Home > Gender Politics > Time to demand no platform for women

Time to demand no platform for women

Emma Burnell, who puts together conferences and events, is understandably angry that men dominate conference platforms.  She offers a challenge:

Find me an all male panel – in fact, find me any topic on which you could reasonably hold an informed public debate – and I’ll give you the names of five women who could hold their own on the panel.

I think it’s the wrong challenge.

The problem is not primarily that men dominate platforms.  The primary problem is that there are platforms for them to dominate. Platforms are reflections of patriarchal domination in the first place, and simply reinforce patriarchal power structures.

 The real challenge is not to change the gender of who gets to dominate the rest of us from the platform, but to get rid of the platform entirely, and in so doing create the ‘informed public debate’ which is actually so lacking from the usual event format.

I don’t go to many conferences or events.  Partly this is because I live miles away from most of them, but mostly it’s because they’re generally shite.

When I do go I quickly get sick of the high-profile types – mostly men – who swan from conference to conference on conference-type fees.  Generally, they tell me what I already know and/or agree with, and expect me to sit and listen to their advice on what I/the movement/the party should do next.  I might get to ask a polite question which they then answer with varying levels of condescension (or flannel about if they don’t know).  Then I get to  go home again, none the wiser, but a bit more deflated. 

The more radical, power-reversing approach, is not to ask the important people what they think the less important people in the room should think and/or do, but to develop ‘bottom-up’ formats (more here), whereby the less important people can make demands of the more important people, with these demands focused on how the latter can take action themselves in support of the grassroots.  Of course the important people should have the freedom to express their opinion based on their expertise in the subject area – that’s why they’re there –  but in the end the focus should be on how they can help take the ’cause’ forward.

The Left should therefore seek to alter the structure of political conferences, making the high-profile (remunerated) participants work for their money, by briefing them pre-conference on their obligation to agree actions in support of whatever cause the conference is about.  If they fail to deliver on the commitments agreed at the conference (and if they are too onerous they shouldn’t agree to them), they won’t get invited back the next year;  the message will soon spread that they are just windbags, who need to be replaced on the circuit.

Then, I suspect, you’ll start to get gender equality amongst paid participants, no longer ‘platform speakers’ in the traditional sense, but something like ‘expert facilitators’.  The male windbags (and a few female) will fall off the conference gravy train, to be replaced by women committed not just to the display of their supposed expertise, but to using it for the common good.

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Categories: Gender Politics
  1. Mil
    November 23, 2011 at 10:50 am

    I like this Paul – very much. Spot on. In a way, what you’ve said above mirrors the battles traditional commentators are having about how the various #occupy movements must eventually pan out for their own good. That is to say, mirror the very structures which they (the movements) denounce as totally inappropriate to our age.

    We should resist the temptation. And make something very different instead.

    • paulinlancs
      November 24, 2011 at 10:09 am

      Mil @1:

      Thanks. I’m not close-up enough with the #occupy movement to know whether this mirroring is happening, though I will bob into/stay over at St Paul’s when I’m in London next month. In general, though, i think you’re right that we should be using spaces like this to try out/develop new forms of communication.

  2. November 23, 2011 at 2:25 pm

    I’m a big fan method of this Paul, but I fear this method would also make male privilege more dominant than ever. What I’ve seen in this method is that men shout over women (and people of colour, for that matter) and take over the discussion because they feel they have the right to. Also, our education system still encourages men to be more confident in public speaking, to be more interested in politics, and more “qualified” to be able to have that platform.

    Take the blogosphere for example. Despite numerous amazing female bloggers, men still dominate Total Politics awards, etc. The problem in all of this is a matter of needing to enact positive discrimination in all formats. One of the solutions I have noticed is to make sure women are allowed to speak, and people of colour are also allowed to speak BEFORE the standard middle-class white male.

    • paulinlancs
      November 24, 2011 at 10:30 am

      Nishma @2: You raise an important point about whether male dominance would simply be displaced, but (like Dave) below I’d be wary of trying to remedy this by the imposition of a set of rules which simply replace the set of rules Emma Burnell would like to see in place.

      For one thing, where do you stop with the stratification of re-entitlement. I am not looking for sympathy on this, but as an example of where ‘the rules’ might take us I could point to my own experience as an older, white-haired man attending meetings populated mostly by younger people. I am often passed over by chairs when I raise me hand because (I suspect) I simply look like one of those blokes who will rabbit on for ages about how good socialism was in the 1980s and how the workers have to stand up etc. etc.. Should older people be given special provision? No, not least because I am privileged in other ways, and of course it remains a salutory experience to be ignored, and have my views disregarded because of how I look.

