can tweet angrily about them later; I  know I’ve been tempted.

When we move on from this, I really hope the ‘good morning’ spirit remains, that we can get past our insularity and anger and start playing the ball, not the man.






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