Graeme Archer is a statistician and a former winner of the Orwell Prize for Political Blogging.
Nearly every sentence which begins with “As a…” causes the vomit to rise in my throat. Too strong a reaction to a harmless couple of words?
“As a gay man, I strongly object to your disagreement with me. It’s not that we disagree, as such; it’s more that I’d rather personalise the argument, as this is a neat way to gather clicks on social media.”
“As a vegetarian, I think choosing a debate on fox hunting to raise the curtain on the new parliament to be one of the stupidest political decisions conceivable.” (Oh, I’m making all these examples up! Honestly.)
Ad hominem works both ways, you see, or rather, you can turn the preposition around to achieve the same objective. Ab hominem is the quintessence of passive aggression: how could you disagree with little old me? Are you some sort of monster?
I’m not saying that kindness and politeness are to be sacrificed in the fight against political correctness. Far from it.
And neither am I arguing against witness, which I use in my politics, to put matters mildly. But I think form is important. To use the subject I know best: gay liberation does indeed start with the declaration “I am”, before totally rejecting “May I?”. No: it’s not the act of witness which makes me loathe “As a…”
It’s the passive-aggressive insinuation. “As a…” is too often an overture, a curtain-raiser, to an implied superiority. Should you argue against an “As a…” implication, you are by definition attacking the person, and not their moral assertion. To those of us who yearn for kindness perhaps more than we ought, this is a cheap trick.
Pseudo-empathic passive aggression, designed to insinuate moral superiority: well, you know where this is going, of course (so far). One of the most nauseating deployments of “As a…” comes in sentences referring to parenthood. Step forward some Labour MP whose name I sincerely cannot be bothered to Google.
“As a mum myself, I’m backing Yvette Cooper!” said the member for Android North (I’m paraphrasing: I really do have no intention of reminding either you or me of her name). This was, entirely reasonably, read by Liz Kendall’s campaign team as “I have insight – in common with other mothers – more profound than those women who are not mothers! (That Liz Kendall – she’s not a mum, is she! See what I did there?)”
This is beyond vomitous (as a sidebar, the Labour Party do a really good job at whispered insinuations, don’t they? Imagine what that MP would have written about Chuka. Somehow I doubt it would have begun with “As a…”) It’s cognate with the drivel that Harriet Harman used to come out with, about how men caused the financial crash.
Jenny McCartney wrote a splendid column on Sunday in which she listed the truths which motherhood has supplied her. Some are wise, and some are funny; I’ve nicked them as new best practices (always carry wet wipes, for example, and never look a gift loo in the mouth.)
Jenny, whose writing balances kindness with clarity, expresses the desire that we no longer consider motherhood the only way to empathise with people who are mothers. This is both profound, and a sad comment on the state of current affairs.
Because it is empathy for those who are different to ourselves (that is: the opposite of “As a …”) which is real, and powerful, and which should be central to our politics. (Inter alia, the lack of such empathy explains the failure of UKIP to convince those voters who agree with their intellectual objectives to support them.)
I hope the mothers, fathers and childless adults who work for me would agree: your boss doesn’t have to be “as” you, to have sufficient imagination to appreciate the impact that raising children (or caring for an infirm relative, or…ad infinitum) might have on your career, and to try to overcome them.
It’s also why, with gender pay gaps in the news again, I think the “As a…” brigade are missing the point. The label “gender” in any such gap is, I believe, irrelevant. Either there is a vast army of women-haters in Britain, stamping down on female careers…or there’s another reason for such a gap.
I’m with the latter hypothesis, which is, I suspect, that the differential arises between those who take a year’s leave to raise their new-born, and those people who do not. Comparing average female and average male salaries is the wrong measure, because “female” is confounded with “primary child rearer”. But this is a more sophisticated argument, which demands more complicated responses, than “As a woman, I abhor male-dominated blah blah.” It doesn’t reek of pseudo-empathy either.
Do not think that measuring the wrong thing will lack consequences. Already, HR departments in MegaCorps send emails to managers, urging them to “think again” about performance ratings for women (and other “protected minorities” – but not gay people, sadly). It makes a (female) friend of mine rage, every year (“They are saying, basically, that I discriminate against women? Why would I do that?”)
As a male manager, who strives to do his best for his staff, regardless of their gender, parental status, race, age or, forgive me, anything visibly measurable about them, other than their desire to do good (which isn’t measurable, of course), I find this worrying. As an educated, reasonable reader, I’m sure you agree. Do you see what we did there?