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The Blame Game

It’s very hard to be grown up when we’re getting divorced. As parents, we’re expected to share nicely, act responsibly, be the bigger person, put the needs of our children at the centre of every decision. As angry, hurt, vulnerable human beings, that’s hard to achieve. We’ve gone from sharing resources to competing for assets.

First, there’s the finances. Divorce requires us to establish separate households.  The more one parent gets, the less there is for the other. Running two households on the same resources as one costs more. So we both end up with less money than before.

Since we’re now living in separate households, we need to agree how much time our children will spend with each of us. Because children need us to support them, one of us usually needs to make a payment to the other, who has primary caring responsibilities. Now we both also have less time with our children than before.

All these things are decided via the same process. Intellectually we know that our children are not a marital asset. But it’s very easy for us both to start thinking of them as one more resource to be shared out in the zero-sum game of the ending of a marriage.

Time spent either with, or without, the children both become points of contention. Is time with the children a benefit or a cost? Are four fun-filled days a month more, or less, valuable than nagging them to get dressed and eat their breakfast every morning? If your ex-partner asks you to take the children for longer, are they ducking their responsibilities or giving you a gift? If you refuse, are you resisting your ex-partner’s manipulations or selfishly prioritising your own needs over your child?Divorce cake, with separate bride and groom.  Photo: DrJohnBullas

It’s hard for us to separate access and money – especially when we both have less of both than we had before. The parent making the payments might think, “Why is the other person getting my money and my children? Why am I being pushed out of the family like this?” The parent caring for the children might think, “Why do I have less freedom and more responsibility and less money? Why am I doing all the hard work and they get to do the fun stuff at weekends?” The parent making the payments may reduce payments, or stop paying altogether. The parent caring for the children may restrict or withhold access to the children. These events may be in retaliation to each other and can come in either order.

Sometimes, one parent’s behaviour is so dangerous or violent that allowing them access to the children would be unsafe. Sometimes, one parent has abused the other. Should a person who has beaten, raped or mentally tortured another adult be allowed to spend unsupervised time with children? And what happens when the person accused of the abuse denies that it took place? Because all human systems are fallible, sometimes mistakes will be made. Parents who are not abusive will be denied access to their children. Parents who are abusive will be granted access.

I’ve been very careful in writing this not to assign gender, at any point. In practice, we all know how and where the dividing lines are drawn. When it comes to issues of residency, maintenance and access, we can draw the stereotypes (feckless wastrel Disney-parent versus bitter, money-grabbing control-freak) for ourselves. I still haven’t assigned a gender. But I bet you have.

That’s the stereotype. But that’s not how it has to be. There are thousands and thousands of couples who have made divorce work for them and their children. Some of us are divorced couples who co-parent in harmony. Some of us are re-married couples whose blended families are happy and successful. Some of us are single parents who are raising our children ably and well. These are the stories we should be telling. These are the examples we should be learning from. As a society, we need parents to get better at managing divorce.

That’s why the current high-profile battle between Mumsnet and Fathers 4 Justice is such a huge disappointment, and a wasted opportunity. In case you’ve missed it, Fathers 4 Justice are accusing Mumsnet of giving a platform to gender-based hate-speech, committed by women, against men. There are a number of theories about the motivation and timings for these accusations, which – since I have no evidence to either support or disprove them – I don’t intend to review here.

The point is, there was an opportunity here. There was a chance for two groups defined by their parenthood to talk to each other. We could have talked about our grievances, about how to manage divorce and separation better, about how to better draw the distinction between parents who have simply stopped loving each other, and parents who are actively dangerous to their ex-partners and their children. Instead, Fathers 4 Justice took out an advertisement accusing the Mumsnet community of promoting gender hatred against all men and boys as a group, and encouraging the boycotting of advertisers who promote on Mumsnet.

I am one two-millionth of the Mumsnet community, and I don’t speak on its behalf. I am even less qualified to speak for Fathers 4 Justice. But of one thing I am certain: mothers and fathers love their children, fiercely and without reservation, and even when they don’t love each other. This divisive and hateful campaign does nothing to help us work better together at protecting our children in the event of marital breakdown. Children are not a marital asset.  They are the people we love the most. We all – men and women, mothers and fathers – need to get better at putting them first.

We could have done all of this. Instead, we’re trading insults. Shame on you, Fathers 4 Justice. Shame on you.

