Friday 20 December 2013

The rhetoric of evasion revisited: strange logic in the gender segregation debate

The other day I was bemoaning the absence of Madeleine Bunting from the pages of The Guardian. Regular readers of Normblog will remember Our Maddy of the Sorrows (© Norman Geras circa 2005) as the leading exponent of a certain kind of world-weary, anti-Enlightenment 'liberalism', which often included a perverse desire to understand (what Norm, in her honour, dubbed ‘mbunderstanding’) the actions of religious fundamentalists.

But hey, who needs Madeleine Bunting when we’ve still got Priyamvada Gopal? Like Bunting, Gopal, a lecturer in English at Cambridge University, has a reputation for writing Guardian columns in which she ties herself in rhetorical knots defending the indefensible. Norm wrote about her efforts here, here, here, here, here and here, while my own humble attempts to understand Gopalian logic can be found here, here and here.

It was only a matter of time, surely, before Ms Gopal weighed into the debate about gender segregation in British universities. If you’ve ever wondered how a secular, liberal feminist might end up supporting the right of religious fundamentalists to segregate men and women in a place of higher learning, then you need look no further than her article about the issue, published earlier this week, not in the Guardian for a change, but (perhaps surprisingly) by the New Humanist.

Actually, the article is really an object lesson in how to avoid engaging with a contentious issue. Rather than taking on the arguments of the anti-segregation campaigners, or suggesting counter-arguments, Gopal uses some familiar rhetorical strategies to ensure that she doesn’t have to, which include:

Delegitimising the opposition

Gopal takes up a lot of space in this short piece, and certainly expends a great deal of linguistic energy, portraying those who campaigned against gender segregation in a negative light. She argues that the campaign has taken place in a context ‘heavily shaped by an intolerant Western 'liberalism’ passing itself off as ‘secular’, ‘enlightened’ and more knowing-than-thou.’ One wonders who she is talking about here: who exactly are these liberals who are somehow also ‘intolerant’ (how does that work?), who are only pretending to be secular and enlightened (so what are they really: religious, and living in the Dark Ages?), and who claim superior knowledge? Can we have some names, perhaps?

Having erected this straw man, Gopal moves on to specific accusations against those involved in the recent campaign. Her main target is Student Rights, which we learn is ‘an offshoot of the bullishly paternalist Euro-American think tank, the Henry Jackson Society’ and a ‘reactionary and opportunistic formation’ which has ‘cynically’ seized on this issue. Elsewhere she describes their campaign as ‘aggressive’, though she doesn’t substantiate this accusation. In fact, Student Rights was only one of a number of organisations taking part in the campaign, and hardly played a leading role, but it makes a very convenient scapegoat, especially as it can be tarnished with the brush of being both pro-American and right-wing. Never mind that many of those arguing against the ruling by Universities UK were non-western feminists. Later in the article, Gopal characterises the anti-segregationists as ‘so-called "muscular liberals" (generally, in fact, deeply conservative white males with a commitment to the idea that West is Best)’.  This will come as a surprise to Maryam Namazie and the other left-wing, non-white, female activists who played a leading role in the campaign. And once again there’s that completely unfounded suggestion that liberals who oppose religious fundamentalism are somehow patronising and superior, when there’s not an iota of evidence to support this.

By falsely linking her opponents with everything that her intended audience can be assumed to be against – America, conservatism, a certain kind of sexist masculinity (‘bullish…muscular…paternalist’) – Gopal seeks to undermine their arguments without ever having to confront them.

Changing the subject

Rather than take on the arguments of the anti-segregation campaigners, Gopal hurriedly moves the discussion on to a different set of issues. She claims that ‘the group’ – presumably she means Student Rights – ‘has not addressed greater gendered problems on campus, such as the pay gap or sexual violence’ and has been ‘silent about far more widespread forms of gender and economic segregation including the private, often single-gender schools for the wealthy’.  But Student Rights was set up explicitly to combat extremism on campus, not to tackle these other issues. Nevertheless, many of the other activists involved in the current campaign do have a good record of fighting against wider institutional sexism and inequality. But even if they didn’t, would that mean they weren’t allowed to discuss this example of gender discrimination? It's rather like criticising Rosa Parks for highlighting the issue of racial segregation on buses in the American South in the 1950s, rather than focusing her attention on the 'real' issues of black poverty and inequality. It’s a strange and self-serving kind of logic. 

Off-limits to outsiders

Gopal’s third rhetorical avoidance strategy is to suggest that those who campaign against gender segregation don’t really have the right to do so. Having established her own cultural street cred (‘I grew up in a context where gender segregation in many public spaces is common’) she adds: ‘It did not take the proverbial "decent, nice, liberal" Europeans to get us to ask what segregation meant in both ideological and institutional terms’. It sounds like Gopal is saying that western liberals and feminists should keep quiet about discrimination within minority communities. She bolsters this by characterising criticism of cultural practices – such as segregating men and women – as ‘selective attacks on our communities’. Elsewhere, Gopal accuses the anti-segregation lobby of ‘targeting’ Islamic student groups – when of course, these are the only groups that are actually enforcing segregation. Somewhere, buried in the dense and tortuous final paragraph of her article, is an appeal to women from minority communities to ‘express a dissenting view’ from religious traditionalists. At least I think that’s what she’s saying. But it's so wrapped up in qualifying clauses, and tangled up in the message to outsiders to mind their own business, that it gets lost in the thickening rhetorical fog.

Gopal’s smearing of the anti-segregation campaigners as a bunch of condescending white male conservatives is given the lie by two other contributions to the debate that appeared this week – both  written by women, one a secular white feminist, the other a liberal Muslim. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown offered her critique of the pro-segregation ruling here and celebrated its defeat here. Ophelia Benson takes Pryamvada Gopal’s arguments apart here and here. Ophelia ends with this appeal to Gopal:
Liberal universalists are not your enemy. We’re not the ones who think you should be at home instead of teaching at Cambridge … Why… are you ignoring Maryam Namazie and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and Abhishek Phadnis and focusing on Student Rights who had nothing to do with the protest against gender segregation? Why are you ignoring the very possibility of international solidarity, and the reality of it that is so conspicuous in everything Maryam does? What the hell do you think that accomplishes? Why not drop the fake accusations of imperialism and just join Maryam and the rest?
Why not, indeed.


Rosie said...

During the whole gender segregation kerfuffle I was heartily missing Norm's take on it. When Primadonna Gopal joined in I missed him a good deal more.

Martin said...

I quite agree, Rosie. And then, the day after I posted this, when Seumas Milne was back in The Guardian blaming British foreign policy for Lee Rigby's murder...O Norm, thou shouldst be living at this hour.