      I’m not against the blunt tools of positive discrimination where these are the only ones realistically available (I have no issue with All-Women Shortlists, for example). Any public rule tool used to re-order dialogue between sets of individuals is blunt by its very nature. What I am saying is that we should be using conferences and political meetings to develop processes of communication (think Habermasian ideal speech), in what is a relatively safe environment, as a way of exploring how to move beyond the use of blunt tools.

      In practical conference terms, a lot of this shift towards ‘ideal speech’, where all voices are heard for what they are without the imposition of blunt tool rules (which as I’ve suggested can in themselves be seen as discriminatory and therefore act counter to ideal speech aspirations), will require the development and use of faciltation techniques currently beyond the capacity of mainstream conference/event organisers. I don’t underestimate the challenge therefore, and here I only try to raise the debate. But there are other ways of creating ‘ideal speech’-type scenarios, including stuff as easy as post-it notes on walls (you know the kind of thing) and the Left should be consciously trying to develop new methods of communication (I take my hat off to Sunny H for having tried some things at a LibCon event a while back).

  3. November 23, 2011 at 2:45 pm

    @Nishma – trivial observation: what about coloured males?

    • paulinlancs
      November 24, 2011 at 10:31 am

      @3: Tried to cover that above.

  4. November 23, 2011 at 2:53 pm

    I think perhaps Ms Doshi and I read different blogs. The vast majority of women bloggers (like their male counter-parts) produce superficial, waffle-driven shit. In that, at least, there is equality.

    I also don’t think the Total Politics awards discriminate; the problem is structural. White men are a privileged group – and I would suggest white men feel more at home reading, by and large, the writings of other white men of their political stripe. Even when those political stripes are of different and opposing hues, I believe there are traces of a shared idiom, between white men, that is absent in female blogging – detectable in writing styles, subject choice and approaches to material.

    I don’t think the answer is, however, to begin re-writing committee rules such that BME and women members get any privileges in speaking order or whatever else. There should be no rules which privilege one set of members above another; if what Paul is trying to do is correct the power imbalance between paid full-timer and unpaid supporter by making them formally equal, where would be the point in trying to balance other groups by making them formally unequal? No one should feel they can’t speak – everyone should have the same rights to speak.

    The solution is longer term; to correct the educational imbalance which empowers men.

    In fact this is probably a short term solution too. Within the Labour Party, the women’s caucuses that exist should adopt practical measures to help women engage in debate; doing all-women mock-up debates (the way men often do at school, as the model UN and public speaking tournaments are often very male dominated) to encourage sustained public speaking at GC meetings in the local CLPs. A buddy system, whereby if any woman has something she wants to propose, she can go to someone and ask for moral support during whatever meeting it is to be proposed at, is also an idea.

    I’m not saying that women are shrinking violets; I know quite a few who would simply browbeat any man of my acquaintance should said man dare to speak on certain issues, like abortion. But I have asked individual women why they don’t contribute more when they do have ideas – and it seems to be a recurrent theme that they lack confidence. So instead of playing around with the rules, let’s actually dissect what that confidence is, and where it comes from, and create the means for women to have it.

    • paulinlancs
      November 24, 2011 at 10:36 am

      Dave @4: Of course I agree that the problem is deeply structural and the solutions overall are longer term. But please take this for what it is – this is about how we might structure political events in a way which breaks down communication barriers (and your practical suggestions are good) without creating new ones. It’s not going to change the world, but the use of a safe space to experiment seems sensible. The huge waste of energy, money and time by thousands of people who attend events which give them little or nothing is a real frustration, when actually if attention were paid to process as much as to content, these things might actually be quite useful (and enjoyable).

      Yeah, load of shite blogs.You’re better of out of it.

  5. November 23, 2011 at 2:54 pm

    Posting an extra comment as I forgot to tick the “Notify of follow up” box.

  6. November 23, 2011 at 5:13 pm

    chrishads (@chrishads) :

    @Nishma – trivial observation: what about coloured males?

    Not happy about this comment

    • paulinlancs
      November 24, 2011 at 10:38 am

      Carl: I took the comment at face value as a question about how far the stratification of re-entitlement might go.

  1. November 28, 2011 at 8:46 pm
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