In Defence of Mumsnet

Mumsnet, one of the major British parenting network sites, has always come in for a lot of flak, most of which comes from two points of view:

  • Those who think it is the same as the other fluffy pink mummy sites, full of bad spelling and tickers
  • Those who think it is a sinister conspiracy against the country: a Boden and biscuits mafia

Now we have a new one – those who think it is a distributor of “man hate”.  Sigh. *

So, what is Mumsnet?  Why does it cause such a problem?

When people say “Mumsnet” what they usually mean is the Talk section of Mumsnet, which is a huge message board or forum, aimed at parents (although the majority of users are mothers, there are a sizable minority of fathers, grandparents, childcare workers and childless people who also use the site).  There are hundreds of sections, covering all aspects of life, not just parenting.  Each section tends to have its own “feel” – so Pregnancy tends to be fairly gentle, Am I Being Unreasonable? is a hotbed of disagreements and strong debate and Feminist Activism can be pretty militant.  There is a site wide policy of very light moderation, so swearing, heated disMumsnet logocussions and pretty obscene conversations do occur (never, ever google anything users of Mumsnet tell you to google…).  Members can name-change whenever they like, meaning that posters can reveal secret details on one thread then go back to joking with long term friends on another, under their usual nickname, which does not tend to be related to ‘real life’ identities.  There are also no avatars, twinkly tickers, signatures or pictures, and only a very small range of emoticons.

Herein lies one of our problems. Mumsnet is very different to the rest of the parenting forums, and I would say that the main difference is that Mumsnet treats posters as adults.  We aren’t mollycoddled, and the only things that get deleted (apart from spam) are personal attacks and hate speech.  Mumsnet as a body of posters tends to be self regulating – so a poster coming on who doesn’t follow the rules will get very short shrift.  This has given us a bit of a reputation for being bitchy, although, to me, it just means that we say how we feel, like grown ups.  Other sites will tend to ban you if you express any forthright opinions, and so there are a good few Mumsnetters who are banned from other sites.

Mumsnet also tends to be a bit more educated than other sites.  That’s not to say that Mumsnetters all have doctorates, or even GCSEs, but there is a higher expectation of basic education.  Text speak and bad grammar are frowned upon, and there are often jokes about things like classic literature and politics.  This is often given as evidence that Mumsnet is somehow elitist, and that “ordinary” people would be pushed out and ridiculed.

To me, there are endless websites where you can post cute little tickers, use vomit inducing euphemisms and tipe lyk u cant speel 🙂 ❤ ❤ 😮 and I think it is only fair to let one site have its own way of working.  Just because the users of the site are mostly women, and mostly mothers at that, doesn’t mean that we have to act like children ourselves.

justine off of mumsnet.  Because of the general culture of the site, there is a higher than usual concentration of professionals and, in particular, journalists.  Mumsnet is often used as a cheap research technique, with posts (usually without the knowledge and assent of responding posters) being used in news articles as the “opinion of parents” (I have had this happen to me, when I posted about an internet joke, and there was one reply – I was quoted twice, as different users, as proof that mothers in general found the joke hilarious).  Justine Roberts, one of the founders of the site, can often be found on talk shows giving her opinion – she can’t give the opinion of Mumsnet as a whole, because the 2 million users that use the site every month can’t possibly have one opinion.

However, that, and the fact that the site regularly hosts web-chats with politicians and other movers and shakers, gives Mumsnet a reputation as attention seekers who try to control the media.

Why is it that people hate the idea of a site where women can get together to chat about sex, politics, parenting and culture?  Men have most of the rest of the internet, and any woman daring to post anywhere else is often attacked if she dares mention anything feminine in any way.  Parents of young children are likely to become isolated, and there isn’t the support network that used to exist to support young mothers.

So, if my baby is acting weirdly, or the cuts are pissing me off, or I just thought up a really good joke about mooncups…I’ll see you on Mumsnet.

*I have deliberately ignored the ridiculous behaviour of a certain pressure group lately.  Don’t feed the troll and all that.

You Are Not Alone

According to research published by the University of Maryland, students in over 10 countries had a problem.Facebook login screen shot

An addiction, in fact, with hardly any social stigma attached. Except if the number of friends you have is below say, 70 or the number of followers is less than 12. Then there must be an issue with the person, rather than the social networking site that is akin, apparently, to a crack cocaine habit – as one internet surfing teen put it.

Where does this need for constant interaction come from – and, more importantly, where does it stop? Flitting from tab to tab at the top of a computer in the hopes that the number of comments, likes, status updates or tags have a certain relevance to the Universe of Me is not only really easy to do, looks relatively innocuous but is reassuring too. Dietrich was wrong when she said ‘I vant to be alone’. No one really wants that, it’s solitary confinement of the intellectual kind. Why are dating websites, or personal ads so popular? They have that ability to express yourself without any actual physical involvement in the exchange.

Technology is changing the way we communicate. There used to be a television advertisement – rather clever stop motion – where a guy never left his flat but managed to live using his phone and internet. It was advertising the Yellow Pages. Yet this isn’t an impossible ‘dream’ (or nightmare). Tesco delivers. Argos delivers. Both are online. Facebook offers a rather voyeuristic way of keeping in touch with those that we like (and some that we’ve only really met once). Not only are there TV beds with wifi, if they had a built in catheter and elimination system we need never move again.

But imagination, that precious thing which allows us to have ambition and dreams, often fails us as soon as we log in. Our days are never as exciting as our best friends seem to be. Our comments never as witty. We lack the ability to entertain ourselves and suddenly, consumed by insecurity we open Google as another tab to hide the screen of Shame for at least ten minutes until we check again.

All forums have this. It’s like the first day of school but forever virtual. More people who we could have a connection with. More people to ego trip us out of the obscure. Is this really a good thing? Cravings, anxiety and depression…surely enough in the physical day to day existence for some, yet clearly not for others. I made the rather exciting discovery that I could live without a mobile phone. Liberating. Exhilarating. Yet at the same time it caused slight concern: what if the car broke down and I was attacked by Zombie penguins on the beach – how could I contact civilisation? What if I had a really important thought which meant cancer could be cured in half an hour – how could I write this down and send it to someone of note? Firstly, red telephone boxes still appear at the roadside, and secondly, Post Offices provide a means of sending communication via paper without the need to top up by £10 or sign an 18 month contract.

Seriously though, think about the amount of time we spend online. Everyday. For some, it is a whole way of life, it is how they pay the bills and live at night. Yet is it really what we need to do? Should the apocalypse occur this year – which is very doubtful, as personally I believe the Mayans probably just got fed up counting rather than had a secret hidden knowledge – then the world may very well lose the internet for more than a day. Should that happen, I would hope we wouldn’t be doomed to an Escape from LA situation. Life is so much more than programmed software and Times New Roman.

There is something to be said for self reliance. Diversion from reality, whatever we deem it to be, is awfully enjoyable. And necessary, but not the be all and end all of Humanity. Legacies are not left in words alone (Unless, of course that is your career) but in how we make others feel, not how others make Us feel. Preachy, maybe, but it would make a good Facebook soundbite all the same.

In Defence of Bad Language.

This is the internet, a concept with which you are likely familiar. Probably just as familiar to you will be the concept of commenting. And, if you are a particularly feeble example of humankind, you are even more familiar with the idea of commenting to correct grammar and/or spelling.

Of all the breeds of Internet Pedant, you are the very worst. The word/statement/phrase you’re correcting clearly made adequate sense, or you would not have been able to grasp the concept clearly enough to do so. The ideas were communicated clearly enough for you to worry about a small smudge on their otherwise shining surface.

By Balleyne on Flickr

By Balleyne on Flickr

In your flailing efforts to eradicate the smudge, you obscure a very important fact; that you can even see the post is a miracle. The author could live thousands of miles away from you, you are communicating ACROSS THE PLANET, to DIFFERENT COUNTRIES, INSTANTANEOUSLY and the one thing, the ONLY thing, the most important thing that leaps from your tiny mind is: “Oh, they’ve spelt that wrong. Idiot.” (‘Spelt’ is right, before you start.)

This particular brand of cuntery is especially rife on twitter. There’s not a day goes by when I don’t see an informative or funny tweet from say, @SimonPegg or @SarahMillican or anybody else with a large following, that isn’t immediately followed by “Yes, I know I typo’d. You can stop telling me,” about twenty minutes later. These are intelligent, funny, successful people and yet the most interesting thing people can manage? “You made an insignificant mistake. I noticed it…(P.S. LOVE ME!)”

And that insecurity, I think, is the basis of the pandemic. The internet, no matter how hard it tries, will never ever be high brow. Never. Nor should it aspire to be. Its lack of any sort of brow is the beautiful thing about it. Everybody can access it, everybody can contribute. However, the sort of person that automatically assumes that high brow and intelligent are the same thing worries about the height of the internets brow. They sit and they think “Gosh, this life changing thing. It’s full of slightly-not-perfect, quickly typed un-proofread INFORMATION. FOR FREE. What if people think I’m less than intelligent if I don’t correct all of it?”

This type of insecurity is not entirely unfounded (though it is entirely stupid). Some people do judge others on their grammar and spelling, but only if they’re so invested in this shibboleth that they think it’s actually a test of intelligence. They think their superior spelling actually makes them objectively better rather than a product of very fortunate circumstances.

Let me tell you a story about the Ephraimites and the Gileadites. Once upon a time, (in the Book of Judges, Chapter 12) the Gileadites defeated the Ephraimites in battle. The Gileadites knew that the Ephraimites didn’t have the ‘sh’ phoneme in their language, and so were unable to pronounce a common word, shibboleth, in the Gileadite way. When the Ephraimites tried to cross the Jordan back into their own territory, the Gileadites stopped them, and forced them to prove their Gileaditeyness by saying ‘shibboleth’. When they couldn’t, they killed them. Why bother to kill more Ephraimites? The same reason you’d correct a minor mistake in grammar or spelling on the internet. Because you’re a dick-head, mostly. You Gileadite monster.

Rather than see the beautiful potential for global bonding the internet holds, you see its looser boundaries of nation and language to be a threat to your fixed position of superiority. We must create new boundaries, you say. There shall be the Great Nation of Pedants, and the Great Nation of People with Better Things to Worry About. And long shall they be at war.

Art of Writting By jma.work on flickr

By jma.work on flickr

The internet is as close to truly free communication as we’re ever likely to get. If you don’t want to talk to people from all walks of life, don’t bother taking part. Not everybody went to school, not everybody got a good education. Even if they did, not everybody enjoyed or understood English as well as you might have, some people didn’t even speak English at school. You have this opportunity, this rain of information and experience to scoop up by the bucketful and all you can manage in response to this awe inspiring spectacle is the internet equivalent of the red squiggly line. Microsoft word does that, and it’s annoying. Useful if you’re writing an assignment or a job application, but otherwise just officious, unnecessary and insufferably smug.

The English language is a dirty dirty fuckabout. It picks up stuff left, right and centre, has survived the rise and fall of an empire, the merging of dozens of tribes, the creation of the redsquigglyline standardised version, French and Norse additions, the dictionary…It’s a tough old thing. It’s unlikely to crumble because some people on the internet are doing it a bit wrong.

What you are engaging in, oh you of the passive aggressive *, is language prescriptivism. It’s ugly and limited and quite a lot snobbish. It does not prove, as you may like to argue, that you have standards (though they are an unfortunate side effect). What it proves is that you have a thirst to show that you done good at school. This makes you very fortunate, extraordinarily so. But there no need to be a dick about it.

The Tracy Jordan Club

On the television show, ’30 Rock’, Tracy Jordan (played by Tracy Morgan), a controversial, African-American actor who stars in the kind of films that would make Martin Lawrence think twice, is persuaded by high-flying uber-executive Jack Donaghy (played by Alec Baldwin) to become a member of the right-wing, anti-taxation-of-the-rich party, the Republicans. However, now that the Republicans, a party dominated by old, white Christians, have a black star to represent them, Jack tries to persuade Tracy to do a series of political adverts in an attempt to woo the African-American voting block which tends to elude them come election time. 30 Rock DVD cover series 3

The attempt is disastrous. At one point, Tracy goes as far as to comment that black voters will never support the Republican party. The joke is intended to point out the voting trends of the American public, whilst poking the finger of fun at political attempts to seduce those who have nothing in common with the aims and goals of that political organisation. But whilst Tracy is a dim-witted madman, high on his own sense of entitlement, Jack Donaghy is a shrewd mover, who made his name by being ruthless, efficient, and pretty darn perceptive, when it comes to business and politics. Jack has a plan that will work in the Republicans favour, but would not need to rely on the African-American demographic voting for his party.

Jack has Tracy tell African-American voters to stay home and not vote. The reasoning behind this is that every vote by a member of that community would simply be a vote against the Republicans, and therefore, if each of them stayed home rather than voting, then it would be either a widening of the margin of victory, or a closing of the margin of defeat. Either way, it would make the Republicans seem more popular than they actually are, and would swing elections in their favour.

This brings us to the 50 Cent Club. Whilst they sound like a fan-club for a bling-dripping rap-star who makes wish-fulfilment computer games about being the most bad-ass mo’fo’ in the entire world, the truth is both more boring, and a little bit more terrifying.

The 50 Cent Club is a group of astroturfers, paid for by the Chinese government. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, “astroturfing”, it relates to the practice of having individuals, groups or organisations posting positive comments about themselves, their groups, or organisations, anonymously, on message boards. This gives an inflated sense that the public is in favour of, or against, whatever they represent. The role of the 50 Cent Club is to spend their days posting articles and messages in favour of their government, with a grand fee of 50 cents paid each time they post. This then, in theory, will convince anyone on the Internet that everything in China is just hunky dory.

Of course, the Chinese are not the only ones that do this. The American military have been using a variety of seemingly innocent social networking sites to bomb private individuals with propaganda, hidden not by clever wording to appeal to the person, but by the original source of the message being obscured due to an assumed online identity.

Neither is it just the politicians that use this practice. Both ‘Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 1’ and ‘The Hunger Games’ were promoted heavily through astroturfing. The Bleeding Cool website ran an article looking at an example of similar messages used by a lazy astroturfer to promote both films. In the case of ‘Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 1’ the practice becomes quite scary because of just how unnecessary it is: by now there cannot be anyone on the planet who doesn’t at least know who Team Edward and Team Jacob are, and constantly wonder why people like reading about the bland, death-fixated life of the dull, dull, dull Bella Swan. The only possible explanation can be that is has become expected for a marketing campaign to warp reality in this way.

The concern with this is that it begins to call into question everything you read on the Internet, including this article right here. How do you know that the author of this article isn’t secretly working pro-Chinese messages into this work, perhaps as a weird acrostic down the side of each piece of work, slowly permeating your subconscious until you want to work for $14 a month in a Beijing sweat-shop owned by Walmart?

This becomes increasingly problematic when you try and “think for yourself and question authority”. How can you effectively question authority when, like the protagonists of ‘1984’, you find out that even your allies are secretly agents of the authority you are railing against. Increasingly, we find that Orwell was not warning us as much as he was explaining the world we are slowly descending towards, a special tenth circle here on Earth.

How can you trust your own mind when you learn that the moderate person speaking sense is, in fact, just another Tracy Jordan trying to twist your perception into doing something that seems to match your own beliefs, but is really benefiting those that only want to create a world opposed to them?

The reason for this article is because of the comments section on The Guardian website this past few months. As the rage from the end of the last Labour government subsides, people are now starting to realise that they have elected a regressive, elitist coalition who will dish out hard medicine like they are American doctors handing pharmaceutical company pills to children they claim are hyperactive: they will give you it whether you need it or not, because it makes their lives easier. But the rage hasn’t fully subsided, instead it is being pulled in two directions, and this makes those on the left-side of the political spectrum very vulnerable to astroturfing.

You see, the average comment on CiF (Comment is Free) tends to follow these simple lines: “They’re all the same. What’s the point of voting? Meet the old boss, same as the new boss.” It is very easy to give in to the apathy surrounding these issues, especially with the opportunity to effect real political change still so many years away.

The problem with those types of comments is that they tend to short-circuit the democratic process. Whilst the left suffers from general apathy as the Labour party tries to establish a new identity following the perceived failure of Gordon Brown’s economic plans (and it was only perceived, the economy was turning around in the months leading to the election, but the results weren’t known until afterwards and so have been suppressed by a media desperate to cosy up to the Condems), the right is rallying, and is even trying to turn the idea of being on the left-wing as something naïve and reckless. But for those feeling apathetic, it isn’t helpful to be told that the only party political alternative that could win the next election will do exactly the same as those in power. There is no evidence for this at all. Further, it suggests that to those moderates who swing elections that you would be better off with the devil you know, or not voting at all.

The role astroturfing could very well play in this instance is the exact same role Tracy Jordan was hired to play, and that is to further encourage those who are gravitating towards the left as a viable alternative to instead choose a cool, misanthropic distancing of themselves from the political process. The comments on CiF have already started to do this (though it needs to be stated that there is no evidence they are participating in a program of astroturfing). We need, therefore, to be more vigilant than ever when it comes to assessing what we read. After all, if someone like me thought of it, who’s betting Oliver Letwin hasn’t?

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